Recently The New York Times reported that the Boy Scouts of America leadership was considering lifting the national ban on gay scouts and scout leaders and leaving it to local scout troops to decide the issue for themselves. I think this is a wise choice for several reasons. Basically it means that troops at evangelical Christian churches all over America (and, believe me, they are no longer just in the Bible Belt; they are all over the U.S.) will not have to be disbanded. The same goes for Mormon troops, Seventh Day Adventist troops and basically any troop connected to one of those fundamentalist organizations that hate queerness no matter how much of it is embedded in their members' DNA. Now these organizations will not have to start organizing their own versions of the Boy Scouts, which is a good thing, because I guarantee that those alternative scouting troops would not be out there to "help other people at all times," although they would still swear to be "morally straight" -- or at least sexually so. It also means that Boy Scout troops at many public schools, Unitarian churches, progressive synagogues and other progressive religious groups can now openly admit gay scouts (and there are a lot of them; kids are now coming out as young as 11, 12 or 13). And as for gay (or gay-ish) scout leaders, they're still going to be around and can now exhale.
Scouting has always -- always -- been as queer as a $3 bill. It was founded in England in 1907 by Robert Stephenson Smythe Baden-Powell (that's Lord Baden-Powell to you), one of those hairy-chested confirmed bachelors of the Victorian era who adored the rugged outdoors and the "boy's life." Baden-Powell modeled scouting after a cadet corps of white boys formed during the Second Boer War against the Zulus in South Africa. The idea was that these strong-hearted, loyal chappies could take certain burdens off the real fighting men (fetch them water, clean their guns, etc.), and Baden-Powell found himself hugely impressed by the ability of these boys in a quasi-military environment to discipline themselves, do real work and take on the jingoistic ideals of regular white guys against the Zulus.
According to biographer Tim Jeal, Baden-Powell loved the boy's life so much that one of his great joys was watching naked boys exercise, and he kept and treasured pictures of these young guys through most of his life. Baden-Powell did marry later in life -- much later, at 55 -- to a young woman named Olave St. Claire Soames, who was 23. After they were married, Baden-Powell started having extremely painful headaches, which a doctor told him were psychosomatic. He cured the situation by sleeping away from Olave, but they managed to have three kids: a son, Peter, who became the next Lord Baden-Powell, and two daughters. In 1908 Baden Powell published Scouting for Boys (the basis for the Boy Scout Handbook), which was an instant success. It has sold about 150 million copies and is the fourth bestselling book of the 20th century. Scouting for Boys was recently re-released by Oxford University Press. It is one of the great hoots of any period. The tone of it has a sincerity impossible to duplicate in our era of Bravo reality-show snideness.
"A scout has to be able to notice small details just as much by night as by day and he has to do this chiefly by listening, occasionally by feeling or smelling" (Lord Robert Baden-Powell, Scouting for Boys, 1908).
I was a Boy Scout for two years when I was 11 and 12. I loved scouting. For any boy growing up in Savannah, Ga., in the 1950s and early '60s, there were basically three models of boyhood: Christian fundamentalism (congratulations, you're now a church eunuch!), Little League baseball or pee wee football (all-American brain-dead ladhood) and the Boy Scouts. The Boy Scouts opened up everything, with a wider range of acceptable feelings, behaviors, experiences and relationships than you could experience anywhere else. It was an escape from Little League baseball, church indoctrination, and anything else you really wanted to escape, like your parents, especially your mom. Moms were den mothers for Cub Scouts, but at 11 you became a real Boy Scout, and then you got to wave goodbye to her as you left for weekend camping trips, summer scout camp and the National Jamboree, a wonderful event held every four years.
I never got to a Jamboree (my parents were way too poor to send me to something like that), but the amazing thing about them was that they were racially integrated decades before scouting as a whole was, so that white scouts from the Deep South could meet black scouts either from the North or from all-black troops in the South -- if these troops could afford to send their boys there, of course.
Part of being a scout was reading Boys' Life magazine, published by the Boy Scouts of America in Washington, D.C. For me it was the distillation of what wholesome boyhood should be about; it was like a constant Doris Day movie for lads. According to Boys' Life, boys -- that is, real, bona fide scouting boys -- were heroic, always kept their cool in a crisis, were in tip-top shape, had no fear of anything except possibly girls (there was never a vagina in the entire magazine, except for a mom or two, and we were sure they didn't have one), were loyal to the U.S. in the midst of the Cold War and had a modesty that, in the age of Justin Bieber, seems right out of Ivanhoe or a biography of the Venerable Bede.
This does not mean that in scouting, hanky-panky did not exist. A lot went on in the tents that you'd never tell Mom, Dad or anyone else about. You could call it "normal sexual exploration," with some circle jerking, but I saw nothing that was either coercive or predatory. (I know: Keep your blood pressure down, Ye Sons and Daughters of the Driven Holiness School of Kidhood.)
But there was often the "boner" possibility, and after lights out, things were done with them.
I had my first crush on a boy at summer scout camp when I was 11. I didn't even know it was a crush, but I loved meeting him in the woods, where we'd hike together, talk about school and smile a lot. It was wonderful; I can still remember what he looked like. Scout camp was about wood lore, marvelous (bloodless) fictions of American Indian life and learning how to tell directions using the sun. I learned how to sharpen a knife, pitch a pup tent, start a fire and suck poison from snake bites (I'm grateful I didn't have to practice that one), and I learned that some boys would be your wonderful friends and others revolting bullies -- unfortunately, another part of boyhood.
But what I never learned was to dislike anyone, nor to judge people by anything other than how "brave, clean and reverent" they were. What 11-year-old kid growing up in poverty after the recent death of his father would not love that?
Many years later, when I was about 24, I had a boyfriend who, during our third or fourth sleepover together, confessed to me that he was a "lifelong scout." He'd been a Life Scout (a rung below Eagle) and never left scouting. He went on Jamborees and was attached to a troop. I thought he was nuts. By this time, when the Vietnam War was still news, not only was I too old for scouting but I was sure that it was, as I told him, "a proto-fascist organization." He was deeply hurt. His name was Jim, and I hope he's happy now, and I hope he's still a scout.
I am also happy that boys all over America can have an oxygenating alternative not just to Little League and fundamentalist churches (even if they're still the sponsors of many troops) but to the heavy metal cynicism and childhood-destroying irony that has stopped too many boys from seriously dreaming about the next Jamboree.
Perry Brass is the author of 16 books. His latest is King of Angels: A Novel About the Genesis of Identity and Belief, which was awarded a Bronze Ippy for Best Young Adult Novel of 2012. His previous book was The Manly Art of Seduction. Both books are available as ebooks and in print. He is currently working on a book about the power of desire and can be reached through his website, perrybrass.com.