Monday, January 06, 2014

Gay Boy Scouts in the 1970s - Video

Last week, for the first time in its century-long history, the Boy Scouts of America officially admitted openly gay boys into its membership rolls.

As of January 1, 2014, gay teenagers can now participate in BSA activities until they are 17 years, 364 days, 23 hours, and 59 minutes old.  One minute later, they become ineligible in a bifurcated policy that permits gay Scouts but not gay Scouters (the term of art the international Scouting movement uses to refer to adult leaders).

When the policy's implementation made headlines on the cusp of the new year, I reached back into my own archives, discovering some home movies from a Boy Scout summer camp in 1971.

I was a member of Troop 72 of the Potawatomi Area Council at the time. Troop 72 was sponsored by St. Agnes Parish in Butler, Wisconsin, where I attended elementary school. I joined the troop in the fall of 1970 and went on probably a dozen camping trips over the following two years, including two week-long sojourns during the summer at Camp Long Lake in the Kettle Moraine State Forest in Sheboygan County.

That first summer, my father brought along a Super-8mm movie camera to record some of the frolicking Scouts as they assembled for a flag-raising, took their swimming tests, participated in fire-building, gathered at the mess hall for dinner, and worked toward getting merit badges in archery, canoeing, and other activities.

This silent film -- characterized by overcast skies in what was apparently a chilly summer of 1971 -- lasts for just over seven and a half minutes.
(Before clicking on this video, let this be fair warning to anyone offended by images of shirtless teenage boys romping around in skimpy swimwear, or by classic gas-guzzling American automobiles of late 1960s and early 1970s vintage. You'll see all those things and more. By the way, if you recognize yourself in this home movie from 1971, or if you have ever been a member of Troop 72 at St. Agnes School, please note it in the comments section, below. It will be fun to reconnect with old friends.)

It's possible, but not likely, that I was the only gay Scout featured in this video. Of course, at 12 years of age, I wasn't openly gay like Maryland's Pascal Tessier, who hopes to become the first Scout to earn his Eagle rank while being openly gay. (There are many other gay Eagle Scouts who came out subsequent to their achievement.)

The Boy Scouts' new policy was approved last year and there was some trepidation that the transition might be bumpy.

According to news reports, however, whatever fears there might have been dissipated quickly once the policy was implemented.

For instance, according to a story in the Columbia (Missouri) Daily Tribune, local Scout council leader Doug Callahan said he had not observed much of an effect since the policy change.
Overall, he said, the feedback he has received about the change has been "mostly positive."

"Some folks didn't think it went far enough, and some folks didn't like any change, but the vast majority of our supporters and members are OK with the change because they realize our focus is on serving youth and delivering a quality scouting program," he said. "This issue isn't really an important part of our core mission."

Callahan said the Great Rivers Council, which oversees about 8,000 Scouts in northern and Central Missouri, has gotten a few letters from parents that said they will pull their sons out of the Scouts and some letters from people ending financial support. But others have increased their donations because of the change, Callahan said.

"Financially, it's pretty much a break even," he said.
Elsewhere, Alex J. Davidson and Trudy Ring reported in The Advocate,
... so far there has been little blowback as a result of the new policy.

Although about 70 percent of scout troops are affiliated with churches, not all of them LGBT-friendly, very few churches have ended their sponsorship over the gay-inclusive stance, NBC News reports. BSA spokesman Deron Smith told NBC that fewer than 2 percent of the nation’s 116,000 scouting units were dropped by their sponsors between May 23, when the new policy was approved, and Wednesday, when it went into effect.

In an additional statement to The Advocate, he said BSA volunteers and staff were "prepared to implement the new policy with no major changes to the delivery of the scouting program."
The Advocate further reported that BSA spokesman Deron Smith had said in a written statement:
"While people have different opinions about this policy, we can all agree that kids are better off when they are in scouting. We're pleased that the overwhelming majority of our members, families, and chartered organizations remain committed to the Boy Scouts of America. America's youth need scouting, and by focusing on the goals that unite us, we can continue to accomplish incredible things for young people and the communities we serve."
Years after my own, brief Scouting experience, I mentioned my participation in Troop 72 in the first commentary piece I wrote for The Wall Street Journal, in which I argued that, although the Boy Scouts' policy at the time -- to exclude completely any openly-gay boys or leaders -- was wrongheaded and cruel, it was the BSA's right as an organization to maintain that policy.

Later, Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty (GLIL) made a similar but expanded argument in an amicus curiae brief presented to the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of BSA v. Dale. The court alluded to our brief in its decision favoring the Scouts' right to freedom of association.

GLIL had argued that public pressure, rather than government coercion, was a better way to get the Boy Scouts to change theiranti-gay policies.  As I noted in my WSJ article in August 1999:
a self-contradictory and wrong-headed policy does not require (nor deserve) the action of the state to correct it. Many commentators have noted that the Girl Scouts have chosen to practice non-discrimination in regard to sexual orientation. Lesbians are free to participate in Girl Scout programs. Yet no government action compelled this change in policy. The Girl Scouts' leadership acted on its own.

That is why we should encourage the efforts of those individuals and groups, such as gay former Scouts, who are trying to persuade the BSA to change its membership requirements voluntarily. Their attempts at moral suasion deserve commendation and support.
Moral suasion is indeed what turned out to be successful. Eagle Scout Zach Wahls, a co-founder of Scouts for Equality described that process in an article in The Miami Herald on January 3:
“We began an 18-month campaign that less than a year later culminated in the Boy Scouts voting this past May to end their ban on gay youth,” said Wahls, 22, who is spending his New Year’s holiday in Miami Beach. “While in some sense this is a big step forward and we need to recognize that, on the other hand you’re still going to be kicked out of the program the day you turn 18.”
The transition is not complete, as noted by Eagle Scout Eston "Dusty" Melton (also the father and son of Eagle Scouts) in the same article, written by Steve Rothaus. Changing the policy on gay youth members, Melton said, "was the correct first step for the Boy Scouts as an organization, but the effort will not be completed successfully until every aspect of discrimination is eliminated from the BSA’s official policies.”

More public pressure is undoubtedly needed to prod the BSA toward more thorough reforms of its policies.  As we have seen from what has happened so far, however, patience pays off and persuasion is better than coercion.

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