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.