Betrayed by the BSA


The Reason Being blog is coordinating a set of blog posts about the Boy Scouts of America today. See their site for more posts. This contribution comes from my husband, Ben, who used to feel bad that he’d stopped short of becoming an Eagle scout. He doesn’t feel that way anymore.

“On my honor, I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.” — The Scout Oath

My years in Boy Scouts are full of fond memories. My troop used to go camping every month at various state parks and Scout camps, and we had a few trips each winter where we stayed in a wood-heated cabin instead of tents. We learned that you didn’t need to wear a jacket to cut and split wood even if it was really cold outside. And we learned that mittens left on a Franklin stove can get way too hot before they actually dry.

Every summer, we’d make the trip to Tomahawk Scout Camp for a week-long equivalent of summer camp, but with only boys and in two-man canvas tents with cots and mosquito netting instead of in cabins in the woods. We learned that some fungus glows in the dark and that throwing a can of mosquito spray in a campfire isn’t as impressive as we thought it would be.

There was enough pyromania to keep us warm and dry. We learned valuable skills like cooking breakfast and washing dishes and building shelters and climbing bluffs and tying knots and improvising bandages and remembering to bring bandages next time.

Every year, one of our winter camping trips was in the biggest cabin at Fred C. Anderson Scout Camp in Wisconsin. One of the Scout Masters would check out an A/V cart from a school or library somewhere. Someone over 18 would rent a bunch of movies like Total Recall, and Octopussy (She’s got eight of ‘em! Tee hee.) and really anything else with violence, swearing, and/or gratuitous nudity.

I didn’t think I was a popular kid in high school even though everybody knew me. I certainly wasn’t the most popular kid in my troop, but I felt like I fit in with my fellow Scouts better than I did in high school, so that was a good thing. I got teased enough in both places, but that’s what happens when you’re kind of a misfit kid, right?

I earned my God and Country emblem because I attended a Baptist church at the time and…actually I think I just did it because it was one of the things you do when you’re a Boy Scout. My pastor came to our house and talked to me about the stuff that was in the guide for the emblem. I remember something about dipping something in water–I don’t remember what or why. And then he awarded me the emblem.

When I was in Scouts, I never seriously thought about gender identity or sexual orientation. You’ve heard the “It’s not gay if it’s at camp” idea. There’s some truth that experimentation happened–I think–but mostly I’m guessing it was technically gay. Or bi. I don’t know for sure. The factual part of the phrase is that there certainly was a lot of calling things “gay” and people “fags”. The words were really just used as insults, so that particular “gay” at camp was totally not gay.

In 2000, I heard about the Boy Scouts of America et al. v. Dale case in the Supreme Court where the BSA was defending its right as a religious, non-denominational organization to deny membership to gay Scouts and leaders. I was shocked and disgusted that this organization that played such a huge role in my life as a teenager would make a discriminatory decision that could have affected so many of my friends.

When I was in Scouts, I never seriously thought about my religion. Over a decade ago, I came to the conclusion that all the evidence for an omnipotent, omnipresent, loving god presented to me by others and written in the bible was contradicted by my understanding either of common decency and dysfunctional relationships or of nature through scientific research. I began to identify as an atheist.

In May of 2008, the BSA made the official statement that “No member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God” and that it is a violation of the Scout oath’s “duty to God” to be non-religious.

I would argue that it is a violation of “to help other people at all times” to discriminate against gay or non-religious members. I would argue that it is not “morally straight” to create a hugely positive influence for young people, but not…you know…those young people. I would argue that if you want to become “the best kind of citizen”, then discrimination is something you should be working to remove from your society, not to embed into it and defend as a fundamental right.

From my description, you might think that my experience as a Scout was a misogynistic, homophobic, jingoistic boot camp for teenaged boys. In a way, you’d be right. But I built and slept in an igloo on a lake in temperatures well below 0˚F. I built a tower out of wood and rope. I cooked beef stew with a dutch oven, corn with a trashcan, and a turkey with a space blanket. I learned about evolution, biology, chemistry, conservation, respect for nature, respect for cultures and cultural differences, wilderness survival…. The list just keeps going.

