A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.
The sentence above is known as “The Boy Scout Law.” And it was part of the ceremonies in which I participated during every scout gathering from the day I turned 12 years old until I turned 18. Even now, at the age of 34, I am able to quote it from memory.
I joined the Boy Scouts at the age of 12, like nearly all Mormon young men in the US. My troop, Troop 338, was sponsored by the Albion and Jackson wards of the Mormon Church. In those days, Boy Scouts was the activity arm of the young men’s program for the church. I don’t know if that has changed since. Joining the Boy Scouts, while not considered as sacred, was as much a rite of passage as being ordained to the office of Deacon, going to the temple to do baptisms for the dead, or passing the Sacrament for the first time.
Once among the ranks of the scouts, my friends and I worked our way toward Eagle Scout. Achieving Eagle Scout was so important to most of my friends’ parents that they weren’t even allowed to get their drivers’ licenses until they had earned the Eagle. My parents, thankfully, weren’t that insistent, but nevertheless, I wanted to earn it too (and did, about a month before my 18th birthday).
For years, I went on campouts once a month. I went to summer camp for a week every summer. I earned my BSA lifeguard certification. I even spent a year fundraising so I could afford to attend the Boy Scout Jamboree…a major scouting gathering where 35,000 boy scouts descended on Fort AP Hill, Virginia for the mother of all campouts.
Boy Scouts, in many ways, shaped my definition of what it means to be a man. And, because the Scouts were tied in so closely with the church, it also helped to shape my definition of what it means to be a man in the church. I had wonderful scout leaders—dedicated men who gave up insane amounts of their time to teach and lead the 20-some young men of our troop. My father was my scoutmaster for a while. There were several others as well, including a couple of men named, and I’m not kidding you, Val Crow and Ray Paholick. (Say them out loud, quickly.)
My scoutmasters were the same men who taught the early morning seminary classes that I attended ever weekday for four years of high school. They were the same men who taught my Priesthood classes every Sunday. These were my church leaders, my role models, my chaperones, my parents’ friends, and were tightly interwoven into the tapestry of my formative years.
My scout leaders taught me how to think my way through problems, how to be prepared, how to laugh, how to work with others, how to survive in tough situations, how to sacrifice time, money, and energy. They taught me how to give of myself to others, and they taught me how important it is for each of us to have positive role models. On the whole, they were a group of wonderful, loving, big-hearted men who would just as easily shed tears when bearing their testimonies as laugh riotously at a good joke or talk trash over some silly competition.
Despite having waxed rhapsodic over scouting and my leaders, however, my memories of my time in scouting are tinged with a bitter aftertaste and more than a little regret. Certainly, there are moments and memories that I hold close. There were friendships formed during those activities and outings that, although they have faded into the past as so many friendships do, still remain precious to me. And, of course, I have more than my fair share of funny stories from the late-night snipe hunts, the bad jokes, and the youthful mistakes that follow any group of adolescent men.
I was 13 or 14 when I began to understand that I was gay. I couldn’t have put it in those exact words, but I could see that I was starting to head down a different path than most of my friends. I wasn’t infatuated with girls. I couldn’t care less about the incessant basketball games that they played in the church Cultural Hall after our meetings. I began to grow supremely uncomfortable with the jocular teasing and roughhousing that always happens when you get a bunch of guys together. I started becoming more interested in performing, and musicals. I would sit alone in the chapel and play music while my fellow scouts threw the basketball around. As someone who never really “fit in” all that well, I was beginning to feel even more alienated than usual.
It was also right around that age of 14 or 15 when I overheard one of the scout leaders talking to another about the restrictions on gay scouts or leaders into the ranks of the BSA. I don’t remember the exact words, nor do I remember the person who spoke them. I do remember, however, those words being a un-Christlike, mean-spirited. For a sensitive boy who wanted so desperately to be good, hearing a man that I respected make comments like that was like a knife in the heart.
The good, Mormon boy in me was in total agreement: keep the gays out of the scouts. They’re going to lead everyone to temptation. We need to associate only with good people, otherwise we’ll be overcome by sin.
The rapidly awakening gay boy in me couldn’t understand. These were my friends. They were people I had known since we had moved to Michigan when I was 9. They were boys who had spent the night at my house for sleepovers, men who I saw at church every Sunday. They were just the people in my life. And all of a sudden, because of a feeling I couldn’t seem to control (despite my desperate attempts, I assure you), I wasn’t welcome anymore. It was really my first taste, albeit mild, of discrimination…something to which, as a middle-class white male, I was not accustomed.
That one, overheard conversation in the hallway of the Jackson, Michigan church building when I was 14 was a turning point in my life. It was that, combined with a few other things that happened in quick succession, that convinced me it was vitally, vitally important to hide my sexuality until I could overcome it. And so, for the next 16 years, that’s exactly what I tried to do.
