The opinions I am about to express in this article are mine alone. They do not represent the Boy Scouts of America or any of its organizational structure, including the Cub Scout Pack where I volunteer my time.
For those who have been living under a rock, the BSA is on the cusp of revising its policy banning openly gay leaders. The policy under question will actually shift the decision of whether or not gay leaders are allowed in a unit to the chartering organization. In simple terms, BSA units chartered by an Episcopal church are more likely to allow gay leaders than, say, a Catholic or Baptist church.
As the debate about changing the policy has unfolded, we’ve been debating for months on the Linked In Eagle Scout discussion group. The argument for keeping gay leaders out of scouting can be summed up with the BSA’s original stance:
“Scouting and the majority of parents it serves do not believe it is the right forum for children to become aware of the issue of sexual orientation or engage in discussions about being gay.”
Taken a step further by one respondent on the aforementioned forum: “Who is going to allow their son to go on a campout knowing that there are openly gay leaders there? Who is going to allow their son to be influenced in this way?”
The argument suggests that (a) homosexual leaders will attempt to actively “recruit” impressionable young minds into a homosexual lifestyle, and (b) heterosexual leaders are NOT trying to recruit boys into a heterosexual lifestyle. This fallacy really got to me, and it’s time I take the discussion and my personal viewpoints public and shine the spotlight on experiences I’ve kept to myself for three decades.
BSA’s anti-gay viewpoint in the interest of child safety underscores the greatest misconception about homosexuality: that it has anything to do with molestation. It does not. Gay men in Scouting are no more likely to “recruit” young boys into a homosexual lifestyle than straight den mothers are to “recruit” them into heterosexuality. The far greater danger to our children in Scouting are predators, bullies, and social misfits who desire adolescent company so desperately they cross boundaries with impunity.
I believe in this world there are good people, there are bad people, and there are confused people. All three types are not defined by color, gender, sexual orientation, or geography. Behavioral psychology teaches us that behavior is a function of the person and his/her environment. People learn to react certain ways in certain situations based on their experiences.
My viewpoints are shaped by a lifetime of experiences. The history is critical, so buckle up for an uncomfortable ride. This may be the most important story of my life.
When I was a boy …
As a youth in central North Carolina, I joined the Boy Scouts of America at the age of 11. The year was 1984. I made Eagle by the age of 13 in 1986. I achieved this feat through self-determination and following the program. Mom and Dad did NOT do the work for me. Scouts defined me in my formative middle-school years. It taught me skills. It also taught me about life. I had a lot of scouting experiences. Some were great, some were terrible. I was never raped or molested by an adult, but I’ve often questioned if that was dumb luck. Read on.
The first troop I belonged to went to Scout Camp in the summer of 1984. I was tented with an older kid who smoked, skated, wore Vans and Jams, often mocked the Scout Oath when we recited it, and took an unusual interest in me early on. The first night in our tent, he decided to forcably yank off my trousers and mock my genitalia while blowing smoke all over me from a long drag he took from a cigarette. I didn’t cry, but I was naturally creeped out, and sought a different tent mate immediately. His new tent mate bragged of having a mother who was a prostitute. The two got along famously the rest of the week. With a normal tent mate, the remainder of my experiences were good that week, but I remained on my guard.
Some time later (could have been weeks, could have been months) I shared the bad experience of that first night with my Mom. Several of us who were friends at church relocated en masse to a new Troop. The parents never told us why, only that they expected a better experience for us elsewhere. And it was. Chartered by our church, there was a closer tie we all felt to it. I stuck with the program and the following summer, at the age of 12, went to camp not only with my Troop, but found another local Troop to “adopt” me for a week and went to camp twice that summer. I was also “tapped out” for Order of the Arrow that same summer, offering me more Scouting experiences, more chances to learn, to grow, and to be exposed to more grown ups.