I know I couldn’t count all the times an experience in Boy Scouts has improved my life, from something as simple as being able to light a fire in the rain to helping strangers when they look like they need it. The fact that Scouting was and is still such a huge positive influence on my life is what drives me to be so disappointed with the national organization.

I believed that Boy Scouts was more than just a thing to do every Monday night. I collected canned food for the local food shelf and aluminum cans for recycling. I paid my dues. I sold my nut bars, my fertilizer, and my Christmas wreaths, boughs, and trees. I worked to support my troop, my council, and my Boy Scouts.

Now I feel betrayed.

Now I support my friends who have sent their Eagle medal and badge back to the BSA in protest. If I had become an Eagle Scout, I would join that protest.

Now I support the local troops that act in defiance of the national decisions and are welcoming of all members. But I don’t think it’s enough. Those future Eagle Scouts will look back on the organization as a whole and have one of two reactions to the realization that their BSA doesn’t feel that gay or non-religious people can be good citizens: either “Damn right” or “Oh…damn.”

If the BSA is not willing to amend their bylaws and remove the Declaration of Religious Principle that drives their discrimination against gay and non-religious scouts, then it’s time to support secular organizations like Camp Quest so that they can seize the opportunity to be what Scouting should be.

So when the Boy Scouts come knocking on my door and ask me to support them by buying a wreath or a tree or anything else, I’ll ask them if they’ve ever seriously thought about how their organization discriminates against the gay, the queer, the bisexual, the atheist, and the agnostic. And then I’ll buy my evergreen boughs from someone else. Someone who appreciates diversity just that little bit more.

But if they ask for canned goods for the food shelf…I’ll probably give them something. I’m not a monster.

Comments

  1. says

    Ben, thanks for writing. I have had a similar experience. I’m an Eagle Scout, but I’m not religious. I grew up in a very conservative area, but the church I attended was more liberal. My family taught me to accept people who are different than I am. My church never taught me to hate gay people.

    I didn’t know about the Dale decision when it came out. I was sheltered somewhat. I didn’t know what being an atheist really was until high school, and that was the first time I met people who called themselves that. When I was in high school, I finally earned my Eagle Scout rank. I also had a lot of discussions with some non-religious friends about their beliefs. Later, when I was in college, I decided that I could no longer believe in religion.

    Now, looking back, I remember – like Ben described – all the people I met, all the places I went, all the things I learned in Scouting that were great benefits to me as a person. Yet, I am also disgusted by BSA’s stance against people who are gay or non-religious. I don’t want to send back my Eagle Scout rank because I feel like I earned it. They may say I’m not reverent because I’m an atheist, but how reverent is it to practice something you deeply believe is false? I respect the truth too much to live otherwise, and that’s in part a value I furthered through Scouting. If I send back my Eagle Scout rank, aren’t I surrendering the idea that people like me can be Eagle Scouts, can be decent and trustworthy people, and good role models?

  2. says

    Thanks for posting. I was unaware that I could send my Eagle Scout badge back…never thought about it really. That is something I very much plan to do.

    I also want to point out that I appreciate you giving me the credit for organizing this “blog action”, but I must give credit where it is due. Andy over at http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com came up with the idea, I just helped recruit bloggers and with organizing it–I can’t take sole credit.

    Thanks again–John.

  3. says

    Alexthethinker: I agree that you earned your Eagle and I would never fault you for not returning it. I would encourage you frequently take time to publicly show that atheists can be Eagle Scouts and have been earning the Eagle rank for decades.

  4. susans says

    Since I am a woman, I have never been a Boy Scout and have no badge to send back. However, what I can do is what I did today when Scouts were selling poinsettias outside my bank. I tell them I will never buy anything from them as long as they are anti-gay.

  5. poose says

    I donated my time and efforts to the Sea Scouts (BSA’s navy?) In my home town. My experiences were similar-the local staff was great. But as our unit grew past a certain size BSA National stepped in and things got…strange…

    The biggest farce was “Child Sexual Abuse Awareness and Prevention” training, which I hate to admit was just common sense-Two up on leadership at all times, no one alone with a single scout (even your own kid) and since Sea Scouts was (strangely enough) gender neutral (we had female scouts) that gender matching on outings was required (female scouts means separate bunking and female leadership present.)

