I’m not an Eagle Scout but I was a pretty serious Scout for a while. I was a Life Scout who did everything but the service project. I was in the Brotherhood of the Order of the Arrow. I was a Patrol Leader. Before that I was a Cub Scout, from Tiger to Webelos. I was all-in for a solid 10 years.
And nothing since then has upset me as much as the BSA’s continued stance towards LGBT kids and parents. It is a dagger in my heart.
I understand how from the outside Scouting might look like some sort of neo-fascist youth corps, and I can see how you might see this whole thing as a simple shut-the-door case of yet another corrupt, backwards looking, blight of an organization. And yes, the central core of BSA is a rotten, disgusting feast of shit. But Scouting itself? Scouting as I experienced it? As I lived it? No, that wasn’t rotten at all.
I bet, even today, there are LGBT kids in troops all over this country who are otherwise getting a lot of great things out of their local, day-to-day experiences. It’s a national tragedy that they are not welcome to do it openly.
It is inspiring to read the letters from Eagle Scouts. The returning of the medal is a powerful statement, I think, and one that I hope at least rings some bells down there in Irving, Texas. We absolutely need to throw out this filthy bathwater, this bathwater that has been filthy for a long time, but I hope we can at least try to save the baby.
Can we save scouting from the BSA?
Scouting was not only positive and hugely formative experience for me, but it was also so very different from the images the BSA itself promotes. We weren’t these clean cut proto-soldiers or aw shucks choir kids in Amy Grant tee-shirts, as might be suggested by Norman Rockwell paintings. We were nerds, largely outcasts, the weird kids who probably didn’t shower often enough and who really liked to play capture the flag.
We were kids who liked to tie knots instead of play varsity ball, who’d rather go hiking than watch sports on television. We went on a camping trip every month, where we’d canoe and birdwatch and do little environmental science experiments. We went to submarines and observatories and national parks. We learned CPR and did food drives for homeless shelters. We shot bows and arrows and identified trees by their leaves. It was action, action with a purpose, and it was usually about engaging with the natural world.
But it wasn’t without it’s struggles.
The BSA is not a secular organization. It is explicitly religious, and not just for the convenience of arguing against the Supreme Court. Just as it excludes gays, it explicitly excludes athiests:
The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizenship without recognizing an obligation to God. […] No matter what the religious faith of the members may be, this fundamental need of the members should be kept before them.
I try to be an understanding sort of nonbeliever now, but I was a rebellious loud-mouthed sort of Athiest then. I always struggled with the “duty to God” piece of the Scout Oath and with the twelfth point of the Scout Law: Reverent. I struggled with these things to the point where I wouldn’t say them out loud. I struggled with “Obedient” and “Clean,” too, but the God part was worse. Maybe because our troop was based in an Episcopal Church.
My feeling about any ideals to which you strive to live your life is that struggling with them is the most important part. Living ethically means that you’re going to run into dilemmas where the right thing to do isn’t always so clear. If living by a code seems too easy, either the code is wrong or you’re not thinking about it very hard. And so, I struggled. And for what it’s worth, the Troop Leader and other adults put up with it. They didn’t want me disrupting the whole group, but they let me have my minor, silent protests.
They could have kicked me out at any time. I think they struggled in their own way, between their duty to me and their duty to the organization. All for the better, I think.
But to circle back: the Law and Oath were what we said, but it’s not what we did. Words matter, they really do. But I worked through them, stayed despite them because I loved, absolutely LOVED, what we did. It was such a centrally formative piece of my growing up, and I learned so many things that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. I don’t know who I would be otherwise.
Words matter, but they can only matter if people hear them, and if people are excluded or kicked out, they cannot hear them. They cannot struggle with them, internally rebel against them. I was never “outed” as an athiest, but I suppose someone could have written someone upstream a letter. I wouldn’t have lied. I wouldn’t have fought. I would have thrown up the middle finger and walked away. But I’m glad that never happened.
But what I went through then and what LGBT kids and adults are going through now is only the latest challenge. This discrimination was preceded by racial discrimination that wasn’t eliminated even on paper until the NAACP sued the BSA in 1974. That is, 10 years after the Civil Rights Act the BSA was still resistant to becoming non-discriminatory. The suit itself was in response to thirty years of systematic but unofficial discrimination by the national organization, which was itself preceded by systematic and official discrimination. Stories abound, but some are here.
Just as being white isn’t a requirement for being a great citizen or, consequently, a great Scout, neither is being religious or being straight.
And while we’re at it, neither is being male.
Just for the fun of it, consider who the BSA does allow to be members. The BSA has had a number of sexual abuse scandals and cover ups. A few years ago, a national BSA executive plead guilty to having and distributing child pornography, and was largely defended by the organization. A few bad apples you say? Well how do you feel about prison-based BSA troops.
Yep, convicted murderers can be Scouts, but not gays or athiests or girls.
But just as I know Catholics who struggle to reconcile their religious beliefs and practices with a discriminatory and (IMHO) corrupt Holy See, and who stay in a Church that has policies deeply out of line with their own views and behaviors, I can understand why folks stick with Scouting. It holds deep meaning to their lives, and it has so many values they treasure, so they fight as best they can from within.
I have two small boys, 3 years old and 7 months old, and I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do when they are of age. Can we save scouting in time? I hope against hope that things will be different then, or that some new organization will spring up in its place, maybe one led by Ron Swanson. Deep down, though, I know it’s not gonna happen. In a few years, the real soul searching will begin.