This camp was in rural North Carolina. Bigotry ran high and I learned no small amount tasteless jokes about blacks, gays, Poles, and the disabled. I repeated a lot of that crap and began to think that way. By the age of 12 I knew all of Carlin’s seven dirty words and had as many ways to use them for each one. I could recite entire Eddie Murphy routines verbatim and developed a reputation for it in certain circles.
That same summer was the 75th anniversary Jamboree. Two of the boys in our Troop (neighbors, good friends, the ones who got me into scouting) attended. One weekend I was driven by my Scoutmaster and his son to spend the night near Ft. A.P. Hill. We spent the night in a single room off the interstate and I saw my first R-rated movie on HBO that night. DC Cab, starring Mr. T. Am I the fool to be pitied? For the record, the Scoutmaster slept in his bed, I slept in the other one with his kid.
My third summer saw me again return to camp for two weeks, plus attend more Order of the Arrow campouts and Troop outings. One night, my Scoutmaster drove me home from an event at least an hour away. Just the two of us in a car alone. He spent the majority of the drive regaling me with tales of his sexual conquests in high school and beyond. If ever there was a more blatant act of actively recruiting 13-year-old Clator into heterosexuality, well, that’s coming up …
Too young for this job
That fall I was awarded my Eagle and was encouraged by my OA chapter president to run for Lodge Secretary/Treasurer. Elected just before my 14th birthday I was honored to take on a responsibility I was in no way ready for. Sure I knew how to keep meeting minutes. I even knew how to keep decent financial records. But I had no concept of the amount of enmity I was about to face, nor the stature to stand up for myself effectively.
The Lodge position meant I needed to be at camp all summer to run the OA trading post and get info on the new tap-outs each week. Too young to hire, I was allowed to be a Volunteer staffer and live among the older staff for the six weeks camp was in operation. I arrived early at camp early in the morning. Staffers trickle in on that first day, several days before the program begins, so we can set up the sites. My folks quickly dropped of me and my stuff and headed back home. As I hauled my gear to my tent, one of my friends was already moved in. As I passed by his tent I saw his girlfriend in there with him giving him oral sex. As if that were not surreal enough, I vividly recall the advice his father, a Scout leader and respected local businessman, gave him over lunch that day: “Watch who you screw kid. You screw the wrong girl and your pecker will fall off in the dirt.”
I couldn’t fathom my dad speaking that way to me.
Staffers were allowed one night off per week. The best one I remember we went to Greensboro for Japanese … the first time I’d ever had a hibachi show. But on the ride home, a good hour from camp, I was made to ride alone in the back of a pickup. That was the most time I had with my thoughts to contemplate where this Scout career was going.
The worst night off I remember more vividly. There was an adult volunteer from my hometown who was always at every OA event. In his 40s, he was unmarried, living at home with his parents. All the staffers talked about how much fun it was to go to his place on the night off and took me. This adult leader had a kind of “playground” that would attract teenage boys. He had his own video arcade in a shed in the back yard. He bought lots of alcohol for minors. And he had a number of John Holmes pornos which he showed us. I recall a number of staffers each had their own 2-liter bottle of wine cooler purchased by this guy. I took a sip but didn’t have a taste for the stuff. Trying to fit into a situation where I clearly felt awkward, I know I said things that night that put me at odds with a number of the other staffers.
As a bright, young kid, small for his age, vascillating between a goody-two-shoes and a foul-mouthed comic, struggling with his emotional center while living with a few dozen overlarge hayseeds, I found myself picked on by the other staffers a lot. A lot. A LOT. I became increasingly alienated from most of them as the summer wore on. Each Thursday night a few staffers were inducted by some of the grown-ups into a secret society known as “The Order of the Turtles.” As the camp season drew to a close I realized I was one of only two kids who wasn’t inducted, the other being a mentally challenged boy who was equally picked on.
