The year, 1973. The place, Camp Makajawan, a Boy Scout camp secreted far up in rural, wooded Wisconsin. In my then 12-year-old eyes, Makajawan meant mosquitoes, uniforms, and stifling, sticky heat – and the general torment of young gay boys like me. At that age, the thought of “being gay” never occurred to me. But while I was lucky to be just athletic enough to escape full-faggot status at school, somehow the Scouts saw right through that.
The other boys in my patrol called me the usual names. Older boys threatened with tales of awful “initiation” rituals. No one wanted to tent with me. I was afraid whom I’d run into on a trail or near the showers or the outhouses.
Not that I’m alone in having had a bad experience at camp, Boy Scout or any other. That happens all the time. Any kid who doesn’t fit the right mold can have trouble. Even straight kids can have perfectly terrible camp experiences.
For my part, I hated camp. A couple of months later, having barely made second class, I screwed up the courage to tell my parents that I wanted out – and soon quit.
Return of the past
It’s been a long time since I’ve given those days much thought at all. Then, a couple of days ago, my Eagle-scout older brother forwarded a mass e-mail that he’d received from one of the other dads in his son’s – my nephew’s – troop (along with my brother’s own fine response to the sender). The mass message frothed about “homosexual activists” and flogged an “emergency petition” decrying the possibility that the Boy Scouts of America might allow local troops to admit gay boys and adults.
The forwarded e-mail itself wasn’t that shocking. Most of us have seen worse anti-LGBT screeds. But it still brought Camp Makajawan hurtling back, and it was impossible not to think about boys in the Scouts today and how, 40 years later, some are enduring just what I did. Or worse. As though nothing over more than 40 post-Stonewall years has changed.
Progress: partial and real
If the Scouts, in their glacial way, do permit local troops to include gay boys and adults, that would be progress. It would, at least, blot off some of the special stain of a policy that enshrines – that requires – discrimination, and that teaches millions of young boys that if you’re gay, you can’t even get to second class in the Scouts.
But that kind of limited progress may well not do anything for that boy who’s afraid of his patrol-mates today. That’ll depend on where he lives. And such limited steps sure aren’t going to bring scouting into the 20th century – much less the 21st. Only a national ban on discrimination – and an apology – can do that.
The ban will end. We all know it. It’s just a question of how many boys will be hurt – and how backward the Scouts will look – in the meantime.