My name is Jeffrey Lawson and from 1987-1992, I wore the uniforms of a Scout, from Bobcat to Tenderfoot (I even completed my requirements for Second Class, but after I stopped attending). I am writing to request that you do what is honorable, helpful, and morally straight: reverse the BSA’s policies barring gay and atheist members. This sort of exclusion hurts boys and it hurts Scouting.
I would like to be able to say I am a good man because of Scouting, but the truth is I never fit in very well there. I was more of a bookish, indoor kid; without Scouting, I could have avoided learning how to swing a hammer, fold a flag, or make something with my own hands. I wasn’t really into all the father-son stuff, either (since I never knew my own father and my stepdad and I were never close); without scouting, I might never have seen what healthy fatherly relationships could look like. I grew up in a house of apathists and never had much use for Christianity; because of Scouts, I had to learn how to sit quietly and respectfully when other people prayed and recognize how important faith could be to others.
And since I’m being honest with you, I’ll tell you that the prospect of gays in our troop created a pretty uncomfortable setting. In fact, it made me quite uncomfortable, because some of the other kids thought I was gay; while I was never Mr. Popular at school, I got teased, called “faggot” or “gaywad”, and otherwise harrassed more in the Boy Scouts than anywhere else in my life. I also got into two of my only three fights ever (outside of those with my brother, of course) at Scout meetings. As a Scout, I learned about stealing and lying, I learned to run from my mistakes, and I learned to do what was popular over what was right because that’s what my peers were teaching.
It seems strange to me now that I don’t have more positive things to say about Scouting after it was such a big part of my life, but then it was all I had for a while. My mom was a workaholic, especially in those years. The Troop 12 Scout Hut was only three blocks from our house, and it was the only activity my parents could afford (and only barely… I dreamed of how $100 at the Scout Store in Arlington could make me a better camper). One to three nights a week (and one weekend a month) were reserved for Scouting because it was what I did.
The most positive thing I can say about Scouting was that it showed me a wider range of people than I would otherwise have known: cheesy over-active dads who were friendly to all, older men with low voices who could command our attention with their story cadence, older scouts who wanted everyone to participate proudly, kids with more than us who could earn a swimming merit badge in their own back yards, kids with less who dropped out before they ever bought uniforms. None were perfect, but none were all bad either. It was a place where bullying ran rampant, yet I still had to work alongside those bullies and they alongside me. We got along, sometimes even well, so I always felt like an unpopular Scout was still a Scout.
I’ve never understood why the BSA doesn’t share this experience with every child in America. There is a need for exercise and hands-on, intergenerational learning. There is a need for thoughtful values and outdoor exploration. There is a need for storytelling and camaraderie (even if it is sometimes forced). There is a need for everything that the Boy Scouts stand for, but it will not take root beyond Scouting if it cannot first get a better hold within Scouting. The weaknesses that existed when I was a Scout are even worse now because the Scouts have taken sides with bullies instead of letting every boy find his own way.
Twenty years on, I prefer the romantic company of women to men (well, I could say more, but I doubt you’re ready for the gender & sexual fluidity merit badge quite yet) and I still shake my head at some of the things my peers got away with back then. I wish I could tell you that everything I experienced as a Scout was a positive, nurturing experience, but a Scout is honest and the truth is less simple. I have come to see Scouting is an opportunity, not a guarantee. Scouting opens doors that are otherwise unavailable to new experiences and new people, but it is up to the individual Scout to embrace the opportunity. Sometimes they go well, sometimes they do not, but at least Scouts get the chance. Now the BSA needs to embrace the opportunity to practice their inclusive, patient, collaborative ideals a little bit better and stop looking for excuses to exclude people. I’m pretty sure I served with some gay Scouts, and they were not the ones who hurt me. I’m pretty sure I served with some atheist Scouts, and they never tried to recruit me. We all tried to live and let live; once in a while, we even succeeded, and those were very good days.
Scouting deserves more good days, don’t you think?