    I say “farce” as while we our adults were training up on this-sexual abuse was occurring elsewhere in the organisation, and much like the RC Church is now facing the pointy end of potentially multi-million dollar lawsuits over previous abuse.

    I know that youth-oriented groups can attract paedophiles-why is it the overtly religious ones seem to get caught with their d!@ks hanging out?

  6. Zugswang says

    But if they ask for canned goods for the food shelf…I’ll probably give them something. I’m not a monster.

    Heh, I wouldn’t even do that. Not to the scouts, anyway. They’d go to a local food bank.

    A lot of people like to use that, “you’re hurting people who benefit from their charity” argument; people use that line with me when I tell them I don’t give to the Salvation Army. But the fact is, for any charitable cause, there’s at least a dozen places to which you can pledge your support or donations, and a lot of them don’t wantonly discriminate.

    I was an eagle scout, a Philmont Ranger, and a scoutmaster with a scouting career that spanned almost 15 years, and I stayed in the scouts, because I thought I could be one of many small effectors of change within the BSA; there were so many of us who wanted to see scouting offered to any youth who wanted to join, and thought that leading by our example, we could make it happen from the local troops and move upward.

    The sad realization that I was fighting a losing battle came when the national executive reaffirmed the organization’s commitment to bigotry. After that, as important as scouting has been to me and my family, I could no longer be a part of that organization. Until the day they change their position (that will come; it is inevitable, but not for another decade, at least), they will receive neither my money nor my time, not even a canned food item. There are better and more worthy charities out there.

  7. Zugswang says

    Alexthethinker

    If I send back my Eagle Scout rank, aren’t I surrendering the idea that people like me can be Eagle Scouts, can be decent and trustworthy people, and good role models?

    Returning your medal serves as a symbolic gesture. The BSA saw fit to give you this award for being a man of honor, and by returning it, you would be expressing that the BSA is not run by people whom you recognize as worthy arbiters. It would be like an elementary school student awarding a doctoral degree. Thus, while you are still a man of strong character, the award itself is no longer an appropriate reflection of it. In your eyes, is no longer a symbol of high-minded ideals, but a tainted accolade given by men of praetorian virtue.

    For the record, I’ve kept all the awards and honors I received while I was in scouting. I earned them by following the noble values that the BSA seems to conveniently ignore when it suits their purposes.

    But whether you choose to return your awards or not, no one should look down upon you for it. It’s pretty clear you’re a better example of an Eagle than many, and only you get to decide the significance of that silver piece of pewter.

  8. janiceintoronto says

    Scouts Canada don’t seem to have a problem with gays or atheist scouts.

    I wonder why?

  9. says

    I was a Cub Scout when I quit, long before this, and I’m glad I got out when I did looking back. As a non-believer this has left a bad taste in my mouth for a while, and I now refuse to buy anything scouts sell at the entrances of local groceries. Thanks, Ben.

  10. says

    Susans: I think more of the local organizations need to hear that kind of thing. I know the news is covering it a little, but personal statements make a much bigger impact than generalized concepts. We saw that when MN defeated the anti-marriage amendment.

    Poose: I hope it’s because they do a worse job policing it rather than a worse job hiding it.

    Zugswang: I’d actually be donating the canned food more for the specific Boy Scout who had to come out and collect than for the food shelves. It’s a royal pain to do, much like the door-to-door sales and I just don’t see the point in making it a worse experience for the Scout. You state the impact and meaning of the symbolic gesture of returning a piece of metal quite well. I had missed the “you aren’t worthy to judge me” in addition to the “this award is tainted to me” aspect.

    janiceintoronto: Canada has it’s share of bigoted idiots, but Canada’s share seems to be much smaller.

    Troythulu: You’re welcome. I may even seek out organizations that are officially inclusive to support at said grocery entrances.

    dickspringer: I’ll be passing around that link. I know there are Eagles out there who didn’t know that list exists.

