I wore my Cub Scout uniform to school the day after I received it – even though I didn’t belong to the school’s pack; even though my Mom had yet to sew on any of the insignia or badges or anything. I was too excited about finally being a Scout to wait. I remember deep Cub Scout blue on a hot Maryland day, the way the crummy web belt’s buckle bit into my stomach when I sat down, the way the new neckerchief itched, how I craned my neck in the bathroom mirror to see its drape on my back.
A deep impulse to join burns developmentally inside pre-adolescent boys. It’s connected to a desire to belong, and all the self-esteem and social issues that our culture piles on through high school. But joining is something else: for me, anyway, it was about the deep desire to make myself more than I was by fitting myself into a new, larger structure. Pre-adolescence is the age of spontaneously-formed clubs, secret hideouts and passwords and handcrafted codes for official missives and tapped-out messages through walls. It’s also the age of the nonsense songs, the deep desire to master their twists and turns so you can sing them knowingly together with everyone else. Everything in me wanted to know stuff that not everyone else knew; to join up, learn the code, wear the uniform.
So I memorized the Oath and the Law, learned the knots and the knife safety, and began Scouting’s long meritocratic march of rank and recognition. It ended for me seven years later when I completed my service project (a monument to my hometown’s three Congressional medal of Honor winners) and became an Eagle Scout, third generation after my Dad, and his.
Scouting’s lasting legacy in my life has been complicated. I developed some valuable skills – nothing falls of the roof of my car when we go on vacation, I’ll tell you that – as well a mixed relationship with life’s opportunities to meet goals for public recognition. Scouts is where I learned to set a goal and meet it, but it’s also the place I learned how personally devastating it can be to set your self-worth on an external result and not attain it. I think my Scouting experience bubbles beneath my compulsion to support future teachers in finding the engine of their practice within instead of without: self-worth is too essential a commodity to be assigned to others’ criteria. I don’t really enjoy camping as an adult: odd, for someone who did so much of it as a Scout. But a lot of that camping was happening to provide an opportunity to earn badges and meet requirements, so there’s probably a deep anxiety still associated with pitching a tent that, once we’re out here, there will be many chances not to measure up. (Or it might just be the result of too much winter camping in upstate New York with an inadequate sleeping bag).
All these fragments are prelude to expressing my deep shame at the Boy Scouts of America’s reaffirmation of their policy to “not grant membership to individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals.” This statement should surprise exactly no one: the BSA’s largest private sponsor has pledged to disassociate itself from the organization were this position ever changed, and the numbers of Scouts affected, though dramatic, would pale next to the financial divot left in their books (actual numbers on this are as hard to come by as any other accounting of that sponsor’s financial dealings, but I think the dots connect easily).
Besides, I can’t find a thoughtful argument for this decision, even one I disagree with. Poisonous stereotypes about the fitness of gay adults to serve as leaders of children were soundly debunked long ago, as have been all other hedges against full legal and civil membership for LGBT persons in our society. It’s especially baffling in light of the BSA’s progressive membership stance in other eras, and the undeniable fact that public attitudes toward LGBT discrimination has changed dramatically puts them on the wrong side of history.
As an educator I am doubly appalled, though, because I understand the deep relationship between homophobia, bullying, and violence among children and teens -a relationship long assumed to be “part of growing up” that has thankfully been called out from the top down. There are policy changes and new institutional commitments to making that link clear and ending it – even a nationally-released film, for better or worse (for if the Weinstein Company is with us, who shall stand against us?). We’re in a moment when the “F word” that’s been hurled for generations in school halls and on playgrounds – and in Scout tents – might finally receive the disgust we now assign other words from our culture’s shameful past of hate and pain.
It’s my fear of what now can continue to be said and affirmed in the private places of Scouting that saddens me most. How so many boys’ desires to join and belong – to wear the uniform, to be part of something bigger than themselves – have been officially thwarted. Words about respect and reverence are hollow when policy and practice contradict them. It is tragic that another generation of boys in Scouting will be denied the chance to understand that men and women who love others of their same gender can be trusted and loved. But it is doubly tragic that an organization with 2.7 million members and 1 million adult leaders has missed a chance to stand for the safety and dignity of all people.
In the video that started the It Gets Better phenomenon, Dan Savage’s husband Terry remembers what his school’s administration told his parents when they sought protection against the vicious hate crimes he endured:
If you look that way, walk that way, talk that way, act that way, then there’s nothing we can do to help your son.
The BSA could have put their rhetoric about diversity on its feet; they could have stood for a world where everyone is fit to belong. This decision dishonors their own legacy, and my own; it hurts boys, and the adults who care for them.
Image from dallasvoice.com, with thanks.