My relationship with the Boy Scouts of America was not the most pleasant. I was an oddity, to be sure. I think I was at one time the only—only—second class scout to be a patrol leader.
Second class. For those who may not have been through the quasi-military organization, the way it was structured in my youth was you entered as a Tenderfoot. There were requirements for advancement. Skills had to be learned, benchmarks achieved, and then, having passed through them, you matriculated to Second Class. You were something of a scout, then. It was assumed by your fellows that you knew a thing or three, wouldn’t get lost in the woods, knew how to police a campsite, etc etc. Next up the rung was First Class, which signified a new level of competence and achievement. The requirements were more stringent, trying, harder, and in many instances more useful, at least in the advent of civilization’s collapse and you made it into the wilderness. (Likely you still wouldn’t last a week if those were the only skills you brought to the challenge, but they were better than nothing.) First Class was where the really serious achievements could be made. Once you fulfilled the requirements for the next level, you went up to…
Now, here I get confused. Eagle Scout? Or Life Scout? Something like that. The reason I don’t remember is because I never got there. See, I never made First Class.
Now in a fair world, I’d have no carp, because I couldn’t fulfill the requirements. I couldn’t swim and by the rules you had to in order to make First Class. As far as it goes, very reasonable. I was terrified of the water, and despite the lessons we all went to, I just couldn’t do it.
The problem was, there were other requirements which the other members of my troop did not have to fulfill because, well…the scout master just signed off on them. (One was hiking a set amount with a pack. The troop didn’t own a pack nor half the stuff that was supposed to be in it, so our scout master just signed off.) Not many, but because we were basically an inner city troop, it was deemed that opportunity—or lack thereof—allowed for some sliding. The rest of my peers made First Class.
Here’s my problem. I went ahead and did all the rest. I found the opportunity, got ahold of the necessary stuff, and did it all. Except the swimming.
I did not get signed off on. The extra credit, so to speak, made not one bit of difference. I couldn’t swim. No special consideration.
But special consideration—given, I think, mainly to save the adults a lot of work—was dispensed to the others. In my 12-year-old mind, that constituted blatant unfairness. Nevertheless, my complaints went unredressed, and months later I was elected patrol leader. Buffalo Patrol. My mother made our pennant.
I was a creditable boy scout. I knew a bit about woodcraft already from hunting trips with my dad. I could find my way with a compass, I could read a map, I could police a campsite, I could manage all the pesky but cool Daniel Boone stuff. But I was never going to advance up the ladder into the stratosphere of superior scouthood because, well, I couldn’t swim.
But they didn’t kick me out.
There were other problems I had with them, institutional conflicts which I ran afoul of without knowing what was going on. Years later, I understood.
The Boy Scouts are all about conformity.
The uniforms, the rituals, the youthful boyish comraderie, the classifications for advancement, the dedication to the troop above the individual, all of it was designed to impose a standard form ideal manliness on the scouts.
Now, by itself this is nothing unusual, nor if handled in a benign way a necessarily bad thing. Civilization needs a certain amount of conformity in order to function. It’s a dance, to be sure, between individuality and group coherence, one we wrestle with all the time. But in order to be effective and beneficial, it kind of has to be both fair and honest with itself. Just what is it we’re conforming to? If everyone knows what that is, then everyone is (theoretically) free to participate or pass. It’s only when you hide your intentions or won’t admit to them that problems emerge.
Which brings us to the current spate of trouble the Boy Scouts have been having for a couple of decades now. They wish to disapprove of homosexuality.
Well, it is a private organization, which is something I think a lot of people forget. Therefore, they have the freedom to be what they wish to be.
Except almost all boy scout troops are school-affiliated. As long as they’re with a private school, again, it’s their call. But if they’re attached to a public school—and I assure you, boy scout troops use school facilities, they get at the least tacit support from the school—then we have a wee bit of trouble over discrimination laws.
Still, I’ll set that aside for the moment.
I hope they choke on this. Firstly, what they’re saying is the only boys they want are “red blooded all American heterosexuals who like girls!” Wait, do they say that? By discriminating against a “gay lifestyle” they damn well are. The hypocrisy of course is that they give no brief on straight sexuality, either. By long tradition, what they’re about in this regard is what might be called “wholesome manhood” which once meant that we simply do not tolerate sexuality of any sort. The idea is that these are boys, they aren’t supposed to be concerned with sexual orientation or anything else concerning carnality. “Wholesome manhood” is an ideal that pretends sex doesn’t exist until marriage and then you keep it to yourself.
By openly discriminating against a sexual orientation they are coming out in tacit support of a preferred model of human sexuality. They can’t escape this because the only basis for distinguishing between gays and straights is sexual preference. Which, by long practice, the Boy Scouts of America are there to suppress on both sides of that spectrum in favor of Wholesome Manhood.
At best, this is hypocrisy. At worst, it’s fraud.
(One of the charming rituals I endured, as did all the boys in my troop and, I presume, all over the world, was a hazing called “Being Pantsed.” This entailed being ganged up on as a Tenderfoot by all the others and being stripped of your trousers and forced to try to get them back in your underwear. Of course, this is not supposed to have a sexual connotation, but the embarrassment was acute and went straight to issues of sexual modesty at a vulnerable time in a child’s life. Most people who have endured this just laugh it off. Fine, upstanding youth, just larking about. No subtext. No connotative secondary implications. Hm.)
So if the Boy Scouts see it as their mission to educate young boys to be on the surface nonsexual, how come that wouldn’t apply equally to a gay boy?
Anyway, the second problem I have with this is that it is defining someone by one trait. That gay scout might be the best trailblazer in the district, known more about outdoor survival than any dozen others, and be capable of earning fifty merit badges in a year, and yet all this “scout-worthiness” means nothing beside the horror of his sexuality. Judging him by one thing.
As was I. I couldn’t swim.
Of course, I wasn’t kicked out. I suppose because they all assumed that, in spite of that inability, there was no question that I liked girls and, surely they guessed, wanted to do thoroughly Unwholesome things with them. (Not really, I don’t consider sex unwholesome. Their standard, not mine.)
Right now the issue is raging over an openly gay scout master. But again, he’s being judged by one single trait—a trait the entire moral edifice of the Boy Scouts is traditionally not even willing to recognize in straights.
The Boy Scouts is a private organization. But it is one which we as a culture have long handed our confidence and trust to, one which we have accepted as if it were a public institution, which status they have quite willingly accepted without bothering to correct. The Boy Scouts like being identified with other public institutions and all things American.
Until now. Now that they have been revealed as the particular kind of conformists they are, they remind us of their private status and hide behind it.
Fairness is one of the virtues they teach. And honesty.
In my experience, they’ve never been either.