  11. says

    I just want to echo reasonbeing and say thanks for contributing. FYI: Some atheist bloggers are using #BSA (the Boy Scout hashtag) on Twitter to spread the word.

  12. Zugswang says

    I’d actually be donating the canned food more for the specific Boy Scout who had to come out and collect than for the food shelves. It’s a royal pain to do, much like the door-to-door sales and I just don’t see the point in making it a worse experience for the Scout.

    That’s a fair point; I’ve tried to make my protests so that it limits the negative impact it has on the scouts, themselves.

    But I still won’t buy that godawful popcorn, protest or no. :P

  13. says

    I certainly agree with you wholeheartedly on this one. At least in the UK our scouting organisation only discriminates against the irreligious nowadays and has seen sense with respect to sexuality.

    Jim

  14. Pat says

    Your Scouting experience reads almost exactly like mine Ben – except I completed my Eagle Scout rank – maybe that gave me more of an emotional investment in Scouting. It has served me well over the years in the ways you’ve described Scouting’s benefits to you as a person. Much like you, when I was a Scout we weren’t ever taught to fear gays/atheists/etc…a policy that still carries through today (with the exception that we now correct any Scout who uses slurs of any type in conversation).

    Many of the anti-Scouting camp have tried to characterize the BSA as a “hate group” when nothing is further from the truth. I’m not naive, I am fully aware of the various settlements, and legal/ethical challenges that Scouting has had (and continues to have) to this day but…

    WHY??? It seems like such a hate filled bigoted group, WHY WOULD ANYONE WANT TO BE INVOLVED/BUY THEIR WREATHES/ETC??

    You know me Ben, I consider myself liberal in everything but the fiscal sense. Consequently, this past summer after serious deliberation on my (and my family’s) part, we chose to remain involved in Scouting. Our local chapter in MN, Northern Star, has chosen to break from the National group’s apparent policies, and recognize anyone has the right to participate in Scouting. I realize your views as an atheist appear to exclude you from one aspect of Scouting…and you’re correct, you wouldn’t be awarded your Eagle Scout as an avowed atheist.
    I do however, fully expect an avowed homosexual will be awarded their Eagle Scout out of the Northern Star Council within the next 3 years – sparking another National discussion which should hopefully be more productive than last time (and more public).

    Let me explain this last part. There is a dedicated group on insiders who, like me, see the benefits to their young men in growing up with strong role models of both genders, outdoor education, leadership training, and overall responsibility for themselves and their fellow people. We also see the need for a more “open” audience, and the fact that Scouting must change its stance on the issue of homosexuality and atheism/agnosticism.

    I won’t be an apologist for Scouting, it does so much good for young men (and women – see Venturing/Explorers) and their communities. The outright shunning of its members does nothing to settle the argument pro/con — and you alienate good people from a well run organization that displays a very tangible benefit to their families. I will point out that local fundraising (wreathes, popcorn, etc.) only benefits the local organization, and NOT the National one. So when you boycott the boys in your neighborhood, you’re hurting only them.

  15. says

    Scouting does do a lot of good for young men. I completely agree with that. But there are a whole bunch of other organizations that also do a lot of good for kids and I’ve chosen to support them over an organization that would choose not to support me.

    I applaud your council for including gay Scouts and I’m glad that you’re expecting to award the Eagle rank to a gay Scout. But since the BSA issues the certificate and card recognizing an Eagle Scout, isn’t it a little dishonest so submit a Scout for recognition fully knowing that the BSA would not allow that Scout to even participate if you mentioned he was gay?

    I definitely don’t have the investment in Scouting that you do. I don’t have kids involved in it and I’m not in the leadership. I’m not allowed to be because I’m an atheist. If I had an Eagle, it would be invalid because I’m an atheist.

    I’m not an insider in the organization any more, so I can’t put any internal pressure on the organization to change. What I can do is put external pressure on the organization so that insiders can get higher visibility of public opinion. As long as the local troops and council know why I’m saying ‘no’ then saying ‘no’ has impact that will give a troop that wants change more leverage to enact change.

