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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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