Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Morally straitened

Trouble brews at the Boy Scouts.

Bring it.

And bring your hip waders. The irony and hypocrisy flow thickly.

Boy Scouts of America's governing board last week delayed until its annual May meeting a decision whether to include gay Scouts and Scout leaders.

Last week's was supposed to be a private board discussion, just a consideration of the possibility of lifting its ban, The New York Times reports, until news of it leaked and the planned discussion took on the public weight of an imminent decision.

Foes and friends of the policy flooded BSA with consternation after the leak. Now all sides stake positions for the next three months.

I predict BSA will ultimately hold fast — for now. But change is gonna come, sooner now. Be prepared. It has to.

As a private organization, BSA has a right to decide who its members are, and the Supreme Court has affirmed it. So, no homosexuals in the ranks. Pedophiles yes, it turns out tragically, and BSA is moving grudgingly and glacially to eradicate that horror, but no homosexuals.

But Scouting wants it both ways. It wants to be America's citizenship laboratory, but just for some boys. It positions itself as the foundation for America's future leaders, but only for heterosexual leaders. As it helps to mold men for an American society that becomes daily more complex, it is only molding some, preparing them partway for what they'll face. Like banks we deem too big to fail, Boy Scouts of America fancies itself too American to mess with.

In upholding BSA's policy, Gov. Rick Perry, an Eagle Scout, unwittingly gives credence to change.
"Scouting is not a place where sexuality should be the intersection of," Perry told reporters before addressing Texas Scouts visiting the State legislature. "Scouting is about teaching a substantial amount of life lessons. Sexuality is not one of them. It never has been. Doesn't need to be."
He's right: Scouting is not about sexuality. Nevermind the old gay-bait card Perry seems to toss, that if you let gays in, the banners and pamphlets come out and recruitment ensues. Scouting is about the great and wonderful outdoors, the laboratory in which those life lessons play out. Lessons in self-reliance, preparedness, stewardship, and working with other people.

Sexuality wasn't an issue when I was a Scout leader. Once in a while it came up: Adult leaders talk of high school Scouts being overcome by fumes — perfumes and car fumes — during the long climb to Eagle rank. And once in a while an adult leader might talk with Scouts casually about prom or events in Scouts' lives. Other than that, we didn't raise the issue; it never seemed germain to our mission.
[These are the observations of one dad/Scoutmaster/former kid who wishes he had been a Scout. Beware the narrow view and lack of perspective. Pick from the bones what you will.]
And there's the Scout oath, in which Scouts pledge to keep themselves "physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight." Time has bent "morally straight" into an unintended connotation. 

I'm not so naive to discount that sex talk goes on among Scouts away from leaders' hearing, the kind of wildly erroneous talk that kids talk.
It reminds me of when Bill José told the other kids on our block a dirty joke. When he got squints and stares and not the laughs he expected (I was in fourth grade, maybe), he tried to salvage the joke by explaining the mechanics of sex and the existence of pubic hair. When we told Bill that was the most outrageous and unbelievable lie we had ever heard, rendering his joke inert, he gave up telling us dirty jokes.
I've heard Scouts throw around "gay" as an adjective to mean "lame," and I'd tell them it's not cool. Scouting is indeed a reflection of society, and left to their own devices — at recess, on a campout — kids carry out their own varyingly cruel versions of "Lord of the Flies."

Scouting is not about sexuality. It's about character, a wholly independent trait.

By barring gays from Scouting, its governors — and we involved at the grass roots — are saying gays are not worthy as people, that their contributions — as people — are unworthy.

Maybe we could declare that publicly over a music backdrop of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," arguably the most "American" of musical pieces. Aaron Copland, by the way, was gay.

Maybe Scouting can explain to Native Americans why, since BSA's early days as a merger of the Woodcraft Indians, it has picked and chosen elements of Indian culture and left out others. It isn't long before a Scout encounters BSA's version of Indian lore: Our Troop's favorite summer camp included membership in a "tribe" that bore no relation to native Californians that inhabited the site — and still an active community nearby — but more of a Disney-fied long-feathered-headdress-breechcloth-and-pidgin-English-noble-savage version.

One of the elements omitted from the vast diversity of Native American cultures is that some tribes had special roles for members who were homosexual, including as spirit messengers.

The BSA's aborted discussion was to touch on the trial idea of letting chartering organizations decide whether to admit gays.

The Troop my son and I belonged to, 328, is charted to a Catholic Parish. The Catholic Church finds homosexuality a sin, with a "hate the sin, love the sinner" policy.  I imagine the practical effect of a decentralized decision on gay membership would be:
  • The Troop would have to look elsewhere for a chartering organization and places to meet and stow their gear … of which the parish has been generous — the most likely scenario
  • The Troop might dissolve over dissension on this issue; 
  • All parties will decide it's no big deal, and life will go on;
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known also as the Mormons, would have major problems with a new policy. Boy Scouts is a kind of extended ministry for boys in the church, and operates with marked differences from most other Scouting units, including large gatherings among its own units.

On the other hand, public schools and civic groups with anti-discrimination policies would again open its facilities for meetings and events and equipment storage.

When — not if — the change comes, the fallout will be wild. Scout units will dissolve, others will move … private chartering organizations will be outraged, while others embrace the change. Recriminations and kudos alike will erupt all the way to the president's office and the steps of the Supreme Court.

Over time, Scouting in tatters, people will want an organization like Scouting, the nation's greatest steward of public lands. People will realize Scouting's potential for shaping citizens and leaders, and learning to work and live together.

They'll reinvent Scouting — truly too American to mess up.


  1. Good read, Shawn. When I was a Scout, there were those in our District who were gay (coming out later in life), but we as Scouts kinds already knew who they were and it was simply no big deal. No one I knew ever had a pass made at them while on a Scouting event. Ironically though, a Scoutmaster who led my troop for a number of years decided that "God moved him" to divorce his wife and pick up with a much younger woman. In the eyes of many sponsoring organizations, THAT would be an OK example to present to young Scouts who are learning to be mentally awake and morally straight. Just don't allow a lesbian mom with a committed partner to lead a Cub Pack because that's morally bankrupt (or so goes the double-standard argument). I for one hope that the Scouts relax the policies to allow chartering organizations to admit whoever they want. THAT would encourage me to allow my son to join Scouts. As it is now, we're not participating.

    1. thanks, robert. i didn't want to run on, but i find an analogy in BSA requiring a belief in god, which usually isn't pressed. more power to adult leaders who went out of their way to offer ways scouts could learn more about their beliefs and earn special medals/pins/recognition, but usually religious adherence was low-key and laissez faire. for some reason i was often called to organize scouts own; some troops would participate in strength, most found other things to do instead. no biggie. scouts and leaders observed, or didn't, in their own way, and life went on.