So next week the Boy Scouts of America are set to announce a policy change that would allow troops to “permit” gay and bisexual Scouts and troop leaders.
Now I don’t want to come off as completely phlegmatic to the decision. This is huge – and a major step in a positive direction for an organization that impacts the lives of so many gay and bisexual young men. This change will allow young men like Ryan Anderson to get the honor of an eagle scout award in recognition of his amazing work (that is a tough feat, y’all,) one he had previously been denied.
But forgive me if I don’t shower you with admiration when you say “okay, so we’ll allow people to decide if you can come in now.”
So you’re moving away from denying I’m a boy, to allowing people to make that decision for me.
I should note that I was a Boy Scout. A gay Boy Scout. I wasn’t a particularly good Boy Scout, mind you. I spent a couple years with my troop and I don’t think I went up in rank any higher than second class (which if you don’t know much about the Boy Scouts, that’s pretty low.) I’m not a particularly good rule follower and have never had much interest in ceremony. I was in it for the camping and the comradery. I was in it because I wanted to be a boy.
Which is what I feel this half-hearted policy change and much of the national discourse around it is failing to address.
As men, cultural expectations of our masculinity often deny us opportunities to build meaningful relationships with other men. As gay men, those opportunities are even fewer and often wrought with trauma because of our perceived transgression of what it means to be masculine. To put it simply; being a boy is supposed to look one way and you get punished when it doesn’t.
The biggest impact being a part of the Boy Scouts had on my life was an opportunity to figure out how to relate to other men and discover who I was in the process. Yes, I went on long backpacking trips, and learned how to tie knots, and to use a bow and arrow, and to start fires. Yes, I swam and biked miles for a merit badges, climbed mountains, and slept outside. I also remember singing Britney Spears songs along with my troop on the way to campsites, choreographing dances in front of the campfire, and picked a lot of flowers.
I remember making friends, and talking about what was going on in our families and what we felt about it, and trying to figure out this puberty thing and all of the weird associated emotions. We were boys talking and being with each other attempting to sort out what this whole living thing was and where we fit into it. Also camping.
But as I mentioned, I didn’t progress far in the Boy Scouts. While I loved the activities and the people, my interest in and capacity to really climb the ranks of the organization was pushed aside by my own coming out process as well as a plethora of medical issues I was going through at the time. While I knew I was gay, or at least something of the sort even if I didn’t currently have the language, I didn’t come out while I was a part of the organization. At the time “gay” and “boy” weren’t things I felt I could simultaneously be. Even as an adult with access to much more language and knowledge on ideas of what it means to be a man or to be gay, I still struggle to feel I can exist in both identities. But being in the Boy Scouts gave me a chance to see what that could possibly look like.
Sometimes boy scouts go on to be and do absolutely brilliant things; achieve that Eagle Scout award, change the world, and be that incredible leader in their community. And sometimes boys just need a space, a time, a place, to figure out what being a boy means.
Which is why this movement away from complete exile to allowing for gatekeepers is not nearly enough. The Boys Scouts of America don’t need a policy that permits discrimination, but refuses it. Gay men, gay boys, are not one or the other depending on who is allowing us to come to the table. We are always both.
The Girl Scouts are modeling a brilliant path, allowing trans youth to become girl scouts and troop leaders. Why are we so resistant to allow the same opportunities of self discovery of identity to our boys? When “boy” is being defined in such specific terms that few people have access to it, who are we actually helping? Deciding for anyone what they are allowed to be; whether that is an astronaut or a brain surgeon –or a boy– is a failure of our society. The denial of the ability of young men and boys to define what that means to them is harmful not just to gay, bisexual or trans young people, but to all our young people.
The Boy Scouts of America’s motto is “Be Prepared.”
Well Boy Scouts, be prepared for some serious change. Because being a boy means so much more than being straight.