My last Friday afternoon, as I scrambled in my duties as Camp Clerk to type out Merit Badge cards for all the kids who’d earned awards that week, I snapped under the pressure. I stormed off, running a mile down the old dirt road that led out of camp, only to be happened upon the “playground” guy driving into camp. He offered me a ride back into camp and I climbed in the cab of his truck. But as he looked at me in an odd way, I wasn’t sure if it was concern or something else. My instinct told me to jump out of the truck and head back on foot. I overheard the other staffers yelling to one another about how I had run off. Some were upset, others were laughing. I returned to my post, sorted out the rest of my work with a few of the adult leaders, and prepared for the evening campfire.
Later that night, at the regularly scheduled staff meeting, I remember myself and the mentally challenged boy being asked to help the Camp Director’s wife fetch some things from the dining hall. I later learned this was so the camp director and some of the elder leaders could chew out the other staffers for their treatment of us. I went home ill Saturday and returned for what was to be our final week on Monday. I found my personal belongings raided and my bedding urinated on by pranksters. I left camp that day never to return as a staffer. I actually ran for re-election to my OA post that fall but my heart was not in the job and I was soundly defeated. I would only return to that camp on just a couple of occasions with my Troop friends from back home, and while I would stay in Scouts another couple of years, my Scouting career was effectively over, except for one more major award. I’ll get to that in a bit.
The skils I learned as a Boy Scout were a mixed bag. The program itself taught me a lot of good things, like resourcefulness, self-reliance, friendship, helpfulness, thriftiness, and citizenship. But I also learned bigotry, sexism, a thick drawl, and a number of nasty habits.
God wasn’t done with me yet …
The following year brought me a new summer experience. I attended the North Carolina Annual Conference Session (ACS) for United Methodist Youth. This was a week of spiritual growth and political debate that would shape me into the man I would become. We would debate issues ranging from environmental protection to prison reform to homosexuality in the clergy, something I was — at the time — vehemently against.
As my spiritual awakening progressed I resolved to complete one last milestone with the Scouts before hanging up my neckerchief for good. A few of us who were in both the same Troop and Church earned the God and Country award. From there I resolved to do more in my life for God. I would return to ACS each summer throughout my High School career, resulting in being elected to the office of Legislative Affairs Person in my senior year, where I’d set the agenda and tone for the political resolutions we’d draft, debate, and resolve.
Surrounded by ministers, armchair theologians, faithful people of all colors, both sexes, and a few gays (who might not have even known that yet about themselves), I grew to be a very liberally-minded young man. I believed in letting others live and let live and trying to be fair. But there was this whole anti-gay thing going on at the time too. My first op-ed at the college paper was in protest of recognition of Clemson’s newly-formed Lambda Society. I quoted a lot of scripture and adhered to the logic that it is no more inclusive to have a club for gays than it is to have a club for straights.
But there were those who cared about me spiritually who intervened. My campus minister took me aside and taught me scripture about how all have sinned and fallen short of the glory, about not casting the first stone, about judging not lest ye be judged, and all the Laws of Leviticus I myself was breaking (everything from pork to shellfish to poly-cotton shirts). My Spanish professor, an openly gay man, rebutted my article with a number of sound points. The one that stuck with me most was how my article brought new meaning to the term “He died for our sins.” He still gave me an A in his class.
A Semester of Change
Then in the fall of my junior year at Clemson several things happened that changed my outlook forever:
- I was kicked out of Tiger Band for refusing to hide my cross necklace inside my uniform, forcing me to take a stand about my faith.
- I ended my years of self-imposed chastity, and subsequently ended my candidacy for the ministry. (Sexually active heterosexuality in singlehood was no more allowed than homosexuality and I couldn’t abide being a hypocrite).
- Rush released the song “Nobody’s Hero”
- Tom Hanks starred in Philadelphia
- The loss of a friend and member of my home church to AIDS yanked the covers off a topic that had been verboten in Burlington for years.
