Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On my honor

When I was about seven, I joined the Cub Scouts. I vaguely remember being inspired by my cousin Mike's recent earning of Eagle Scout, and made that my goal. Uncharacteristically, I stuck with it. I went from Wolf to Bear to Webelos ("We'll Be Loyal Scouts"), earned my Arrow of Light, and went on to join the Boy Scouts, the same troop my cousin had been a part of. I progressed slowly but fairly steadily through the ranks (Scout, Tenderfoot, Second Class, First Class, Star, Life...), earned a string of merit badges ranging from Basketry (only two requirements) to First Aid to Indian Lore (which I believe has been discontinued). Since it was required to advance, I served in leadership positions including Patrol Leader, Troop Guide, Den Chief, and Senior Patrol Leader, the last of which I wore like a suit that everyone tells you looks great on you but makes you feel like you're just playing dress-up, and pinches in all the most uncomfortable places. I was elected into the Order of the Arrow, the honored campers' society. I camped countless times in all sorts of weather, from the desert heat of Philmont to sub-zero Forestburg, where our campsite was only accessible via frozen lake. I staffed leadership training camps of several flavors, worked ropes courses, and held several summer positions at a Cub Scout camp (including, weirdly, Field Sports Director). Eventually, a week before my eighteenth birthday, I passed the Board of Review for my Eagle Scout, awarded the following November, very nearly ten years ago.

Those eleven years were incredibly formative for me. I learned that I'm not a natural leader, but I can do it in a pinch. I learned countless useful skills that I still use on a surprisingly regular basis (though I'm still kind of crap at fire-building). It boosted my confidence, something I still have an issue with. I have many fond memories of those times (as well as many not-so-fond memories, but hey). I have a collection of Boy Scout handbooks on my dresser, including my grandfather's from the '30s and my father's from the '60s, everything between and beyond, up to and past my own, from the '90s. To this day, I can recite the Scout Oath, Law, slogan, motto, and sing innumerable camp songs without thinking. Earning my Eagle Scout is one of the proudest achievements of my life.

And yet, with the exception of one final summer working at Cub Scout camp (Nature Director, that time), I haven't touched the BSA again.

Every so often, people ask me if I've ever considered getting back into it as a Scoutmaster, or Assistant Scoutmaster, or merit badge counselor, or something. I've considered it, yeah, but I couldn't. Not without me being dishonest with them, and more importantly, dishonest with myself. Point 1 of the Scout Law: "A Scout is trustworthy."

Let's ignore, for a moment, the fact that they wouldn't let me back even if I wanted to (my atheism vs. the BSA is a matter for another post), and focus on my initial philosophical differences with them. Maybe you remember back, oh, nine or ten years ago, the case Boy Scouts of America v. Dale. If you don't want to read the whole Wikipedia article, let me sum up: James Dale, an Eagle Scout and Assistant Scoutmaster in Monmouth Council, New Jersey (my old council, coincidentally, though not my troop), became involved in his college's LGBT student alliance, and via his work there (unrelated to the BSA) was featured in a newspaper interview in which he stated that he was openly gay. BSA officials found out and had him kicked out. Dale took them to court, and the New Jersey Supreme Court decided that the BSA had to readmit him. The BSA wasn't having that, so they took the case up to the US Supreme Court, who decided that as a private organization, the BSA had First Amendment rights to associate with whomever they please, and keep out whomever they want. The decision was handed down June 28, 2000, while I was working at the aforementioned Cub Scout camp for my final summer.

I, like many people, was unaware of the BSA's anti-homosexuality until the court case became national news. Even when it was just a case in my home state, in my own council nonetheless, I hadn't heard about it. Oh, I seem to remember having heard about old policies, back when people still believed the long-disproved notion that homosexual man = pedophile, but assumed that since that concern proved to be unwarranted, the policies lacked justification, and had been removed. Obviously, I underestimated the power of self-justification.

The official line now is that homosexuality is in conflict with the section of the Scout Oath in which scouts promise to keep themselves morally straight, and point 11 of the Scout Law stating "A Scout is clean" in thought, word, and deed. In other words, homosexuality is immoral and unclean. Naturally, I strongly disagree with this stance, and think that they're being a little free-handed with their interpretation of those points. Let's take a closer look.

