“What is your position on the policy to exclude gay scouts?”
I was asked that question by my Boy Scouts master one Monday evening 20 years ago. It must have been early 1993, and the first written policy excluding gay scouts and leaders was still making the news rounds.
I was in my late teens, and I thought I was perhaps more progressive than my peers. However, there was an underlying sense of conservative religious faith—strong, orderly, meaningful, deep, pure faith– that ran through many in our organization, that held us together, and I was hesitant to alienate it. Some of the boys and more of the adults would be appalled to think of a gay Scout. The word “gay” for me at the time evoked images of Tim Curry in lingerie ... clearly not appropriate! But I also had friends at the time who identified themselves as gay and looked nothing like Tim Curry. It seemed absurd to exclude them.
What could I say? If my interviewer was hoping for me to come out swinging on one side or the other, I must have let him down. "Why does it matter?" I asked. Our organization serves boys ages 10 1/2 to 18 years old. I’m not sure it’s possible to ask someone in that range to commit to a definitive sexuality. Why are we talking about it?
The questioner thanked me for my answer and commented about a potential future in politics. I soon thereafter became an Eagle Scout and thought little more of the question until recently.
In some ways, I still stand by that non-answer more today than I should have then. Scouting was immeasurably meaningful to me. I am a better person because of it. I stand by it. I believe all young men can benefit from it and should be welcomed with open arms. But the point of Scouts is not to serve as a vehicle for social change, no matter how crucial it may be. It is easy for me as an adult to project my political and ethical viewpoints onto Scouting. But that's not what it's about. Scouting exists for the boys, for the young men. The two armies of gay rights and family values should not show up on Scouting's front lawn to do battle. So I won't loudly criticize their policies or praise their detractors, nor will I boycott their supporters.
Rather, I will dwell on the positives. One of my memories of Scouting was the quiet leadership of many of the boys within my troop. I remember we were taught to lead largely by being allowed to do things ourselves. When no one organized how we would cook our dinners or pitch our tents or build our fires, we realized we were surprisingly capable of working these things out for ourselves. And we did take care of these things ourselves. We responded to emergencies deep in the woods. We quelled fights in our ranks.
The program worked best through hands-on experience.
So here’s my challenge to the adults and leaders involved: How can we make this an opportunity for the youth to rise to the conflict themselves? It is not an easy question. I do not know the answer. But I do know that I’m going to be watching from the sidelines, suppressing any urge to jump into the fray.
Clifton McCormick is a principal at Hefferlin Kronenberg Architects in Chattanooga. He was active in Scouting for 10 years and hopes one day his two sons will consider joining. Meanwhile, he volunteers with several youth organizations, including Big Brothers Big Sisters and Odyssey of the Mind. He spends any remaining time with his family. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.