Saturday, October 21, 2017

Why I'm Glad I Wasn't A Boy Scout

Note:  This is a cross-posted essay that also appears on my other blog.

Recently with the Boy Scouts' plan to admit girls, there have been a lot of opinions floating around.  The initial stuff I saw was all positive, like this is some great idea, with increasingly more people coming out to talk about why this isn't the progressive thing people think it is.  This is one genderqueer trans man's perspective.

When I was still a girl, like many other girls I was in the Girl Scouts.  I started at Brownie level and then went all the way up through being an adult scout, working for a Girl Scout camp for several years.  I was a fairly dedicated and serious adult scout, too, seeing a lot of shifts in the organization (local, national, and international alike), many of which I didn't like, but there was one thing that I was always happy about as an adult:  We were not the Boy Scouts.  We were not affiliated with them.  We were nothing like them.  I was not the only one with that sentiment... but I'll go into that later.

As a kid I didn't have that perception.  One of the problems with the Girl Scouts is that often the leaders of individual troops don't understand that we aren't the Boy Scouts or weren't whatever they wanted the Girl Scouts to be.  One leader, during a weeklong stay at our camp, complained about all our staff members (including me, over my hair, which she euphemistically criticized for being "short" when what she really meant was "looks like a lesbian").  My mother, when she was a leader, thought that it was a Catholic organization.  So if your childhood experiences do not match my adult experiences... I get it.

And as a former boyish girl, I get the aversion many folks have to the Girl Scouts.  There was a point in my childhood Girl Scout experience when I was very involved in the Boy Scouts... or at least watching them.  My brothers were big time Boy Scouts, and as a little butch girl I was envious of the stuff they got to do, things I would come to understand very differently as an adult.  This was during one of the heydays of anti-queer and anti-atheist sentiment in that organization, and I would later learn that my brothers' leaders were teaching things like that "morally straight" in their Oath literally meant "heterosexual."  So although as a proto-transboy I was predictably envious of a group of people doing "boy things," there's no doubt that were I a Boy Scout as a child I would have been absolutely miserable and traumatized by it in a way that no pinewood derby win was going to heal.  I had a hard enough time fighting with my history teacher over my right to sit for the Pledge of Allegiance.

So where was I... as a young child I was envious, but as a mid to late teen and throughout my adulthood I grew a strong attachment to the Girl Scouts, especially my Girl Scout camp that I went to every year.  It was a good week or two (depending on the program) of being able to experiment safely with expression when I was going to be bullied the rest of the year for it, and it granted me opportunities to do stuff I never would have been able to do otherwise.  Even though it took up very little of my year, most of my major memories from childhood came from the Girl Scouts.

 The Girl Scouts was also where I met people like myself for the first time... when conservatives jaw on about how terrible the organization is, it's because it's loaded with progressive queer people.  I met my first other trans guy "in the wild" (that is, outside of explicitly queer space) through the Girl Scouts, in addition to a seemingly infinite supply of queer women.  It was also where I met my first other Pagan, and I was relieved to learn you weren't bound to a particular type of religion to belong (although the Girl Scout Promise mentions God, and I admittedly wish it didn't, it's now "God*" and you're perfectly entitled to omit or change it).

"Well that's all well and good," you may be saying, "but not everyone has to be a Girl Scout."  And I'd agree wholeheartedly.  I'd even openly state that there are some serious problems with the Girl Scouts.  I remember when they tried piquing interest by creating a bunch of very shallow, girly programs (cue picture of Steve Buscemi holding a skateboard).  They could have made something great and empowering for femme girls but wound up with a shitty limo ride to Claire's.  And I'd certainly love to see a real comparable attempt at a non-gendered scouting organization.

But the Boy Scouts--even one that allows girls--just isn't that.  And that opinion is informed heavily by my teen and adult experiences with the Boy Scouts.

See, again, as a proto-transboy type tomboy I was really envious of the Boy Scouts and hung out with them often, but also as a tomboy I was intent on being, you know, "one of the guys," and that can lead you to ignore a lot of bullshit.  Don't want to be some shrill harpy ruining people's fun, that's not being "one of the guys."  So I didn't interpret the things that were happening at these Boy Scout meeting events as clearly as I would later, when I was on a multi-camp visit as a teen Girl Scout.

