There were two female Boy Scouts at Camp Cherry Valley on Catalina Island in 1984, present because a loophole allowed girls to enroll in the organization as camp counselors. They were rising high school seniors, 17 to our 13, and looked sharp and exotic in the uniform shirts and shorts we knew so well. Instead of its usual descent into “Lord of the Flies” behavior, my troop was well behaved when the female counselors were around. The guys even showered daily.
One of the counselors was a stereotypical beauty with a long blond ponytail. She taught archery; some of the boys readily improved their skills with a bow that season. The other counselor was a round-faced tomboy with short brown hair, knowledgeable and humorous. We didn’t know the appropriate parlance of sexual orientation, but one Scout, highly attuned to the masculine pecking order, referred to her as being “just as good as one of the guys.”
The decision to change the name of Scouting’s core program to Scouts BSA and welcome girls — like the move to end the ban on gay Scouts and volunteers a few years ago — has produced a lot of angst among people I grew up with in Scouting. Using the hashtag #BSA, they’ve been lamenting the feminization of a program they remember as crucial to their own development or to the development of their husbands and sons. They argue that there is something, well … weak about young boys that requires them to be formed into men absent the distraction of the opposite sex. Thus they see something lost in the decision to include everyone in Scouts. What a bunch of hogwash.
I’ll admit it, I loved the Boy Scouts, but I also hated it. Scouting gave me my first exposure to true wilderness. It is where I tested my limits and built confidence. It also taught me some basic moral and ethical codes I still live by: Be prepared. Leave your campsite cleaner than you found it. Help other people at all times. Keep physically strong, mentally awake and behave morally.
My troop was also very conservative, not because that is inherent to the mission of Scouting, but because the program was used to indoctrinate the values and biases of our cloistered Mormon community. I still remember how, while sitting for my citizenship merit badge, the badge adviser, a local real estate developer, solemnly informed me that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a communist.
What I hated, though, was the dynamic of a bunch of under-supervised boys trying to sort out and live up to toxic ideas about masculinity. We played a vicious ball game called Smear the Queer, and everyone was haunted by the thought of being the queer. My troop could attack a member’s perceived weakness with an animal savagery that was terrifying. Any boy who didn’t meet the capricious standards set by the troop’s more powerful members could be hurt physically and mentally in ways that unequivocally qualified as child abuse.
One moment, Scouting could be lying in a mountain meadow listening to the wind after an exhausting hike, and the next it would be enduring a humiliating mocking as I hung off the side of a cliff, terrified to release my grip on my rappelling ropes. The extreme behavior of our all-male troop could be vile, but the quiet moments in the woods with my friends — and they were my friends — were worth it.
Like the natural world, Scouting was beautiful and cruel. But taking the cruelty out of life is, after all, the project of civilization.
The civilizing lesson I learned at Camp Cherry Valley was that young men are better when there are young women around. The lesson I have learned since is that we shouldn’t allow girls in Scouting because of that, but because everyone deserves the experience of Scouting. At its core, Scouts is a machine for getting children in touch with the young adults inside them through exposure to nature, labor in service and the acquisition of practical skills. Every kid needs this.
Spencer Windes is a writer and documentary filmmaker.
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