The Boston Phoenix - 1 in 10
March 1998
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Scouts' honor

The of America have finally been told to live up to their own code -- and stop banning gays.

by Michael Bronski

Those iconographic models of young American manhood, the Boy Scouts, have finally been ordered to accept queers into their ranks. How ironic. Lord Robert Baden-Powell, who founded the Scouts in 1907, was a homosexual with a noted fondness for teenage boys. But ironies aside, the March 2 decision by the New Jersey Appellate Court has broad implications for how society defines masculinity.

The three-judge panel overturned a 1995 ruling by a lower court upholding a decision by the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) to oust James Dale from the organization in 1990, after a newspaper article identified Dale as the cochair of the Lesbian/Gay Alliance at Rutgers University. At the time, Dale was a highly commended Eagle Scout with 30 merit badges and 11 years of scouting experience. In its decision ordering the Scouts to take Dale back, the Appellate Court wrote: "There is absolutely no evidence before us, empirical or otherwise, supporting the conclusion that a gay scoutmaster, solely because he is homosexual, does not possess the strength of character necessary to properly care for, or to impart BSA humanitarian ideals to, young boys."

The court also found that the BSA, given that it meets in public spaces (including schools and churches) and recruits nationwide, was a public accommodation, much like a hotel or restaurant. As such, the organization is subject to the states' antidiscrimination laws. And if this wasn't a clear enough message to the BSA and its conservative friends, the judges added insight to intelligence by praising Dale for upholding the Scouts' ideals of honesty by coming out and pressing his legal fight. Needless to say, the BSA is appealing the decision.

In a 1990 whitewash biography of Baden-Powell called The Boy-Man (William Morrow), Tim Jeal writes about the Boy Scouts founder's attraction to (and probable affairs with) teenage boys -- as well as his fondness for photos of nude boys, and his requirement that scouts in his care bathe outside, naked. Today, Baden-Powell would have made the top 10 on a registry of sex offenders.

But Baden-Powell's homosexuality, and his likely pedophilia, are merely superficial ironies. The New Jersey Appellate Court notwithstanding, the Boy Scouts of America are essentially correct: homosexuality is incompatible with the history, meaning, and intent of scouting. How could it be otherwise? Beneath the benign rhetoric exhorting scouts to help others, tell the truth, and be kind to animals, Baden-Powell's principles focus on obedience to authority, doing one's "duty to God and Country," and being "pure in thought, word, and deed." Scouting -- which Baden-Powell referred to as a "character factory" -- was a regimen designed to inculcate a deeply conservative, secularized Christianity espousing defensive nationalism, racial intolerance, and sexual prohibitionism. Scouting turned out men who didn't challenge prevailing social standards. By the time World War I erupted, scouting officials, military leaders, and the public all agreed that good scouts made good soldiers.

With the outbreak of World War II, Baden-Powell's repulsive political and racial attitudes came to the fore. As late as 1937, he pushed the scouting movement to establish official ties with Hitler youth groups. In 1939 he wrote in his diary: "Lay up all day. Read Mein Kampf. A wonderful book, with good ideas on education, health, propaganda, organization, etc. -- and ideals which Hitler does not practice himself."

Clearly, the Boy Scouts of America are no longer neo-Nazis, nor does the organization have the explicitly pseudo military overtones of the past. But many of Baden-Powell's original ideas remain. The scout's "duty to God" is defined, even now, by the most narrow of moralities. The injunction to be "pure in thought, word, and deed" reflects Baden-Powell's repressive views of sexuality; he was obsessed with stopping scouts from masturbating and believed that the only legitimate sex act was reproductive heterosexual intercourse within marriage.

Such views are still at the heart of the BSA's stand against homosexuality. In its 1990 letter expelling Dale from the organization, the BSA claimed he had "violated a provision of the Scout Oath to remain `morally straight' and a mandate under scout law that members remain `clean.' " Simply put, the Boy Scouts are about manufacturing "real men," and homosexuals are not real men by their definition.

But if the code words morally straight and clean reinforce stifling traditions of masculinity, those traditions are accepted by fewer and fewer people. Indeed, the court's challenge to the BSA's antigay stance -- on the surface, strictly an issue of homosexual rights -- is emblematic of a much larger cultural battle over how society defines manhood. While couched in the legal terms of "public accommodation" and "discrimination," the Appellate Court's ruling is a challenge to the Boy Scouts' formula for shaping men.

The opinion also contests the prevalent misconception that gay men are a menace to children. The lower court that upheld the BSA's gay ban unfairly raised "the sinister and unspoken fear that gay scout leaders will somehow cause physical or emotional injury to the scouts," it said, adding that these notions are "predicated on stereotypical generalizations, rather than fact, [and] cannot be employed as `shorthand measures' in place of legitimate factors justifying First Amendment protection."

The charge of child molestation is intrinsic to how homophobia is constructed in our society, and any challenge to it is welcome and necessary. Ironically, it's a charge that has been leveled more frequently since gay people have begun struggling for basic civil rights, and one that Lord Baden-Powell never had to face in his own lifetime.

In its final paragraphs, the ruling from the appellate judges articulates an irony that explodes the BSA's unconscionable hypocrisy: "In our view, there is a patent inconsistency in the notion that a gay scout leader who keeps his `secret' hidden may remain in scouting and the one who adheres to scout laws by being honest and courageous enough to declare his homosexuality must be expelled."

Baden-Powell's character factory -- with its corrupt notions of what it means to be moral, truthful, and honest -- is finally shutting down. The BSA's demand to continue defining manhood in its own terms is a last-ditch effort to preserve and promote ugly, outdated values. In years to come it will seem -- as Baden-Powell's attraction to the Hitler Youth and Mein Kampf already do -- simply repulsive.

Michael Bronski's The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom will be published by St. Martin's Press this fall. He can be reached at mabronski@aol.com.

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