The announcement on July 13 that the Boy Scouts of America will rescind its longtime ban on gay and bisexual leaders came to some, including myself, as a notice of victory. I earned my Eagle Scout rank in 2004 and part of my own struggle inching out of the closet had to do with the pain of giving up certain rights and privileges granted me by that designation. Eagle Scouts, upon earning the rank, are expected to remain active in their scout troop and to become civic-minded members of the community.
However, the ban on gay and bisexual leadership, which had the despicable insinuation that same-sex attracted leaders might be prone to child victimization, was a barrier that has continued to hinder my own participation. Much of this can be attributed to the demographics of the scouting movement. For years, it has been extremely suburban and white, with a large majority of the membership belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which effectively turned a multi-denominational organization into a Mormon youth program due to their own utility of the Scout troops as a sort of religious obligation. Whereas my parents were active in my troop voluntarily, the Mormons actually assign leaders to troops as a variation of their two-year missionary program. Some young men may wind up in South America building schools and hospitals while others end up in Kansas trying to handle a pack of young men in the grips of hormonal fury. I’m not a Mormon, so I have no idea about the dynamics of such things, but I’d happily take a malarial swamp over a random Scout troop any day of the week.
But despite these advances into the new century, there remain several issues at hand that the Scouts should be willing to address next, lest it become a relic by the end of the century. As a forewarning, one thing I adamantly oppose would be a merger with the Girl Scouts, that is simply begging for a teen pregnancy, STI, and sexual assault epidemic within the organization. When you are dealing with boys in the age range of 11-18 who are guided by the maxim of ‘boys leading boys’, the last thing they need in the middle of the woods is an opportunity for carnal delights. If that makes me sound like a sexist dinosaur, so be it, my concern is primarily out of safety for the girls. When I was in Scouts, I went through a period of hazing that was pretty rough, but I survived it. Only the morbid fantasies of a child pornographer might match the depravity possible were it tenable for the middle-year adolescents who picked on me to get their hands on an 11-year-old girl instead.
First, it might do the program some serious good to revise the curriculum related to all things Native American. One of the first merit badges I earned was Indian Lore, which consisted of recycling tired mythos about America’s indigenous population. While there was plenty of worship of the mythical and magical, there was nary a discussion of the genocide that came along with the white man. Any mention of the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee, or Sitting Bull was brushed aside, while modern issues related to the native peoples, such as the plight of Leonard Peltier, the American Indian Movement, or the capture of Alcatraz Island, were simply tabooed. This could be revised with some honesty and the discussion could be made relevant to reality instead of having as much veracity as the Natty Bumpoo novels.
Second, in connection with this point, there would be a great benefit if the troops offered a more honest appraisal of Euro-American imperialism, particularly as related to the movement’s founder, Robert Baden-Powell. Besides the unfathomably weird aspects of his private life, the man’s military career reads like Queen Victoria’s greatest hits. He was stationed in India, Malta, and South Africa during some of the most violent moments of the Empire and is alleged to have performed some kind of espionage during the First World War. Would the world come to an end if the Scouts offered an honest explanation of what led to World War I? Some years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a job training program for a Scout camp that, thankfully, I quickly left. As far as the eye could see were bumper stickers that have become trademarks of the Tea Party. The level of embedded racism is so virulent that only the deranged can avoid it. And furthermore, this is not new ground to tread. Already in California, the ‘Radical Brownies’ have taken the basic tenets of the Girl Scouts and flipped everything upside down, creating curriculums that tell the history of the Black Panthers, headgear worn in homage to the Brown Berets, and an LGBT Ally merit badge.
Third, urbanize the program. The population trends of the next century point to a status quo where the largest potential swathe of membership will come from the cities. Indeed, any reasonable sort of cultural modifications meant to abate climate change will come about from the mass-migration from the suburbs to the city. Camping and hiking will remain staples of those who want a weekend escape from the pandemonium, but the majority of human existence will take place in metropolitan centers like New York or Los Angeles. There is ample room for an adaptation of David Harvey’s theories about the right to the city, small-d democratic notions about found spaces, and citizenship within the context of the urban sprawl. This will also bring about an influx of young men of color, something especially needed in Boy Scouting, which up until now has been the junior shock troop contingent of the Caucasian Invasion.
Finally, divorce the fire arms training curriculum from anything remotely close to the NRA. I can understand the logic of teaching young men to use a gun. But being allied with the lobby of gun manufacturers rather than gun owners is simply insane. The NRA ceased to be anything but the voice of the firearm corporations years ago and does not care about the safety of young people when it comes to weapons. Every day the program has anything to do with this morally-repugnant group is a blemish on it. This is de facto approval of a Congressional lobby steeped in the most reactionary, childish, and bigoted worldview this side of a burning cross. There is no reason for this partnership to continue.
There are extremely important things about scouting that should not be jettisoned. The citizenship merit badges, required for the Eagle rank, are some of the most vital lessons in civics I ever gained. The annual Scouting for Food, usually held the first weekend after Halloween, is a massive success that brings tons of foodstuffs to pantries across America at the outset of the holiday season, something direly necessary. The scouting movement has been especially ahead of the curve on all things ecological and environmental, with training that included mention of global warming well before Al Gore exposed the inconvenient truths of our carbon footprint in the cinema. I discovered my own vocation, film making, through the cinematography merit badge that was formulated by Steven Spielberg, while another fellow Eagle from my troop found his own career path in part thanks to the Lifeguard BSA training. The Boy Scouts of America is not going to easily disappear from our landscape. Rather, it is the duty especially of Eagles like myself that are now allowed to return to the Troops to bring with us a set of moral and ideological coordinates gained from LGBTQQI liberation movements that will successfully guide it on a course through the next century.
I dedicate this column to my mother, father, and all the Scout leaders who helped me reach my full potential.