Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Boy Scouts Come Out (Sorta)

 A painting by Norman Rockwell that was in my edition of the Boy Scout Handbook

A photo from this year's Pride Parade in San Francisco that is making the rounds of the Internet today.

Yesterday, the governing council of the Boy Scouts of America voted to lift the last ban on gays from Scouting, the ban on gay adult scout leaders and employees.  The ban on gay scouts was lifted in 2013 and the ban on gay adult leaders was lifted yesterday.  But this is only a partial victory for inclusion in American Scouting.  The bans on atheist and agnostic scouts remain and troops affiliated with religious congregations (about 70%) may still ban gay scout leaders though not gay scouts.
While this does not go quite far enough for me, apparently this is too far for the Mormon Church which is threatening to quit Scouting all together.  As far as I'm concerned, good riddance, but the Mormons are the biggest single church organization sponsoring Scouting with the Roman Catholics a close second (My! how things have changed since I was a Boy Scout!  Scouting used to be very mainline Protestant with Methodist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches all having Scout troops on their premises).

I should admit that I was a bad Boy Scout.  I did not join.  I was drafted along with my brother.  My dad was determined that one of his boys was going to be the Eagle Scout that he always aspired to be but never was.  My dad who spent his youth stealing hubcaps and lawn furniture, and who vandalized Dallas trolley cars and buses became a true believing and determined square in his adulthood.  A man who barely avoided reform school was going to hatch an Eagle Scout no matter what.  That he didn't was probably his biggest disappointment in life.  From 1969 to 1972, I got as far as First Class and my brother I think made it to Star.  My dad served a brief term as scout master of my troop putting my brother and I in an awkward position.  Fortunately, my dad was very popular and well respected by the scouts in the troop with a reputation for kindness and especially for fairness.  Whatever his other faults, my dad was no homophobe and would have been thrilled at yesterday's announcement.

I loved and hated being a Boy Scout.  I loved going out into the countryside for a weekend, though in the hot Texas summers and the surprisingly bitter cold winters, that love could be sorely tested.  I hated all the quasi-military ritual and discipline in the organization.  It's hard to keep a scout uniform clean in the red dirt of East Texas (or the dust of West Texas which is talcum powder when dry and quicksand when wet).  Scouting, like Texas itself, was paradise for those who fit in and hell on toast for those who didn't.  I did and I didn't.

One thing Scouting did for Texas kids in particular was to teach them a measure of conservation consciousness and ecological awareness; no small accomplishment.  Eco-friendliness is easy on the Pacific coast.  Nature there is spectacularly beautiful and abundant.  In Texas, nature is mean, stingy, and ugly.  There's not much scenery.  There's mesquite thorns 2 inches long and poisonous, prickly pear cactus, painful sand burrs and grass burrs, fire ants with painful stings, big red ants with painful stings, wasps, hornets, black widow spiders, scorpions, rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, copperheads, coral snakes, blistering heat, bitter cold, violent thunderstorms, tornadoes, etc.  Nature is hard to love in Texas.  Most kids in Texas shared their parent's attitude toward nature as more "search and destroy" than "preserve and protect."  Scouting gave many of these kids their first experience of being in nature without a gun.  Scouts taught them that maybe instead of a rattlesnake roundup, they should leave the snakes alone.   The varmints really weren't mean and evil, but wanted to be left alone, and if they were mad at us, then maybe it's because we were trespassing.  Texans regard tossing beer cans out of a speeding pickup as another God-given right.  But our troop was always very careful to leave as little trace of our presence as possible when breaking camp.  Not even a gum wrapper got left behind.  Maybe we didn't have Mount Rainier and Yosemite, but we did have fossils, wildflowers, medicinal plants, and all kinds of flourishing animal life big and small in Texas.  Scouting showed kids the beautiful flowers blooming over those nasty thorns, and taught them why flowers and thorns belonged together and why they mattered.

In my experience, the kids who did best in Scouting and who appeared to get the most out of it were those from very precarious situations where life was always a struggle and always one emergency away from catastrophe, where family life was not a refuge but just one more battlefield, and whose daily reality was alienation and loneliness.  Scouts gave them a sense of fellowship and belonging that they might otherwise find only in gangs.

I know a lot of gay men who had their first sexual experiences in the Scouts.  That was not my experience.  Mine was a very by-the-book strict observance troop.  There was very little time that wasn't supervised.  If anything like that happened in my troop (where would they have found the opportunity?), it was kept very discreet and I never knew about it.  Nonetheless, I found out many years later that I was definitely not the only gay boy in that troop.

The gay ban was a disaster for the Boy Scouts.  In the name of preserving Scouting tradition, the organization began to morph into something that Baden-Powell would not have recognized and never intended, into a very sectarian right wing jugend organization dominated by evangelicals and right wing Catholics.  It became ever more so as civic, secular, and more liberal religious organizations began to bail out of Scouting because of its discriminatory policies.  Kids from poor inner-city neighborhoods who benefitted a lot from Scouting either no longer had access to it, or had it only available through evangelical and Catholic churches who were looking for loyalty to the party line (no gays, no Muslims, no Hindus or Buddhists, no atheists, no Democrats, no labor unions, and women should stay in their place in the Ladies' Auxiliary).

What a change from what Scouts were at the beginning of their history.  Since the beginning, the Boy Scouts of America opposed discrimination on the basis of race or creed (though Southern states kept separate troops for white and black scouts).  Baden-Powell valued religious faith, but he wanted a non-sectarian organization open to non-Christians.  For this reason, the Roman Catholic Church originally forbade its members to join the Scouts.   The Catholic hierarchy later relented only when they were promised that Catholic scouts would have only Catholic adult leaders.  The Mormons initially opposed Scouting for the same reasons, but were allowed a similar arrangement to the Catholics.  The Boy Scouts for all of its militaristic rituals opposed military training for its members and resisted efforts to militarize the organization in both world wars.  A marksmanship merit badge was introduced around 1914 only under considerable pressure from the Remington Rifle Company and in the face of considerable resistance from Scout leaders.

Internationally, Scouting was associated with Western liberalism and banned in both left and right wing ideological states.  Scouting was banned in all Communist states and replaced with Young Pioneer organizations created to cultivate regime loyalty.  Franco's Spain and Mussolini's Italy also banned Scouting (though it flourished as an underground organization in both countries).  Scouting flourished in Imperial and Weimar era Germany growing out of the Wandervogel youth movement.  Hitler banned Scouting in 1934 and made membership in Nazi youth organizations compulsory for all kids 10 years old and over.  The Hitlerjugend was explicitly a party organization and preparation for the military, everything that Scouting opposed.  The former South African apartheid regime banned Scouting for its racial policies, and created an alternative Voortrekker scout movement for white Afrikaner South Africans.  Muslim states from Saudi Arabia to Iran ban Scouting associating it with Christianity and Western liberalism.

I hope this partial but very significant lifting of the ban on gays will be followed by a lifting of the ban on secularists.  I'd love to see the Boy Scouts of America follow the lead of the Dutch Scouting organization that does admit secularists and allows them to opt out of all the God stuff in the Scout oath.  Such changes would return American Scouting to something like the original universal vision of its founders.

I saw a vision of the future a few months ago posted on Facebook.  An old friend of mine from art-school days, an ethnic Chinese native South African living in the USA who is an atheist, posted pictures of his son's Eagle Scout ceremony complete with beaming very proud dad posing with his very proud and happy son.

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