The last time I wore my scout uniform was for a Halloween party during college. I guess I figured the high-socked, short-shorted costume (and its political associations) would scare the hell out of my mostly gay and entirely liberal social circle better than any mask or fake blood.
That night, as my muscle memory flipped the neckerchief cloth over itself the required number of times to create a roll tight enough to fit through the slide, I realized there was one element of the uniform I didn’t want to include in my “scout drag,” a badge I felt too sincerely proud of to make part of my light-hearted joke: my Eagle Award. I cut the oval, embroidered patch from my shirt, clipped off as many loose threads as I could, and put it away in a bedside drawer reserved for old memories that are treasured but seldom revisited. A scout is reverent about some things.
And really, that’s the question — a question of reverence, of what is sacred — that’s being considered when we talk about “letting gays into the Boy Scouts.”
We have, of course, always been in it, even if, like me, we weren’t totally aware of our sexual orientation at the time. If I had been out back then, I almost certainly would not have brought it up in the middle of a pack meeting, anyway; personal admissions like that don’t really fit in between a knot tutorial and planning the next hike. (It’s a strange fallacy of the anti-LGBT folks to think that just because someone is openly gay, he will always be talking openly about it.)
“Letting in” is not the issue. Rather, what people such as gay-rights activist Zach Wahls, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and President Obama, and the BSA itself and the rest are debating is what scouting means in our cultural lexicon — what, at its core, does scouting deem reverential and what should we revere about it?
On this point, it’s helpful to look beyond the right’s attempt to brand scouting as some kind of bastion of conservatism (it needn’t be) and turn to boy scouting’s pledge of allegiance, the Scout Oath. Here are the parts that, in practice, matter: “I will do my best. I will help other people at all times. I will keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.”
It’s true that I’ve left out the “God” part in my highlights, even though much of the current dustup is swirling around it. That’s because I disagree that Boy Scouts is inextricably religious, even though atheists, like gays, are officially banned from scouting. (The Girl Scouts of the USA does not discriminate against gays or require scouts to promise to serve God.) Religion played a very minor role in the day-to-day life of my troop, really extending only so far as the Presbyterian roof over our meeting space and the performance of an occasional prayer.
Perhaps other troops tote bibles along with their handbooks, but mine didn’t, and I suspect most operate in a similar fashion. Regardless of the organizational fine print, it was a pretty secular experience.
If faith is not the most reverential concept in real-world scouting, what is? Based on the oath, the answer is easy: care for others and care of self. These simple twin ideas are, of course, worthy of the utmost respect, and more to the point, salutary to all young men regardless of their sexual orientation. This much will be clear to anyone who is not trying to use scouting as a pawn in the culture-war chess game.
The fact that many troop leaders have already expressed that openly gay scouts and volunteers will not affect those core values reveals just how much of the anxiety is coming from the outside. If scouting means being an ethical agent in the world — being “morally straight,” as the oath ironically puts it — a scout’s sexuality is irrelevant.
Still, meaning is a contested thing. To wit: Being a gay Eagle Scout produces a strange kind of consciousness, a double-vision of objects and traditions and words that other people experience as blissfully uncomplicated.
Take a tent, for instance. In Boy Scouts, you learn how to pitch one if you have it or construct one out of found materials if you do not. It is a useful thing; it means shelter. But in the larger debate over gays in scouting, a tent is a thing dewy with erotic charge. Gay non-scouts joke with you about furtive assignations on hot summer nights, while bigots luxuriate in the same fantasies, only in the more strident key of gay panic.
Perhaps the gays and the bigots are right to fetishize tents; no doubt they’ve played host to teenage experimentation many times over the past 100 years or so of scouting. But for myself, I cannot speak to the reality of such intrigues — my fondest memories of tents involve helping my dad to spread a crinkled blue tarp under one. Or better yet, the smell of dampened smoke as it drifts through the mesh screen on a chilly spring morning. Those memories, in the end, are what scouting means to me — and they have nothing to do with sexuality, in the abstract or in practice.
It is good, by the way, for people to know how to make smoke. Once, back in college, I went on a retreat with the social justice people — the queers, ethnic studies kids, Palestinian activists, fill in the rest. We spent the weekend unpacking our oppression, whittling away at our privilege, shooting target practice at micro-aggressions, and orienteering our way through our intersectional subject-positions. But when it came time to build a campfire for the s’mores, our sophisticated critical theory, good as it was at fueling radical consciousness, failed to ignite any real flames.
A different type of knowledge was needed for that, one altogether more old-fashioned. In spite of its stated positions, scouting prepared me to help toast marshmallows that night with people it would, according to its written policies, almost certainly disavow; and yet, the spirit around the smoldering embers was as convivial and warm as any evening at scout camp I can recall. Perhaps those policies would be better used for tinder.
J. Bryan Lowder is the Slate editorial assistant for culture.