On page 46 of the 11th edition of the Boy Scout Handbook, they explicate "morally straight" thus:
To be a person of strong character, your relationships with others should be honest and open. You should respect and defend the rights of all people. Be clean in your speech and actions, and remain faithful in your religious beliefs. The values you practice as a Scout will help you shape a life of virtue and self-reliance.
Funny how it doesn't say "honest and open, unless you're gay" or "respect and defend the rights of all people, unless they're gay." I guess that must be implied. It must come down to the "Be clean in your speech and actions," which of course comes back to point 11 of the Scout Law, explained on page 53 (with the part about hygiene removed):
There's another kind of dirt, though, that can't be scrubbed away. It is the kind that shows up in foul language and harmful thoughts and actions.
Swearwords and dirty stories are often used as weapons to ridicule other people and hurt their feelings. The same is true of racial slurs and jokes that make fun of ethnic groups or people with physical or mental limitations. A Scout knows there is no kindness or honor in such tasteless behavior. He avoids it in his own words and deeds.
How on earth does this apply? I defy anyone, anywhere, to show me evidence of homosexuality being inherently hurtful to others. Again, there must be something they're leaving out of the handbook. Unless, somehow, they're counting it under the hygiene aspect of cleanliness? As though you can't just take a shower afterward, if need be. Maybe the newly-released 12th edition, which I do not have, is the one that says "Homosexuality is icky." [Update, 3/3/2010: Nope, not in there either.]

I just find it puzzling how an organization that is so intent on being open and inclusive can have such a policy. Their values include "to help other people at all times" as one of the primary points of the Scout Oath, just below duty to God and country in importance. They also have point 4 of the Scout Law: "A Scout is friendly"
A Scout is a friend to all.... He offers his friendship to people of all races and nations, and respects them even if their beliefs and customs are different from his own.... Accept who you are, too, and celebrate the fact that you don't have to be just like everyone else. (page 49)
and point 6, "A Scout is kind"
Kindness is a sign of true strength. To be kind you must look beyond yourself and try to understand the needs of others. Take time to listen to people and imagine being in their place.... Extending kindness to those around you and having compassion for all people is a powerful antidote to the poisons of hatred and violence. (page 50)
Why, when they place such importance on helping and caring and understanding other people, including and especially people who disagree with or are different from you, do they decide that homosexuality, which has never been shown in any way, shape, or form to be harmful to anyone, is immoral and unclean, instead of just another aspect to be accepted? Why are they betraying their own values like that?

Because, of course, hovering behind the official line is the fact that conservative religious groups make up a very significant portion of the BSA's sponsors. The Mormons alone sponsor about 13% of the BSA's youth membership, making them the largest single sponsor, and have outright stated that they would pull out if forced to accept homosexual leaders. Now, naturally, this is a serious practical issue from the BSA's perspective. Losing the support of groups like the Mormons would not simply mean less money for the organization, but would also directly impact the young Scouts who have nothing to do with national policy, as they would no longer have a place to meet. Many parents would pull their children out entirely in protest. And while other organizations would likely step up to the plate, organizations that may not be contributing right now, whether because of the anti-homosexual stance or because they simply don't need to at the moment, and other kids whose parents might not let them in because of this discriminatory stance might join after it was lifted, it would take a while. The organization would definitely suffer and face very lean difficult times for a while, and that's a scary thing. It's scary for those who've put their life's work into this organization to put it in jeopardy like that for a moral stance. It must be terrifying to think that you contributed to the possible downfall of a program that was so influential in your life, and continues to be influential in the lives of millions of young boys and men every day. It's so much easier to cave, and let things go on as they always have. Point 10 of the Scout Law: "A Scout is brave."
You are brave every time you do what is right in spite of what others might say.... And you show true courage when you defend the rights of others." (p. 53)
But, of course, it's possible and even likely that they believe they ARE doing the right thing, and being brave in the face of the so-called attack on their morals, morals that have no clear basis in the actual, long-standing, stated values of the Scouts, and that actually seem to contradict many of those self-same values.

When it comes right down to it, this is a fight the BSA is going to lose, sooner or later. This paradigm is shifting all over the country, and I know that they will eventually have to change with it, once public demand forces them to (if they indeed believe what they are saying) or allows them to (if they do not). I just wish that they would instead do it simply because it's the right thing to do.

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