    I support nearly everything that Scouting does. I just don’t support their decision to deny non-heterosexual and non-theist boys membership.

  16. dano says

    Pat, just so everyone is clear the Northern Star Council did NOT allow troops to permit gay or atheists but rather said they would leave it up to your local troop and their charter. Perhaps your charter is different than mine but when our charter and committee received the letter they made it very clear that they would continue to follow National’s laws and rules. If I boy is found out to be gay or an atheist he can still be kicked out or for that matter a leader as well. This is a very tricky statement in that if your troop gives out an award to a gay scout and someone calls National he would lose the award. This does not meanit can not change in the future. I actually like the leave it up to your charter organization idea so that those that want to follow National rules can do so & those that do not also have a choice.

  17. Pat says

    Dano, huh, then we interpreted that same press release very differently. I’m sorry your Chapter aligned itself with national, most MN chapters did not. By our reading, Northern Star wasn’t interested in “endorsing” or “permitting” anything that ran contrary to its primary mission….teaching boys about knots, fires, etc…anyone who could respect that it’s all about the boys was allowed to stay, anyone choosing to make a political statement or not respect the boys or the uniform (physically, emotionally, etc) would be removed. It mentioned nothing specifically about homosexuality or atheism, nor does any of their training materials. I happen to know 3 openly gay parents involved in Scouting in the Twin Cities…they choose to make it about their kids, and no one has raised any fuss at all.

    To put my above statements into perspective, if I tried to get my boys all signed up for Mittens this past election, I’d have been thrown out….same if I’d told all the parents to “Vote Yes” or “Vote No” on the MN Amendments. If I tried to endorse my business using a picture of myself in a Scout uniform, or a picture of my kids in theirs….I’d also be kicked out. If I tried to convert all the boys to become Lutherans, ditto….get my point? If anything I did politically takes the focus away from the boys…thats when people are removed. Teaching kids about sexuality is a decision handled by parents and the schools, it’s not the place of Scouts to teach kids about discovering themselves or their fellow man/woman. We don’t stray from teaching them about “good touch” “bad touch”. If an openly gay Scout or Parent is discriminated against, and they weren’t trying to use Scouts or Scouting to further a political agenda, that’s criminal and reprehensible!

    For the record, the Scouts has never endorsed any particular political party/process/agenda/business….to do so is a violation of the bylaws (as evidenced by recent presidential campaign events).

    Back to my previous comment, it’s all about the kids.

    I can respect Ben’s beliefs regarding Scouts and Scouting not lining up with his beliefs…I don’t support organizations I don’t agree with either.

    I do think that sometimes the good of an organization gets lost in a press release which doesn’t tell the full story, and I don’t believe there are any other orgs out there that are as wide-spread and/or do as good of a job with young men than the Scouts.

  18. says

    I surely don’t know of any organizations that are as wide-spread or do as good a job with young men. That’s why I’d prefer that the BSA change their policy and stop supporting bigotry so that I can start supporting them again. In the mean time, I know that Camp Quest is doing great work if only for a couple weeks at a time.

    I haven’t read the press release, so I can’t weigh in on that, but if they did leave it up to the individual troops, I think that’s a pretty terrible option. Discrimination is never something where there should be a choice of any kind.

  19. dano says

    Pat, I don’t mean to argue but proof is in the pudding.

    “Our long-standing approach is to welcome adults who can help further our mission, trusting the judgment of local parents and chartering organizations in their communities to select the leaders they want to work with their children. Actions and behavior are the means by which all leaders are held to a high standard of community values.”

    They are leaving it up to the chartering organizations aka going against national. I am at EVERY round table and most troops are following national rules unless the troops I have heard talking about the topic and what they do behind closed doors are two differnt things.

    YiS

  20. C Hansen says

    So Pat says:

    “I do however, fully expect an avowed homosexual will be awarded their Eagle Scout out of the Northern Star Council within the next 3 years – sparking another National discussion which should hopefully be more productive than last time (and more public).”

    He also says:

    “you’re correct, you wouldn’t be awarded your Eagle Scout as an avowed atheist.”

