Trustworthy? Loyal? Helpful? Friendly? Courteous? Kind? I don’t think so.
I think the leadership of the Boy Scouts of America has abandoned its right to claim these words that are part of their “law,” with their actions both today and in the past. The failure to protect boys from sexual predators in their midst, the dogged refusal to reveal information about those crimes until forced to do so, and the emphatic stand against gay scouts and leaders combine to make this an organization that has successfully managed, at its top levels, to destroy its honored traditions.
While those who know me as an adult find something incongruous in the fact that I was a Boy Scout, I was one for many years. I started in Cub Scouts, participated in the oft-forgotten Webelos, and then spent much of my junior high and high school years as a full-fledged Boy Scout, holding pretty much every leadership position at the youth level. I even spent several summers at Boy Scout camps, including a strange but rigorous stint in their leadership training course.
I began to drift away from active scouting beginning in 10th grade, when I fully discovered my love of performing, specifically theatre. Monthly camping trips came into conflict with drama club performances, as well as chorus concerts. Of course, I was not simply trading one activity for another. I was gravitating towards my true calling in life, equipped with some of the knowledge and experience I gained from Boy Scouts.
During my days in the Scouts, I have to confess to an almost complete lack of knowledge of homosexuality; “gay” wasn’t in my vocabulary when it came to sexual orientation, though it was a word of undefinable denigration. No one I knew was “out”; such a thing was invisible if not inconceivable in suburban life in the mid-1970s. In hindsight, surely there were young men in my scout troop struggling with their sexuality in those still deeply repressive days; meeting some of them later, as adults, has made clear that there had indeed been gay young men beside me. Though I wasn’t an antagonist to them (at least I hope not), I wish I knew and understood then what I know now, so that I might have been a better leader for everyone, and a better friend.
But to be honest, sexuality was irrelevant to the activities of scouting. There was no merit badge for picking up women, no rank that required knowledge of strictly traditional sexual matters. We were there to learn about the outdoors – hiking, camping, orienteering – but there was recognition for writing, reading, music and drama as well. Only now, looking back at an oath I used to recite often do I spy the language of restriction and oppression. Obey? Morally straight? The seeds were always there, but I was too naive to understand.
As for sexual assaults by leaders on Scouts, revealed in files kept by national Scout organization, acts which took place during the time I was a scout? Of course we now know that such violations were sadly too common in both rigidly hierarchical structures and in family rec rooms. At the time, I never heard even a whisper of such things. The adult leadership of my troop, including my own dad, were role models, men I cared for deeply, all gone now. I believe they were there with the best of intentions, and nothing has ever suggested otherwise. But I shudder to think what was kept from view in the national “perversion files,” even if my troop was free of assault.
Early yesterday, there were news reports of a California Scout council going against the national prohibition on gay Scouts and gay adult leaders by recommending an openly gay former Scout for the vaunted rank of Eagle. It gave hope to many like me who revile the organization’s anti-gay stance. By last night, those hopes were dashed as the national council denied the award, destroying the brief chance of finding a chink in the armor of prejudice that has come to represent this organization that once meant so much to me.
Growing up, my parents largely let me find my own way in life, because I was so self-motivated in all things, and fairly immovable about the things for which I had no affinity or interest. However, I do recall my father lobbying me, without subtlety, in an effort to get me to achieve the rank of Eagle Scout. “I know men who talk about being an Eagle Scout as being one of their proudest achievements in life,” he’d say. “You’re so close to getting it, How, don’t miss out. I don’t want you to regret it.”
In point of fact, I have never regretted not making Eagle Scout. That is, until now.
I wish I had that symbol of the ultimate achievement, that silver eagle hanging from a tiny banner of red white and blue. Because I would take it, put it in an envelope, and send it back to National Boy Scout Headquarters, in the most concrete rejection of the Boy Scouts that I can imagine. If I was unaware as a youth to the organization’s insensitivity, I can legitimately claim naïveté. But as an adult, I have only contempt for this profoundly blind group which had abdicated any claims to the words I once knew so well. As for learning that the national organization protected criminals? That effort was reprehensible, as was the ongoing coverup.
So I have nothing to throw back at the Boy Scouts of America but my disdain and my words, and that’s hardly enough. I know there are individual troops and councils that ignore the reactionary policies of the Scouts, standing first and foremost for each and every kid. I applaud them, but they must do more than dissent, they must actively reject, lobby against and if need be withdraw, to create a new world of scouting. They should not stand against hate while wearing its uniform. Those of us on the outside, alumnae or not, must act as well.
Scouting should stand for friendship, acceptance, inclusion, protection and support, not knot-tying and bigotry. Only then might I be proud of my history with them. But not a moment before.
Update 4:30 pm 1/9/13: A reader of this post shared with me information about the organization Scouts For Equality. If this essay motivates you to want to effect change in the Boy Scouts, this appears to be the perfect group through which to do so. There may well be others, and I hope to learn about them as well.