I grew up in one of the largest United Methodist churches in North Carolina. Apparently it was also the gayest, right under the noses of its conservative majority. When this celebrated young tenor died it cracked the veneer in our idyllic small southern congregation. Rumors abounded that certain members, staffers, and even a couple former associate pastors quietly led alternate lifestyles. Apparently this was why the senior pastor who arrived a decade earlier chose to “clean house.” As I reflected on that point of my childhood I realized with certainty that none of these people whom I looked up to were trying to recruit me, to seduce me, or to victimize me, nor did this revelation suddenly make me want to “go gay.” These people, just like the good moms and dads of my friends, simply nurtured my walk with Jesus and my love for music. I knew unquestionably I had been safer in the care of any one of these people than I had been with many of those Scout leaders in North Carolina.
Reconciliation in God’s House
After college I moved to the DC area and became a member of Foundry United Methodist Church. I joined primarily because I liked the Dr. Phillip Wogaman’s sermons. Located near DuPont Circle, the same church that Presidents Lincoln, President Roosevelt, and Clinton attended was one of the first “Reconciling Congregations” who pledged to open its doors in outreach to the DC gay community — not to condemn the lifestyle, but to minister to the people. President and Mrs. Clinton were regular fixtures before and after the Monica Lewinsky scandal, so I appreciated that the church ministered to sinners of both orientations. I made a number of friends, gay and straight, at Foundry in the singles group.
I met Ellen that same year (not at church) and we were married at Foundry two years later. Dr. Wogaman officiated. And during our pre-marriage counseling he even made the President wait for one of our sessions to finish during a time of national crisis because he believed the union of two people in love was more important than the bombing of another nation.
Knowing Dr. Wogaman also supported the marriage of gays, I never felt our marriage was in any way lessened. My marriage to Ellen is a product of our love pledged before God, not the result of some papers filed in a dusty magistrate’s office. It is that bond that has kept us together through good times and bad. It is those vows made in earnest that keeps us together when other marriages forged in lies, greed or deceit crumble and make a mockery of the institution. This moral straightness is more in line with the Scout Oath and what Baden-Powell and W.D. Boyce envisioned than all the off-color jokes and dirty pictures I was exposed to at Scout camp.
I came to wonder who would deny that to a couple just because they have the same human plumbing? The only answer I could fathom was misguided people more hung up on outdated dogmas and norms than the concepts behind the words they utter when they pray for forgiveness for their own sins.
When we started our family we moved to Prince William County to escape the “bullseye” that the beltway started to feel like after 9/11. It took some time to find a church home, but we found one at FUPCDC and our family has continued to be nurtured. As the Presbyterian Church has grappled with the changing times, it has pained me to see a denomination so prided on the Democratic Process lose so many congregants over the gay issue. In this increasingly polarized culture, I’ve seen liberals and conservatives alike walk away upset feeling either side has ceded too much. Both sides seem to have forgotten that a church is a family. Families don’t always agree, but that shouldn’t cause us to give up on one another.
Coming Full Circle
My eldest son joined Cub Scouts in 1st grade. I did not discourage him, but I hesitated to sign up as a leader myself for the first year as the scars from my experience were still there. Like the Joni Mitchell song, I was looking at life from Both Sides Now. So I promised to be the best Scout Dad I could be.
I immediately learned how Scouts had been changed by some of the scandals of the 80s and 90s wondering about those Scouts and leaders whose intentions I questioned back in the day. When my six-year-old boy joined Cub Scouts the first REQUIREMENT in the program was to have “The Talk” about protecting himself from predators. Opening that can of worms to a child known for his incessant questioning of everything was one of the most uncomfortable experiences of fatherhood. Clearly when the BSA says Scouting is “[not] the right forum for children to become aware of the issue of sexual orientation or engage in discussions about being gay” they’ve forgotten their own initiation ritual. According to policy they have MADE it a forum for children’s awareness of far worse.
