Boston and the Boy Scouts. All week, I’ve been contemplating whether to write about one, or the other. And suddenly, when it was getting down to the wire, it hit me: I’m going to write about both. Because, in my mind, the two issues are actually related. So here goes.
I lived outside of Boston, in the Medford/Somerville area, while I attended Tufts University. I remember the importance of Patriot’s Day. I never ran the Boston Marathon, nor have I attended it as a spectator. I have, however, gone to Fenway Park on Patriot’s Day (even though, as a die-hard Yankees fan, I hate the Red Sox) – and I’ve wedged myself through the marathon crowds on the T, coming home from those games. It’s a day that, for Bostonians, is a very big deal.
So when I heard about the bombings at the Boston Marathon finish line, I was stunned. Stunned because it was such an inconceivable act of violence. Stunned because I know the finish line area well, and could easily picture in my mind what the scene must have looked and felt like (and this was before seeing any actual imagery). Stunned when I heard that the entire city of Boston and the surrounding areas (including Tufts University) were going on lockdown. And then, when a neighborhood in Watertown became the site of gunfire, explosions, and an intense door-to-door search for the suspect, I thought, I know these places. I know plenty of people who live in these places – Boston’s Back Bay, Cambridge, even Watertown. The whole thing was surreal – and terrifying.
Even though these events have been deeply upsetting to me, my cynical mind remained surprisingly intact. And that cynical part of me zeroed in on one word that I kept seeing in the news, and hearing on TV, over and over again.
Two men – not people, but men – were responsible for this violence. When the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School took place last December, the fact that a man was responsible immediately came to mind – and galvanized my thoughts about the link between violence and our culture’s definition of masculinity. (If you haven’t already read it, you might want to check out my December 16, 2012 post titled “Naming the obvious.”) Now another senseless, massively destructive act of violence has occurred, and I’m not seeing much discussion about how this event might be part of the epidemic of male violence in our country.
Of course, it’s not that these discussions aren’t happening. There’s Jackson Katz, whom I mentioned in my December 16th blog post. There’s Michael Kimmel, Distinguished Professor of sociology at SUNY-Stony Brook and author of Guyland: The Perilous World where Boys Become Men. There are quite a few pro-feminist men’s groups – the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS), Men Can Stop Rape, the White Ribbon Campaign, and the Men’s Resource Center for Change (which started in 1981 at Tufts University, interestingly). Clearly, there are resources for men who wish to move beyond stereotypical – and limiting – definitions of manhood and masculinity.
But what exists for boys? The American-as-apple-pie answer to that is . . . the Boy Scouts.
For decades, the Boy Scouts of America has been considered the go-to organization to teach boys good values, citizenship, and character. In spirit, the Boy Scouts has the potential to offer some alternatives to stereotypical forms of masculinity – for example, Scout Law includes, among other things, being trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, and kind. But a major goal of the Boy Scouts involves teaching boys to be men, in the very traditional sense of the phrase.
Case in point: Kathleen Denny, a sociology graduate student at the University of Maryland at College Park, conducted a study published in the journal Gender & Society in which she compared gender messages in Boy Scout and Girl Scout handbooks. According to Denny’s research, girls and boys are still being fed traditional ideas about femininity and masculinity. For example, girls were offered fewer scientifically-oriented activities, while boys were less likely to be directed towards artistic endeavors. Boys’ badge titles used more career-oriented language, while Girl Scout badges tended to use diminutive language (“Sky Search” rather than “Astronomer,” for example). But what’s particularly interesting is this: in their respective handbooks, Girl Scouts are taught to think creatively, engage in protests, and defend their beliefs, whereas Boy Scouts are encouraged to be obedient, loyal, traditional Americans. And for a Boy Scout, being a traditional American means being a man. A real man.
No wonder the Boy Scouts have resisted allowing gays into their ranks for so long.
If we examine the Scout Oath, we can delve even more deeply into these traditional American masculine values. Let’s unpack this, line by line (with a little bit of cynical commentary added):
On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.
Obey Scout Law. Obey God (and certainly don’t question whether God exists in the first place). Do your duty. (“Be a good soldier” comes to mind for me.)
Help others. Be the knight in shining armour. (Benevolent sexism, anyone?)
Be strong. Remember that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. (Michael Kimmel calls this the “fallacy of misplaced attribution,” which is a form of proving your masculinity through endurance and physical prowess. Tough it out. Play through the pain.)
Stay focused. (Because, you know, women are the weaker sex because their emotions take over.)
And stay morally straight. (In the Boy Scout lexicon, “morally” and “straight” go together like peanut butter and jelly. “Morally” and “gay” – NEVER.)
All roads lead back to traditional masculinity. And traditional sexism, and traditional homophobia. The triad of oppression.
In the wake of the tragic events of the past week, I think the city of Boston can offer us hope for change. The April 22, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated features a powerful image of three Boston police officers standing over a fallen marathon runner. The officer on the far right is Javier Pagan, an openly gay member of the force, LGBT Boston Police Department Liaison, and a long-term member of the Gay Officers Action League (GOAL). In 2005, Boston’s LGBT chamber of commerce awarded Pagan an Award for Excellence for Outstanding Service.
The city of Boston holds firmly onto its traditions – Patriot’s Day, the Red Sox, the Boston Marathon. Sports Illustrated represents the longstanding traditions of professional athletics. But institutions change. Traditions change. Let that be a lesson to the Boy Scouts. Granting membership to gay youth is a step in the right direction. Upholding the ban on gay adults who would like to be of service is not.