Cultural Studies

The Unkindness of the Boy Scouts of America

Just to get this out of the way, I am an Eagle Scout. From about age eight through sixteen, my non-academic life was scouting. I went through Cub Scouts, Webelos, attended countless summer camps, the Sixteenth World Jamboree in Australia in 1987/88, the 1990 US National Jamboree, the 1990 Nippon Jamboree, have held pretty much every youth leadership position in a troop, learned how to shoot a rifle, hiked Philmont Scout Ranch, and am a Vigil Honor member in the Order of the Arrow. I did almost all of this in the Longhorn Council in Fort Worth, Texas, an easy drive from Scouting’s national headquarters in Dallas. Surprised?

Scouting taught me that the power of leadership is servanthood. It expanded my understanding about nature, community, and society in ways I never would have learned otherwise. I earned merit badges on things I never would have dreamed of considering without them having to be required. I’ve met scouts from around the world, including kids from the Pioneer Scouts of the USSR. I’ve camped in more freezing rain than you can imagine. I learned my dirtiest jokes in Scouts and saw some of my first examples of adult literature. I was also bullied because of my ethnicity, nerdiness, and height.

With that out of the way, I believe that in May the Boy Scouts of America will vote to allow gay scouts and scouters, the organization will lose a very large amount of members in the beginning. It’s been losing members for years, just like mainline and evangelical Christianity. It’s increasing seen as an outdated institution trapped in a Norman Rockwell painting, a nostalgia towards an organization that remains insulated from the social upheaval of the 1960s and 70s.

Most Americans don’t know that the Boy Scouts of America is radically out of step with what is known as World Scouting. The majority of nations’ scouting organizations do not discriminate regarding gender or sexual orientation. Any Boy Scout of America who goes to a world jamboree, the giant international campout held every four years, quickly realizes that America is sorely lacking in girls. And all of these American parents who fear for their boys’ sexual safety should never send them to an international scouting event because they just might meet *gasp* a gay scout! And then what would happen?!

But the current supporters of the Boy Scouts of America who rally around that hallowed institution exhibit a threat stance not only in discrimination about sexual orientation, but also masculinity and non-Americans. It’s a nativist Americanism that, ironically, used to suspect Mormons and Catholics, those two religious groups that charter many of the BSA troops now. To be a scout is to be a good American. And, traditionally, to Mormons and Catholics and Baptists (another major charter of troops), gays and lesbians are not good Americans. Good America has a particular kind of manliness about it that homosexuality just can’t embody.

This physical, moral, and cultural weakness of homosexuality is embodied as a threat to the Boy Scout Oath, which states

On my honor, I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.

To conservatives who fear gay scouts and scouters, they believe that gay scouts cannot be mentally awake and morally straight. When I was a scout, “morally straight” meant consistency and integrity, not sexual orientation. And I still believe that. But conservatives believe that gay scouts are not mentally awake and morally straight. They believe they are mentally ill, sexual perverts, pedophiles. And this means that gay scouts can intrinsically never have honor, do their best, do their duty, obey the Scout Law, or to help. They can only see gay scouts and scouters as not just physically strong, but aggressive. This whole issue of gay scouts and scouters comes down to power, but not physical power. Hegemonic power.

The hegemony of hetero-normative masculinity looms large in the BSA, but not in World Scouting. And those who believe that an organization that teaches leadership cannot teach and embody true leadership unless it is hetero-normative. Manly men come from manly scouts. And manly scouts don’t have crushes on, don’t feel emotional weakness towards, other scouts. America will fail because of weak men, like our president, and the Boy Scouts of America is one of the last bastions of traditional, manly leaders.

The BSA and its supporters like to think of itself as wholesome and upstanding, but it’s not. It’s hypocritical in its treatment of boys and men. The Scout Law states that a scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, Reverent. But I have heard and read so much from supporters of the BSA, including former Boy Scouts, that are none of these things. In fact, I have read some of the most hateful things from the Religious Right that I have ever read, and I’ve read a lot. (Please click on the link for Right Wing Watch’s collection of the rhetoric. It’s mind-blowing.) These people use these points of the Scout Law against the equal treatment of boys across this nation. They are unkind. And if there is one thing I learned from my life in Scouting is kindness.

I very much desire for the Southern Baptists to leave Scouting. They have their own organization, Royal Ambassadors. Let them stack their organization with their own true-believers. The Mormons and Catholics have used BSA as their para-youth groups, anyway. They should not use the organization for their own purposes. Scouting is not a place for evangelism or religious community. The Scout Oath does not define God and it should not. It should be the god who the boy believes in, whether it be Science or Kali or Zeus. And that god is no one’s business but that scout’s.

But the gay ban in Scouting will lift because of business. BSA board member, AT&T Chief Executive Randall Stephenson, is slated for being board president next year, and he joined James S. Turley, chairman and chief executive of Ernst & Young to voice to overturn the ban. BSA is risking losing major funding from UPS and other major corporations. How can businesses who do not discriminate in their own companies endorse sexual discrimination in a major organization they fund? It’s hypocritical and it’s bad business.

So the dollar will win. It’s the economy, stupid. And the conservatives, who believe in free market values and free enterprise and no government regulation, will freak out. But we’ll have gay scouts. And we’ll have gay scouters. And in ten years this issue will not matter anymore. And scouting will grow again. And Evangelicals will have their own scouting organizations and lament how weak and unkind and un-American the Boy Scouts of America have become. How unkind.

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