    As an athiest (though not necessarily public about it) with and Life scout who is also an athiest (again not publicly) and active in our local troop, these statements are of great interest to me. I am wondering if Pat’s group is just taking on the homosexual aspect of the current policy because that is what was presented in his group. More specifically I am very interested in any information from the council or any troops that would indicate a willingness to diverge from the national policy on the religion issue.

    As of now, we are working toward Eagle and hope to achive that sometime in the next year. My son is aware of the challenge that may exist and we have decided to move forward within the organization partly due to lack of decent alternatives and partly due to wanting to effect change within the current system. My advice to him going into his Life Board of Review was to answer any questions asked of him honestly and directly and that we would figure things out from there. Fortuantely religion did not come up in the conversation. I’m not sure we will be so fortunate at the Eagle board.

  21. Zugswang says

    Pat:

    It is really great to hear that, contrary to what I had thought, there really are people in council leadership that are more amenable to changing their policies, even if it only means letting individual charters decide for themselves, for the time being.

    My home council was not a place where I would find an ally in authority. This was a place that was difficult to be openly Buddhist (which I was, before becoming an atheist). I suppose that despair and sense of personal failure I felt after that national press release was the final straw in what had also been an increasing sense of dissatisfaction with my home council’s leadership, which suffered from a mixture of intransigence, apathy, and unenlightened self-interest. It is really heartening to know that there are councils that are staffed by at least some good men and women who have the influence and authority to push for the right thing, and I wish you the best of luck in your efforts to affect positive change from within.

    I just hope that change will be sooner than later.

  22. PatrickG says

    I will point out that local fundraising (wreathes, popcorn, etc.) only benefits the local organization

    Not to nitpick, but at least in my troop, we used a BSA-approved vendor for our wreath materials. A rather large amount of the money raised went to a rather predatory company and the national organization. Really felt like a kickback scheme (might as well have been selling magazine subscriptions), so our troop started doing event services for our local community events, where we were directly paid and actually doing something constructive. Plus, seeing teenagers carting around 5 cases of wine at our local Art and Wine festivals was kind of fun. I still have some of the commemorative glasses. :)

    My troop was in a pretty liberal area (Silicon Valley! Quelle horreur!), so I really didn’t see much of the ugliness that persists at the top levels until I went to the 1993 Jamboree at Fort A.P Hill, VA. That single event is probably most responsible for my deep skepticism (verging on irrational hatred) of religion, patriotism, and anybody claiming a moral high ground (and I went to Catholic school from grades 7-12!). It was simply sickening. Hearing Lee Greenwood sing still brings up a faint taste of bile, to this day.

    It was also why I decided not to get my Eagle badge; I stopped at Life quite deliberately. I’d met too many “exemplars” with the honor who were really loathsome human beings, and encountered too many Eagle farm troops where 13-year old boys were being awarded an honor that I’d been told indicated maturity, dedication, and service. Not my intent to knock 13-year olds as a group, but c’mon, really?

    I want to be clear that I’m not trying to tar the organization as a whole, or denigrate people beyond the ones I’ve alluded to here. I had some absolutely fantastic experiences in Boy Scouts, including an exchange program to Bulgaria and attending the Pan-american Jamboree in Guatemala in ’94. Some of the best experiences in my life were in the Scouts, and I’ll always be grateful to the people who made that possible.

    However, those people were almost always at the local level. As others have said, the further up you ladder you went, the more repugnant it became.

    I see this became somewhat of a cathartic post on my part… but anyway, thought I’d share my personal experiences. Thanks for the post, it made me really reflect on a great number of things.

    P.S. Have to add, the BSA is responsible for introducing an actual libertarian into my life (for this, I can only say FROM HELL’S HEART I STAB AT THEE, BSA), who maintains, among other things, that acid rain abatement and phasing out CFCs were the result of free market action, sees no contradiction in his views of “freedom” and regulating contraception/abortion, and so forth. Oh, and he’s an Eagle Scout.

  23. PatrickG says

    I meant to add a to the first paragraph, but I guess the site tried to interpret that as an actual tag. :)

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