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.