Boy Scouts tied in knots over who qualifies as Scout

May 05, 2000|By Jim Sollisch

PART OF the American myth is that any kid can grow up to be president.

In today's America, it seems, any kid can grow up to have his case heard before the Supreme Court.

Take James Dale, distinguished Eagle Scout, assistant scoutmaster and all-around American male. When Mr. Dale's photo appeared in a newspaper article about a gay student group at Rutgers, he was out of the closet and out of the Scouts. Mr. Dale sued under New Jersey's anti-discrimination laws and won reinstatement. The Boy Scouts appealed to the Supreme Court.

In their brief, the Scouts argue that private, voluntary organizations have the freedom to create and interpret their own moral codes. If this freedom is denied, they assert, then it follows that a Croatian cultural club would have to admit Serbs and a gay rights group would have to admit fundamentalist Christians. Their argument might make legal sense, but it doesn't make common sense. Serbs won't want to join a group that is 100 percent Croatian and dedicated solely to the subject of Croatian culture.

The Boy Scouts aren't organized around the single issue of sexual orientation. They're dedicated to self-reliance, good works, patriotism and knot-tying. And when you put on that uniform, you are committing an act of identification that supersedes your other identities. I know. I have a long and troubled history with that uniform.

In 1968, when I was 10, my mother wanted me to join the local Scout troop. I went to the first meeting but refused to wear my uniform. I found a couple of forced recruits and we beat up the gung-ho Scouts. That effectively ended my relationship with Scouting for nearly 30 years, until my son, Zack, begged me to let him join when he was 9. I was the unsuspecting father who showed up at the initial meeting along with a dozen mothers. When no hands went up for volunteer den leaders, 24 eyes pointed at me, the unrepentant Scout-basher. I became the den leader.

My first act was to discourage uniform wear. Even 30 years later, I couldn't get myself to put on that uniform. It seemed a transformational object, sacred and frightening like a priest's collar or a Klan hood. A symbol of an identity that threatened to obliterate my other identities. And that's where the Boy Scouts lost me, but not James Dale. He wore his uniform proudly for most of his life. He wore the uniform of an Eagle Scout, a rank only a tiny percentage of scouts achieve.

Then he volunteered his time to wear the uniform of assistant Scout master. His sexual orientation was never an issue. I suspect that was because, in putting on that uniform, he ceased to be a gay man or a Democrat or a Presbyterian or an NRA member or whatever else he was. For that time, he was a Scout, pure and simple. He was transformed, like I couldn't be, into a scout, dedicated to upholding the principles of honor and self-reliance. Committed to putting the group before his individual needs and identity. The sad thing is, the same organization that banished James Dale from Scouting for life has been happy to include me twice. And I'm sure they'd allow me to re-volunteer in a second. All because I am perceived to be attracted to females.

The thing that amazes me is how unaware the Boy Scouts are of their own power. If they really knew how transformational that uniform was, they'd be recruiting boys like James Dale rather than wasting our court's time trying to exclude them.

Jim Sollisch comments on social issues for National Public Radio and newspapers nationwide and lives in the Cleveland area.

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