This week, in a couple of days, the Boy Scouts of America are going to vote on whether or not they strike down the policy that prohibits gay men and boys from participating in the scouting program. They do so largely under duress as corporate sponsors are pulling funding from the program because of this policy. And they are not voting to allow gays to participate, but simply to let that decision rest upon shoulders of the sponsors of the local troops. (In other words, the churches that sponsor each troop.)
I have mixed feelings about this upcoming vote. On one hand, I am loath for any private organization to be “forced” into accepting any group or individual that they do not wish to include, even if that group includes me. I generally despite the “slippery slope” argument, which is the laziest form of “debate” in existence, but I do believe that private groups should be allowed to accept or reject who they wish—and fade into deserved obscurity when their policies are no loner in vogue. I’m disappointed that the BSA national council is passing the buck to the local groups, allowing each chartering organization to decide whether or not to accept gay scouts instead of taking a stand and setting a new, more inclusive policy. I’m disappointed that this move is necessitated by corporate funding, and not because the BSA wishes to change its policy because “it’s the right thing to do.”
On the other hand, I see this as a wonderful first step. There is a persistent (and entirely unsupported) belief that homosexuality equals pedophilia—that a gay scoutmaster will seduce or corrupt the scouts under his care simply because he is gay. In fact, members of the Mormon church who are disciplined for homosexual activity have a “mark” placed on their membership records which indicates that, for the rest of their lives, even after completing the repentance process, they are forever ineligible for working with the youth of the church. It is as though the fact that someone had a homosexual experience at some point in her or her life means that he or she will be incapable of teaching the young men and young women of the church.
As a gay man, I am thoroughly and completely disgusted by the idea of sex with children or teenagers of either gender. It is foul and disgusting. It is rape, pure and simple. None of the gay men or women I know are attracted to little boys or girls. The fact that I am considered incapable of teaching, leading, or supporting young men or young women infuriates me. When I was teaching voice, I regularly taught young men or women, and I was a good teacher. I implemented the lessons I learned from my scoutmasters and church leaders about how to interact with young men or women—that delicate combination of adult authority and collegiality. I was never inappropriate, and to think that I would have been simply because I am attracted to men instead of women is offensive to me.
Nor do I regularly go around talking with even my nieces or nephews about the fact that I’m gay. (In fact, this Christmas, my 10-year-old niece asked me why I wasn’t married. “Because I just haven’t found the right person” was my response. )
Most of the reactions I have seen online about the BSA potentially opening its ranks up to gay scout leaders have been based in the type of apocalyptic fear mongering that seems to take root and flourish among ultra-conservatives: Fears that have no basis in truth, statistics, or reality. Will allowing gay scout leaders increase sexual abuse in the ranks of the Boy Scouts? No, it won’t. Will having a gay scout leader mean that the leader will be talking about being gay with his boys? No. It’s not appropriate, any more than a straight scout leader should be talking about his sex life with his boys. Will having a gay scout leader mean that he will be leading your children into homosexuality? No. You can’t MAKE someone gay. Will having a gay scout leader normalize gays, and allow your son to see gay men as something other than a poncy stereotype on television, but as a real person with hopes, feelings, desires, and emotions just like anyone else? You betcha.
I can’t help but wonder how my teenage years would have been different if, at the age of 14, I hadn’t felt the need to bottle up my emotions because I was afraid of being discovered as being one of “those gays.” Scouting was a huge part of my community. To be a Mormon boy not in scouting was almost tantamount to not participating in the church at all. The terror of being ostracized from my community that I first learned in Scouts, followed me for nearly 20 years. It still impacts my life.
As the date of the BSA vote draws near, I have spent a great deal of time wondering how my life would have been different had I known that being gay wasn’t going to disqualify me from my community. Would I have been able to talk about it with my best friend, late at night as we shared a tent at scout camp? There is something special about those late night talks, out under the stars, where I could have possibly felt safe enough to reach out for a little support.
Would I have been comfortable going to my scout leaders, many of whom were truly wonderful, and sharing my struggles if I hadn’t heard that the scouts didn’t allow gays in their ranks? Would they have used my fear, my abject terror at being gay, as an opportunity to teach me that God loved me no matter what? That despite what I was feeling, my leaders and my friends still loved me? Would I have learned at 14 or 15 (instead of 30) that most people don’t really care whether you’re gay or straight, and that being gay was a much larger deal for me than it was for them?
Or would I have found myself ostracized—still technically able to participate in scouting—but bullied, tortured, or teased because I was a fag?
It seems inevitable that the BSA will have to rescind its anti-gay policy sooner, rather than later. As an organization, they seem to be far less relevant today than they were even 20 years ago when I was in scouts. And as the relevance of scouting declines, their need for corporate sponsorship will continue unabated.
I hope that this change in policy will begin to herald a change in attitudes and behaviors from the leaders and the other scouts. It breaks my heart to think of another scared, confused 14-year-old boy overhearing a man he respects, a scout and church leader, making mean-spirited comments in the hallway of a church building.
Because gay or not, I still believe in being trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.