I think that, at that age at least, I had never been sexually harassed so much in my goddamn life.  And there were literally no consequences for the boys who were doing it.

So there we were, ages 15-17, I think maybe eight of us?  And we're at this Boy Scout camp all excited to see what Boy Scout camps were like.  One of my experiences with the Girl Scouts is that the troops are very different from the camps.  It's hard to oversee troops because they're so flavored by the local culture, while camps have all these people coming to check in and make sure people aren't doing dipshit things like running them like an anti-queer and/or Catholic organization or singing a bunch of racist or misogynist songs (side note, according to a friend I'd meet at a disability-centered camp years later there's like one person charged with going camp to camp and eradicating their racist and misogynist songs, standards of course changing every year).  I assumed that the Boy Scouts was similar, and that the gross misogynist stuff that happened at my brothers' troop would be muted a bit by this being a particularly large and well organized camp.

And I was just super wrong.  As we walked through our tour, little boy after little boy would come over to feed us dirty pick-up lines, to which staff would just giggle as if it were cute.  We'd see the few women who worked at the camp get harassed coming out of the shower, complete with jokes about drilling holes in the walls, and there was basically no repast from this at all the entire time we were there.

Then we went to go eat in their mess hall, and I shit you not, they sit us all up on this stage with a table on it, like this space of honor up where everyone could gawk at us, as we got to hear these jerkwad boys giggle and be wildly inappropriate, with nobody saying anything about being respectful.  We were introduced with something like "You may notice there's something... huh huh... different about them" by the camp director .  We all just sort of giggled and sunk into our chairs and didn't speak of that aspect of our trip again.

I'm not saying that Boy Scouts environments are necessarily like this, only that the shitty behavior that we normalize in boys that demeans women and girls and treats them like objects was super amplified and treated in such a "boys will be boys" manner that was fully and completely unchecked.  So I'd gone from this space that was very open and affirming of difference--where people could be openly queer and where disrespect wasn't treated as cuteness--to one where we were ogled and treated like objects.  At the very least, my experiences with the Girl Scouts have been immeasurably more positive than my experiences with the Boy Scouts, and it scares me to think that there are people who think taking girls out of the Girl Scouts and planting them in the Boy Scouts is feminist in any way.

Finally, I want to address some things about the whole neutrality argument.  I love the idea of a gender neutral, progressive scouting organization... but you're not going to get that from the Boy Scouts, for a number of reasons, whether by girls joining it en masse or by the patently offensive idea of merging the two organizations that people keep throwing around.

First of all, the Boy Scouts are still anti-queer (even if they are marginally less anti-queer than they were back then) and is still heavily controlled by religious conservatives.  Some people have argued (probably correctly) that allowing girls in is a targeted marketing effort... few churches and conservative groups recommend mass flight from the Boy Scouts, because the Boy Scouts aligns fine with their beliefs already, whereas there is always some boycott or "alternative" to the Girl Scouts proposed whenever they make a progressive change to the organization.  No longer obligated to serve God?  Told that you need to allow trans girls?  Working with Planned Parenthood?  Better join some conservative indoctrination farm like The Heritage Girls instead.

Again, people keep wanting to suggest merging the two organizations.  These people don't understand just how different the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts really are.  Either the Boy Scouts will wind up having to conform to the Girl Scouts' largely pro-queer and often progressive views (which cause them to lose a lot of the support they get from conservatives) or the Girl Scouts will have to conform to the anti-queer, anti-atheist environment of the Boy Scouts (which would quite frankly be a tragedy and would result in the Girl Scouts losing like half their staff).  So while I'd love to see a large, viable, comparable organization that's all gender, it's just not going to happen by merging these two particular organizations.  You'd be much better off starting a chapter of a smaller group, or making one up yourself based on local needs (there have been some great projects doing this, particularly those serving marginalized children).  You're not going to get the national and international structure of the major scouting organizations, but whether this is going to be a good thing or a bad thing will be subject to your children's needs.

Anyway, that's just my own drop into that hat.  I have no desire to treat the Boy Scouts as progressive over something like this, nor do I suggest you encourage girls to join the organization.