Gay Boy Scouts
I joined my local Boy Scout troop when I was 11 years old, and I remained a member for 10 years. All in all it was a great experience. Of course it was an experience I would not have been allowed had I been openly gay.
My troop was especially active. For example, we went on weekend “camp-outs” every month except during summer camp season, when we could go camping for a whole week. Camping was my earliest adolescent experience with independence – being away from home, on my own, rotating cooking duties and cleaning duties and firewood-gathering duties, playing team sports, hiking through the woods, attending to boy scout stuff like knots and hatchet skills, and sometimes just hanging out like adolescent boys. (I remember especially fondly an Oreo-eating contest, won by a boy who ate two-and-a-half rows of Oreos from a three-row package.)
I was a smart kid, and I progressed quickly through the ranks – I made Eagle Scout, the top rank, at 14 years old. I was given leadership positions early on, and, being younger than some of the boys in my charge, I did not have the sources of authority that are respected by teenage boys: superior age, size or strength. I had no choice but to learn leadership and management skills that serve me still.
The summer I was 14 years old, I joined a group of boys from local troops for a trek at the Philmont Scout Ranch near Cimarron, New Mexico. A dozen of us hiked for 11 days through the Sangre de Cristo mountains, carrying our tents, sleeping bags, supplies, and powdered dehydrated food on our backs. It was a tremendous experience for a 14-year old kid from the middle of nowhere.
I became a summer camp counselor at 15 years old, which meant nine full weeks away from home, except for Saturday nights between camp weeks. I taught swimming, lifesaving, rowing and canoeing, and I was paid $25 a week, plus tent and board. It was my first experience in the working world. The next summer I tried to negotiate a raise to $35, but had to settle for $30 – my first salary negotiation.
I went back the summer after I graduated from college to serve as waterfront director, this time supervising a staff of five boys who taught swimming, lifesaving, rowing and canoeing. At 21, I was in the big bucks – I made $125 a week.
Obviously there were other gay boy scouts and scout leaders besides me. But they, like me, remained in the closet. Homosexuality wasn’t officially discussed, but pretty much every year there was someone missing who had been around for years – and without fail the whispers were that the man had been found to be gay. There seemed always to be this idea that once they got rid of this one homo, the Boy Scouts would be pure. But always the next year there was another one to be gotten rid of.
I only once heard a rumor of a leader improper touching the scouts. He was the one who was mysteriously absent my last year at summer camp. I was aware that some of the boys did some pre-pubescent fooling around, but none of it was predatory and most of the participants turned out to be straight. I last saw any of them at a high school reunion years later – I can’t say for sure, of course, but I don’t think anyone was traumatized for life.
I grew up in a time and a place such that I couldn’t imagine, and didn’t consider, the possibility of uncloseted homosexuality. As a teenager, I expected to live my entire life pretending to be straight. I knew no openly gay person at all until I went to college, and remarkably few even then.
But life has changed, and it has become commonplace for gay teenagers to disclose their sexual orientation.
I don’t want to oversell the Boy Scouts. I have never said that the Boy Scouts taught me honor, or integrity, or duty, or morality. And a lot of why scouting was good for me had to do with my particular personality and circumstances. So I don’t suggest that scouting is an essential experience, or that it is an experience that can’t be gotten in some other form. But my experience in the Boy Scouts was important and valuable to me – not because I learned to tie knots or start campfires or figure out east from west from the constellations (although those have come in handy from time to time), but because I learned about independence, self-reliance, resourcefulness and navigating my way in the world.
It speaks poorly of us as a society that a boy who wants those experiences can be denied them because he is openly gay. I hope that the Boy Scouts’ national council vote today sees it the same way.