aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

One perspective on Scouting and Homosexuality

WTIU called me earlier this week, seeking an on-camera interview about the upcoming BSA vote on gay membership. We couldn't make connections. After the BSA vote was postponed, they called me back and I was to be interviewed today. Now they've canceled. No longer news, I guess. And that's fine. I was only willing to be interviewed because I thought it my duty to stand up for what I believe (and to inject some sanity into the discussion). If they don't need me, then I'm thrilled.

Still, I want to say some of what I had prepared for this interview. There are two reasons why "avowed homosexuals" (BSA's term) have been denied membership -- at least, as applied to adults. The discussion tends to concentrate on one reason, though the other is more critical these days.

The first reason has to do with youth protection. "Do you want your son to be taken camping by a gay man?" is the stopper question that is usually asked at this point. The lurid hints and even outright accusations made by conservative ideologues in this regard amount to sheer fearmongering. At the same time, the liberal ideologues assert with near-metaphysical certitude that homosexuality is one thing, pedophilia another -- as if the two could never, ever overlap in someone. This is as much hooey as the other side's hooey.

If we could quiet the two ends of the spectrum so that their shouting didn't drown out a quiet discussion by ordinary folks in the middle, I think most people could agree that current policies and procedures by BSA (and by the Church) make it unlikely that gay adults pose a greater threat to children's safety than other adults. If BSA were to lift the ban on gay leaders tomorrow, every charter partner would have to make their leadership decisions on the basis of the fitness or otherwise of that guy, rather than their assessment of those guys as a group. And they would.

So the issue of youth protection loses some of its force. Still, there is a second objection to gay leaders, and it remains standing until someone answers it. Fundamental to Scouting's methods is the Adult (Male) Role Model. Scouting is "an adventure in good company," as Baden-Powell called it. That "good company" is the natural gang of one's peers, one's buddies. This becomes the Patrol Method in Scouting methodology. But "good company" also means offering boys an approachable hero, someone to look up to and pattern your life after. Scoutmasters, Den Leaders, Crew Advisors are not just programmatic leaders, but people who are expected to develop a personal relationship with the youth that will inspire them in the building of their lives, both through conversation and through demonstration. As St. Paul said, "Imitate me, as I imitate Christ."

In my experience, everyone who was ever in Boy Scouts has a Scoutmaster story. Fifty years later, some middle-aged men can still get misty-eyed as they recount this alternate father-figure's influence on their lives; others are still angry at how he disappointed them. I remember taking three Scouts from our brand-new Troop to summer camp for the first time back in 1994. They followed me around like puppies jumping up on me, they talked a mile a minute and all at once asking questions, they wanted to be with me and have me interpret this adventure they were on and tell them what was going to happen next. Their love and trust toward me scared the bejeebers out of me that first day, and long after they'd gone to sleep I lay awake in my cot, praying for each Scout in our Troop -- those that came to camp and those that didn't -- and asking God that I would never disappoint them and always live up to their expectations. So this is a big deal.

We say in The UMC that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." Well, lots of things are incompatible with Christian teaching, but we do them anyway. We're all sinners. Your sins may not be mine, but all of us have aspects of our lives that aren't very presentable. We accept that even our most beloved leaders have feet of clay and we forgive those who fall short of expectations. But . . . personal failings can come to define one's persona, how one is received by others. One can be a bad role model (with good points) just as one can be a good role model (with some bad qualities).

As an example, I'd say that drunkenness is incompatible with Christian teaching. That doesn't mean that if you drank a wee bit too much at your Super Bowl party and you had a headache the next morning that you're forever disqualified from Christian leadership; however, if you are a frequent barfly whose breath gives warning of your approach and whose behavior is a subject of jokes by the boys, then we are probably not going to ask you to lead our Scout Troop. Or teach Sunday School. Or direct VBS. Likewise, if you have, say, a young man returning to go camping with his old Troop, whose conversation around the campfire is a long disquisition on the babes he's bedding off at the university, the mere fact of his obvious heterosexuality doesn't make him a good role model for admiring middle-schoolers.

Leadership is a privilege, not a right. We give you leadership because we trust you to behave properly with our kids, to embody our values, to be worthy of emulation. If the primary thing we know about you is that you're gay, then the whole question is centered on your sexuality. It's all about you, not about the kids. The king for the kingdom or the kingdom for the king? asks Charles Williams in "The Crowning of Arthur." It's got to be about the kids. Giving you leadership of our kids comes from your having the right kind of relationship with US, the other adults and the other leaders of the church. I can imagine giving that kind of leadership to a person who happens to be gay, but if it's merely a question in the abstract, of vindicating gayness as such, then the answer is going to be No.

If BSA approves lifting the ban, where does that leave us? Well, it simply means that we will have to exercise the same judgment in choosing our Scout leaders that we have always had to exercise in choosing youth counselors, church camp leaders, coaches, and Sunday School teachers. And the argument over the rightness or wrongness of homosexual practice and over the acceptance of homosexual relationships will go on as it continues to go on all around us. Whatever BSA does, we cannot escape that wrangle.

A final word. The ban on "avowed homosexuals" in BSA extends to youth who identify as gay. The issue here is the avowal, not the gayness. If BSA exists to teach values, and one value is that, to paraphrase The Book of Discipline, the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Scouting's teaching, then to identify as gay is to decide for oneself a question that was hitherto open. So long as the issue was open for discussion, there was a chance to offer reflection upon one's developing values; once a value reaches a final decision, there is nothing more to teach. So, in theory, the youth places himself in opposition to the values on offer. The same rationale is used -- and properly so -- to deny membership and advancement to youth who profess atheism. If you've decided there is no such thing as a duty to God, then you can't take the Scout Oath in good conscience. You don't want what we exist to teach you. So we let you go. It's not a matter of youth who are questioning their sexual identity or their beliefs, it's a matter of including those who have decided that the organization's values are not theirs, but who want to remain in it for their own purposes.

That's the theory. Personally, I would not kick any youth out or deny any youth advancement in Scouting on the basis of sexual identity, just as I would not drop anybody's Church membership for "coming out." At the same time, I would make it plain that our values haven't changed. We love you just as much as we did before, but if you want us to respect who you are, you have to let us be who we are, too. That's a hard thing to do, but that, too, is part of what people are wrestling with all through our society. And none of that trumps the expectation of proper behavior. It is not okay to prank the gay kid because he's gay: hazing is forbidden and will be punished. But you also can't use your gayness as some kind of excuse for bad behavior. If we should get to the point where the ban is lifted on gay youth membership, then being included means being held to the same standards of behavior as everybody else.

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