Wednesday, July 18, 2012

And a young man shall lead them

Asked what he'd do to change Boy Scouts, a young man I've known for several years, moments before he would become an Eagle Scout, said this week that he would make scouting more inclusive, allowing scouts and leaders who are gay and transgender.

It's a stock question in the formal board of review, the final step in a Scout's advancement to Eagle.

Scouts usually answer in practical observation over their many years in their troop — add or subtract a merit badge, make the uniforms less geeky, raise incentives to drive scouts outdoors more often, things like that.

Here was a scout seeking boldly what the Boy Scouts of America will not give.

BSA on Tuesday reaffirmed its ban on gays, after a two-year study of its policy.

The issue has weighed on my mind for many years, and that's where it stuck until this week.

Scouting still wrestles with the issue of protecting its scouts. Unfortunately, the records are rife with adults who found scouts easy prey for pederasty. Sexual crimes against scouts still appear in the news, many of them from years ago, though some ongoing.

I give scouting credit for taking steps to protect kids, because since I joined Boy Scouts as a leader with my son, the organization has implemented clear, sensible steps for which leaders must provide vigilance over scouts' safety. At least two adults must be present at all times on scout activities, for example; scouts can't sleep in the same tent as an adult unless the adults are their parents or guardians (and in our troop, scouts bunk with other scouts and adults bunk in distinct places opposite the campsite). Scouting has also imposed prohibitions on hazing and introduced campaigns against bullying, to protect scouts from other scouts.

But the ban on gays is a major misstep, always has been. Somehow, scouting seems to have conflated homosexuality with pedophilia, as if gays and lesbians would run amok among a sea of boys.

As a corollary, scouting implies that allowing only heterosexual adults guarantees children's safety. Uh huh.

Though I've often joked that scouting is stuck in 1955, offering skits and jokes in its literature that scouts wouldn't have found funny even then, here it is truly mired in the past, and ignores what America really is and what it comprises.

It devalues the rapidly changing social and family structure in the country. It rejects the idea that people who happen to be gay could offer insights and wisdom and scouting instruction too. Snow camping, rock climbing, snorkeling, canoeing, hiking — the outdoors is not the exclusive realm of heterosexuals. It should be for all, and scouting, which touts ideals of citizenship and leadership, should reflect that.

I get it; allowing gays and lesbians in scouting is controversial. It runs counter to the doctrine of many churches that support scouting. In his book On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of America's Youth, Jay Mechling argues that allowing gays in scouting would create logistical problems as churches that often support troops, often at no cost, would close their facilities because a change in policy would violate their beliefs.

In a Los Angeles Times story, reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske quotes Mechling's response to BSA's decision: 
Jay Mechling, a professor of American studies at UC Davis and a Boy Scouts volunteer, called retaining the policy on gays "a business decision based on religious pressure."

"That's not to say there aren't leaders in the Boy Scouts who feel strongly about morality and homosexuality. But when they see a lot of the troop leaders are churches, they go the direction they think is going to be healthiest for having the most boys registered," Mechling said.

Mechling, 67, is an Eagle Scout who spent 25 years researching the organization for his 2004 book, "On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth."

He said he saw firsthand how the Mormon Church became entwined with Boy Scout leadership, sponsoring troops and camps in the San Gabriel Valley and Catalina Island. He also saw troops and councils elsewhere in the state that quietly accepted gay leaders and members.

"There really is a policy of 'don't ask, don't tell,' because the official Boy Scouts policy is that people's sexuality is not what the Boy Scouts is about," Mechling said.
Though it's a practical consideration — the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for example, endorses Boy Scouts as a primary activity for boys in its churches — right now many public venues, citing scouting's violation of civil rights by discriminating against gays, have closed their facilities to scouts.

Scouts are supposed to acknowledge God in some way, and in my experience an adult leader here and there will help scouts earn special medals for development of their faith, and sometimes scouting events will stage ecumenical Scout's Own services. For the most part, scouting doesn't press scouts or leaders for an exhibition or testament to their faith. Many troops are sponsored instead by civic organizations — Kiwanis, Elks, Moose and the like — which don't necessarily press an expression of scouts' religions.

Though not privy to scouts' conversations, I doubt that sexuality comes up a lot. Some scouts may use "gay" to mean "lame," and we adults tell them they can't use the label in the troop, nor call others names.

Scouts are mostly interested in getting outdoors, and we don't get out nearly enough. That's where scouts, if they so choose, can develop their faith, but it's certainly where they can think deep thoughts and consider quietly who they are. It doesn't require believing in God or being straight.

I've wrangled with expressing my thoughts on this, wondering what others might think. Short of signing an online petition supporting a deposed Cub Scout leader who is lesbian and a mom of a Cub Scout, I've done nothing.

Then a scout I know spoke up, on the precipice of becoming an Eagle Scout, about the major issue that divides so many about what otherwise is an enriching and ennobling organization. So I join him in his beliefs.

It is such a small thing. Scott Ostler, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote this week about the Penn State scandal, decrying those who salute his courage in writing about how football coach Joe Paterno and top administrators allowed Jerry Sandusky to sexually assault boys rather than expose the football program to bad publicity.

"Zero courage is involved," Ostler wrote. "One hundred percent of the courage in this entire debacle is found in one person: (Jerry Sandusky's) Victim No. 1. There's your courage."

I feel the same; my handwringing is for naught. The courage goes to the new Eagle Scout, and scouts and leaders across the country who risk their quality of life seeking change in an organization that needs changing.

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