From boys to men

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.


Filed under homophobia, psychological research, religion, sexism, stereotypes, Uncategorized, violence

12 responses to “From boys to men

  1. Gary Hollander

    Thanks for your decision to post on both topics, Gayle. It somehow seems just right to me.

    I would comment on your closing remarks: “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.” I think this that this is not so much a step as a codification of the status quo. I was a scout. So were many of my gay and bisexual friends. As a group we are as gay as a bag of birds and were back then, too. But, in the absence of gay and bisexual male role models, we grew up gay on our own, even in the scouts. So now, even though I have never sailed a boat, I can still tie just the right knots to do so. But my nurturing of men and boys is attenuated by my short-changed experiences as a boy; my ease in accepting nurturance from men today is similarly limited. My knowledge that I am indeed a man is challenged less by the feedback I get from others, but in recognizing those struggles and unearned privileges in myself.

    I know that I was robbed of the men I needed as a boy. Increasingly, I suspect heterosexual boys were, too.

    • I still think it’s a step in the right direction, even though I think it’s a dangerous policy. Allowing gay Scouts to be out without allowing gay adults the privilege of being visible role models is a lost opportunity. Among other things, gay and straight Scouts lose the chance to see a wider range of masculinities (and identities overall) that can be expressed.

      However, I’ve seen over and over again how visibility brings about change, and that’s why I think the proposed policy is a step forward. Depending on how long the “gay adult” ban stays in place, I think it can also expose the hypocrisy of the policy. If a boy joins the Cub Scouts and eventually progresses to Eagle Scout, coming out as gay along the way, his service to and participation in the Boy Scouts ends at adulthood. I bet a LOT of Boy Scout leaders were once Boy Scouts themselves, and that their experience as a Scout informs their leadership.

      • Gary Hollander

        I certainly see your points, Gayle. Thanks for the reply.

        Here is a bit of insight into how I roll. When I am presenting in possibly hostile territory, I often have someone at my side. In less formal situations, I have a trusted colleague sitting right next to me. In more formal settings, I may have an ally in a front row seat. This is not because I cannot handle myself or feel particularly terrified. It is because I recognize I think better when I know I will not be attacked or, if I am, that someone clearly has my back. Defensiveness is never my best opportunity for optimal thinking; and optimal thinking is why I am here.

        While I know exactly where I learned this strategy, I am not sure where I learned the need for it precisely. It surely could have been learned in my short stint as a scout or at a Boy’s Club. At the time it would have been absurd to be out as a 10 year old — no one would have had a clue what to do in 1958! But I am troubled even today about the notion that one gets permission to be out. To me, that is less progress than it is arrogance on the part of the person or group granting the permission. (Would it be a pink slip of a different sort?)

      • Gary Hollander

        Okay, I am officially getting obsessed here. When you write, “Depending on how long the ‘gay adult’ ban stays in place, I think it can also expose the hypocrisy of the policy,” I wonder. Will a longer standing hypocrisy reveal itself? Is that a step forward? I think it is in this that we are agreeing, Gayle, on my point that this is codification of existing BSA policies of hypocrisy.

  2. Gary, I would be very interested if you care to say more regarding your statement “My knowledge that I am indeed a man is challenged less by the feedback I get from others, but in recognizing those struggles and unearned privileges in myself.”

    I don’t believe the new policy exactly represents codification of the status quo, Gary, because, if adopted, it at least recognizes the possibility that boys who openly declare they are gay might like to become Scouts, as difficult as that would likely be for those who do so in most cases. As for role models, the Scout leaders in my troop, presumably heterosexual, were Texas good ol’ boys — I grew up in Dallas — and only seemed interested in spending time with boys most like them, boys for whom Scouting was natural and easy. (There were plenty of straight boys for whom this was NOT the case.)

    The core of Scouting is good and pure, I believe: the opportunity to encounter nature in community and learn some useful skills. Too bad that gets lost in the shuffle for a lot of participants.

    • Gary Hollander

      My knowledge that I am indeed a man is challenged less by the feedback I get from others in that I see almost every day the ways I am perceived to be a man. I am looked to for decisions, directions, resources, and defense. Even at 64 and post heart attack, I am asked to lift things, move them, get things, and make reports. And this is from women, men, and transgender folks alike. I get it: I do my manhood in quite predictable ways apparently. Last month an able bodied 25 year old male in a service role asked if I would mind walking a half block to measure a frame for a sign that I would be purchasing because it was “kind of far.” This, so that I could then report back on the size and order a sign from him.

