Being a Boy Scout saved my life. I was a bookish, introverted kid, shy and withdrawn, unhappy and easily bullied. I was also gay, although I didn't know it yet. I should've been miserable. But being a scout got me out of myself and into the world. It gave me confidence and social skills, friends and responsibilities. I became a patrol leader, a senior patrol leader, and eventually a junior assistant scoutmaster. I earned enough merit badges to reach the rank of Eagle.
This was in Kempsville, Va., a suburb of Norfolk. I was in the Scouts from 1963 to 1970, between the ages of 11 and 18. I belonged to Troop 66, and we met once a week at the local Episcopal church. We were the uncool kids, a little nerdy or geeky or unconventional. Scouting gave us more breathing room than we had at junior high. All teenagers can be cruel, even Boy Scouts, yet bullying was softened here, reduced to teasing. We could also be kind and protective of one another.
Much of this was due to our scoutmaster, Mr. Barber, a soft-spoken, quietly good man. The father of two daughters and a son, he worked at the Navy shipyard. He led more by example than command (Mr. Johnson, the assistant scoutmaster, was the loud one) yet he kept firm control of a pack of unruly adolescents. He was moral but realistic. On one camping trip, a new patrol leader (he was 12) taught his young charges (all 11) how to masturbate. It was done in the harmless spirit of sharing useful information. But one boy reported it to his father, an evangelical minister, and there was a huge blowup. Mr. Barber invited the parents to a meeting and spoke to them and their sons in private. I don't know what he said, but he gently put everybody's mind at ease. The patrol leader was not expelled; the outraged father didn’t withdraw his son. We older scouts admired Mr. Barber more than ever.
There were only a few gay indicators in my life when I was young. The biggest was that I liked to see other guys naked. Actually, I just wanted to see anyone naked, and I focused on guys simply because there were no girls in the locker room or on camping trips — or so I thought. And I loved Broadway musicals. I'd never seen one at this point, not even a movie, but I knew the songs. One summer at camp I met another boy in my troop, Michael, who loved musicals too. I don't think we were in love with each other, but we certainly loved being together. We put together a musical act, singing an old Army song with the lyrics revised to fit scout life while we danced around like vaudeville troupers in front of the campfire. We performed this song not only at summer camp but later at regional camporees. Lord, we must've been obnoxious. But nobody complained, nobody made fun of us.
I was not sexually active as a scout, but I know people who were. (One close friend made out like a bandit in his troop.) But I wasn't ready for that and, looking back, I'm glad desire was sublimated.
I spent the best three summers of my teens working at the regional camp, Camp Kiwanis. We counselors were a wisecracking, worldly bunch, all in high school or college, doing our job even as we made fun of it.
"Be square," we grumbled, old-fashioned slang from the Scout Handbook, which meant "be good" before it meant being unhip. Yet we believed in being good. At Kiwanis I met other scoutmasters, who were not like Mr. Barber but ranged from jolly grandfathers to misplaced drill instructors to goofy big brothers. They were all good men. I also met my first chicken hawk.
One of the older counselors was a 30-something adult as gruff and masculine as a football coach. He was stern during the day but extremely friendly with the younger counselors in the evening. He spent a lot of time with a particular counselor who I was sweet on myself. I assumed his interest was as platonic as mine. But then he became involved with a camper, a boy of 12. They were caught together and the adult was fired. We all felt shocked, confused, and betrayed.
My last year at camp, when I was 18, I began to fall in love with guys so deeply I finally understood I was different. I’m sure I wasn't the only one. But we were not yet ready to name our feelings; the times made it too difficult.
Times change, however. Nowadays teenage boys are able to name their feelings, and the bolder ones do so aloud. But the Scouts did not keep up with the times. In fact, they went backwards.
The Boy Scouts of America was a progressive organization in the 1960s, even in Virginia. Civil rights arrived, and black troops as well as white troops came to Kiwanis; the camp staff was integrated. Official sexual attitudes were changing as well. Other counselors and I were pleasantly surprised by the common sense in the new handbook in 1970. Not only was masturbation treated as natural, so were same-sex crushes.
But sometime after 1975, the national organization shifted. Mormon, Catholic, and fundamentalist churches became more involved. Headquarters moved from New Brunswick, N.J., to Irving, Texas. The new leaders laid down a set of rigid rules against not just homosexuality but atheism.
Beginning with James Dale back in 1990, a handful of heroic gay scouts, often with the support of their families, challenged these antigay policies. And the world continued to change. It’s silly that gay people can now be in the military but not in the Boy Scouts. Next week the national organization will finally vote on a proposal to allow gay boys to serve — just boys, not adults. It's an absurd position, suggesting that a boy who's valuable to his troop suddenly becomes dangerous the day he turns 18. However, I don't think the position is as cynical as critics claim. The leadership is arguing with itself, addressing the antigay faction who fear sexual predators. They don't understand that honesty is the best policy here. There have always been sexual predators in the Scouts, as there are in the Catholic Church. But only predators lie about who they are, like that man back at Camp Kiwanis. An openly gay adult has nothing to hide.
The Boy Scouts taught me values I still believe in: kindness, tolerance, respect, courage, and honesty. It's a pity the national organization hasn't learned the same values itself. But maybe, just maybe, it is finally beginning to come around.
CHRISTOPHER BRAM is the author of nine novels, including the book that became the movie Gods and Monsters. His most recent book, Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America, just won the Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction. This month Open Road Media is reissuing four of his earlier novels, including Surprising Myself, which begins in a Boy Scout camp. ChristopherBram.com