A year in, I volunteered officially and took the post of Assistant Cubmaster. Unfortunately, disagreements between my son’s Den Leader and me about discipline took a nasty turn, with my son being cast out of his Den with an ultimatum. I circled the wagons around my family and we considered leaving Scouting for good. My heart ached as I didn’t want my boy to go through what I’d been through so many years ago. But our Pack Committee, with the backing of the District and Council did something I didn’t expect: They too rallied around my family and excused the other leader from the Pack, unwilling to tolerate a pattern of hazing and emotional abuse that have no place in Scouting.
Feeling our exit would be ungrateful to those who stood up for our benefit, we stuck with the program. It was the best stubborn decision I ever made. The Den grew stronger under the leadership of a new volunteer. My son climbed out of a shadow of fear and flourishes in the program now. I doubled my efforts to be the best leader I could be and I have made some of the best friends of my adult life as a result. We came out of the challenges stronger, wiser, and a little more leery of the kind of leaders we follow.
On Future’s Wings
And that is why I stick with the Scouting program. Despite so much heartache, I always knew it wasn’t the fault of the program itself, but of people running afoul of the program. The program has brought me so much strength and knowledge. The values of the program and the skills it teaches remain strong and rooted in the right place. Working with the kids in our pack — and the current crop of voluneers — brings me joy. I volunteer for the Scouts because I know I can make a better experience for the kids than the experiences I had. I can take all the good I learned, throw out all the bad, and create something special that transforms our children for the better.
As I said before, in life, there are good people, there are bad people, and there are confused people. No values-based organization should ever shut its doors to a class of people due to phobias and misconceptions about who those people are. It will only make it easier for the bad people to hide and keep the confused people in the dark. Scouts is supposed to prepare children and youth for life as adults. If we do not teach them today that the world is a big place, they will never learn to cope with inevitable change, tolerate increasing diversity, or develop creative, problem-solving minds capable of taking on the challenges of our nation when we are too old, tired, and worn out to do so any more.
While to the best of my knowledge we don’t have any gay leaders in our Pack, I would not worry if a pair of life-partnered den mothers or scout dads showed up to volunteer. My worrying energy is focused on keeping the kids safe from the real monsters — bullies and predators. I only want a program where a kid can be a kid and not realize the fun he’s having is teaching him to be the best citizen he can possibly be.
On my honor, I will do my best.
Update April 20, 2013
The proposed resolution circulated on April 19, 2013 revising membership standards for the Boy Scouts of America is a half-measure. I have read the proposal and FAQ and formed my own conclusions. As a parent I am most concerned that youth who commit their childhood to scouting may not be allowed to volunteer as adults based on a private matter that has no bearing on Scouting whatsoever. As a volunteer leader in a highly-transient, military-heavy town I know how hard it is currently to get adults to volunteer to build the program. I am dumbfounded that a modern-day policy revision would still force me to say “no” to a willing volunteer based on his/her lifestyle choice that is none of my business.
Interpreting sexual morality from scripture is the domain of churches and houses of worship. Different denominations do not all define morality on this issue the same way. BSA’s concern should remain in support of the chartering organization and its specific policies on this issue. If human sexuality is a moral issue that the BSA will take any stance on, then the policy must be addressed evenly. If it will exclude all adult homosexuals, then it must also exclude all adulterers, all sexually active single males, and all those who seek to “recruit” celibate youth into a sexually-active lifestyle — homosexual OR heterosexual. Make no mistake, I have encountered all of these types of people in my Scouting career. For the sordid details, please see http://www.clator.com/2013/03/25/join-the-scouts-youll-have-a-gay-ol-time/ .
Finally, in those states where marriage between same-sex couples has already been granted legal status, the BSA has opened itself to numerous lawsuits for violating equal protection under the law.
With this policy revision, the BSA remains ultimately on the losing side of this issue. It will continue to cost the organization millions of dollars to defend its outmoded stance … dollars that would be better spent developing quality programs for all boys and their families, regardless of how that family is defined.