So the Boy Scouts of America decided to postpone a policy change that would allow troops to “permit” gay and bisexual Scouts and troop leaders.
No folks, this isn’t a change that would require gay reindeer be allowed to participate in the reindeer games, this just means we could potentially expect an invite.
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 picking 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 living was and where we fit into it. Also camping.
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 some medical issues I was going through at the time. While I knew I was gay, or at least something of the sort, 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 many more 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 a Boy Scout gave me an opportunity 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, 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 potential 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, continuing to defend the inclusion of 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? It is our social responsibility to respect the right of young people to decide who they are; whether that is an astronaut or a brain surgeon –or a boy. The denial of young men and boys of the ability to define what that means to them is harmful not just to gay, bisexual or trans young people, but to all our youth.
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.
IAN O'BRIEN is the Youth Activist Network Coordinator for Advocates for Youth. In this capacity, Ian coordinates the Great American Condom Campaign and the DC-based International Youth Leadership Council working to expand, engage, and mobilize domestic youth activists around young people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights globally.