Back in the 1970s, my brothers and I attended Camp Tawonga, all the way from B-1 to B-10. My memories of the place remained so vivid, decades later, that I spent a lot of time blabbing about Tawonga to my family. So I was beyond thrilled when the folks who run Tawonga invited me to be a special presenter at one of their family camp weekends.
Because I live in Boston and visit California twice a year, the only weekend I could attend was the Keshet session, which is specifically for LGBTQ families.
My wife and I both felt a little anxious about this. As a heterosexual family, we didn’t want to take up the space that a LGBTQ family might want. We also worried that the other families attending might resent our presence.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. Although we were one of the only “straight” families to attend, there wasn’t a single moment the entire weekend that we were made to feel judged. On the contrary, it was the most loving and laid-back group of families I’d ever been around.
On our first day, my daughter and I headed out to the archery range and at one point she accidentally called me “mom.” The dad next to me said, “Oh, that’s so sweet. What does your daughter call her other dad?” I sheepishly confessed that I was married to a woman. Without missing a beat, he said, with a sly wink, “Oh, don’t worry. We won’t hold that against you.”
It was, in a broader sense, incredibly moving for me to return to Tawonga after so many years, something like returning to holy ground. I finally got to show my wife and kids all the places I’d been talking about for so many years (“Here’s that rock I fell off when I was eight!” “Here’s the gaga court!”)
But the most profound experience was simply spending time with moms and dads (and kids) who had worked so hard to create their families. And in discovering that the challenges they’d faced hadn’t made them bitter or cynical, but joyous and full of gratitude.
Spending time at Tawonga also brought back my deeper sense of the place. It had served as a refuge for me as a kid, a place where I could live out a truer version of my life than the one I led at home.
And I thought a lot about my twin brother Mike, too.
See, Mike had faced a far more difficult childhood than me. He had known he was gay from the time he was very young. But like a lot of kids, he hid this truth from himself, and the rest of us, until well into college.
This, I think, is why I found the Keshet weekend so moving, because it managed to create a geographic and emotional space that was entirely free of the macho judgments that Mike and I had grown up absorbing—and which had kept him in the closet for so long.
All weekend, I thought about how much it would have changed Mike’s life if he’d been able to spend a day, or even an afternoon, amid people who embraced their true selves with so much vigor and compassion.
Of course, the history of bigotry in this country would have made that impossible. But spending time at Tawonga has always made me believe, if only for a few days or weeks, in the magic of a better world.
It certainly made that magic come true for my own children. I have no idea who they will choose to love when they grow up. But I do know that they didn’t say a single word to us, all weekend, about the fact that some families we hung out with had two moms, or two dads, or a single parent. Honestly, I don’t think it ever occurred to them. They were too busy singing songs around the campfire and eating s’mores and making new friends.
About the Author
Steve Almond is a Tawonga alum and New York Times best selling author, most notably for “Candyfreak” and “Against Football.” His podcast “Dear Sugar” offering advice on love and relationships is co-hosted with Cheryl Strayed (author of “Wild”) and has a cult following. Listen to Steve crediting Tawonga with the best advice of his life on “Dear Sugar” here!
At this year’s Keshet LGBTQ Family Camp, Steve led two workshops for families and staff. The first, “Converting Political Enemies Into Creative Muses: Steve Almond Reads Letters From People Who Hate Him,” was a riot! Steve read a selection of the hate mail he’s received for his political writing, along with his responses, which led to a discussion of morality and comedy in an age of hyper-partisanship. The second workshop, “Life Is Sweet: Try Everything,” attracted the little ones for this all-ages reading from “Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America,” which was followed by a candy tasting and reflection.
We are so thrilled that Steve found his way back to his Tawonga roots this summer, and we can’t wait to welcome him and his family back to Camp very soon. Until we are lucky enough to have Steve back, tune in to hear the “radically empathic advice” Steve and Cheryl give on the podcast “Dear Sugar” – it’s right up the Tawonga alley!