      But, my knowledge that I am indeed a man is challenged in recognizing my own struggles with making decisions, seeking directions, finding resources, and seeking defense. I, too, would like someone to help lifting, moving, getting, and reporting. But the struggle is to be sufficiently vulnerable to openly seek them. There is a billion pound door at a restaurant my partner and I used to frequent. Once he became completely wheel chair bound, we worked out a system where a combination of my hands, elbows, butt, and a foot got the door open and both of us through it. At least half the time while we would be struggling with this, someone would sail through the very door I was propping open with my body parts. In my head I would think “&^%*&^.” Sometimes I asked a passerby for help. Once or twice this worked smoothly, but more often the request was greeted with the rolled eyes, the deep sighs, or the grunts of the truly put upon.

      After months of this, on those days it wasn’t raining, I finally left my spouse unattended outside, went into the host and asked her to come out and hold the door while we came in.

      My resignation about never really getting the help I very apparently (in my mind at least) need can be sourced to a challenged childhood. My expectation that others will notice the interpretive dance that is my life and come forward with aid today is an unearned privilege that like resonates with my learned male privilege: if I make the decisions, give directions, find the resources, and defend you — you owe me at least this. In this, I cannot recognize myself as a man, but only see that boy waiting.

    • Gary Hollander

      And now, to return a request, Keith. Tell me more about the core of scouting being good and pure. I am especially interested in “pure” and how we might understand the policies and practices of BSA over the past 5 decades on covering up sexual abuse and banning boys and men who are gay instead of addressing the criminal behaviors of pedophiles.

  3. Gary, you’re on fire with this topic! I have one more thought to share, which stems from my reflections on the Girl Scouts. The Girl Scouts are not perfect – the ability to earn badges based on makeup and fashion are troubling to me, as an example. However, the Girl Scouts were formed because girls were denied space in the Boy Scouts. The Girl Scouts provides opportunities for girls and young women to claim space, recognize their power, and see what they’re capable of – and to challenge the status quo. The Boy Scouts, on the other hand, has the mission of upholding and reinforcing the status quo. Given that reality, trying to move the Boy Scouts in a more progressive direction when its fundamental mission is to preserve tradition – that’s like pushing on Half Dome and expecting it to move (even slightly). No wonder Kathleen Denny found that Girl Scouts tend to learn how to challenge ideas and think creatively, while Boy Scouts learn to be rule-abiding citizens. Of course, if BSA wants to continue to exist as an organization, then evolution is necessary for survival (Darwinian metaphor intended).

    Today, CNN reported that a group within BSA is pushing for a repeal of the entire ban. Obviously there are people within BSA’s ranks that aren’t going to tow the party line. There are also groups like the Inclusive Scouting Network that are fighting hard for this.

    • Gary Hollander

      Gayle, know that if I am on fire with this, your expert writing and cogent arguments serve to spark the tinder in my own life. I spend so little time on social media it is laughable. However, I never miss Active Voice.

      • That’s so good to hear! Thank you for your comments. Blogging is an interesting experience, in that I pour my energy into writing each entry, click “post,” and then wonder if anybody out there is reading it. It’s like putting socks in the dryer – will they ever come out? 🙂

    • Gary and Gayle, if it’s possible for just a moment to look beyond the politics and policy of the leadership of the Boy Scouts of America, to look beyond the organizational mission, which I agree is fundamentally about “upholding and reinforcing the status quo,” what is good and pure about Scouting is its focus on bringing boys together to experience the outdoors and to learn basic skills to enhance the enjoyment of nature.

      Just as, at its root, organized religion is not about prescriptions and proscriptions, but about love.

      • At some point, Keith, I’ll organize my thoughts better around this. For now, it’s the off-the-top-of-my-head thought process. I think there is a desperate need for alternative male spaces in our culture, and the Boy Scouts could provide that opportunity if they weren’t so stuck on old-school tradition. There are male sporting/athletic spaces, and there are male fraternal organizations (I suppose the Boy Scouts could fall into this category), but neither of them provide the space to explore alternatives to traditional masculinity. I think many boys and men want and need that, but there’s intense pressure to earn their “man card” the traditional way. Some argue that the men’s movement of the late ’80s and 90s was partly a coalition of disaffected men who felt threatened by feminist gains, which I think is true to some extent. However, I think there are a lot of men who embrace pro-feminist values, but they’re afraid to stand up because there isn’t a visible space in which to do that.

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