Mothers Who Think: Scouts' dishonor

A former member says scouting is a dangerous influence that should be kept away from impressionable young people.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published March 25, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

When I was in high school in the late '70s, I had a secret. To all appearances I was a pretty normal teenager: I underachieved at school, though not badly enough that anyone noticed; I had my first few fumbling sexual experiences; I drank a lot of beer and smoked a little weed; I listened to music that marked me, I believed, as a member of a harder, more disillusioned generation than any that had come before. But as I say, I had a secret. I wasn't gay, I wasn't shooting smack and I wasn't sleeping with 40-year-old women (more's the pity) or 10-year-old girls. It was worse than any of that: I was a Boy Scout.

I never confessed this fact voluntarily to any of my Beckett-reading, espresso-drinking high school friends. When a couple of them discovered it accidentally, it was a source of profound embarrassment to me, and I lied, rationalized, apologized, pleaded and generally Clintonized my way out of public humiliation. After all, my persona was based on attending such events as the now-legendary last Sex Pistols concert, at Winterland in San Francisco in 1978, at which Sid Vicious spat up a mouthful of beer on my head. How could I admit that a few nights later I was wearing an olive-drab uniform with a rolled neckerchief and standing in a church gym reciting the Pledge of Allegiance?

My friend Tim Curran, on the other hand, had no secrets. You might have seen Tim in the news recently; his 17-year-old lawsuit against the Boy Scouts of America was just rejected by the California Supreme Court. He loved being a Scout and never hesitated to wear his oft-ironed uniform in public places by daylight if it was even remotely appropriate. (Fortunately for my image, we went to different high schools.) Tim was the most gung-ho Scout in our troop, and his upbeat, can-do, relentlessly straight-arrow Americanism could definitely get on your nerves. I liked him anyway -- he was sharp and kind and funny; he loved to play cards and talk about politics and music late into the night; he was relentlessly curious about the world and even his nerdy enthusiasm was a great virtue on camping trips if you got caught in a thunderstorm or raccoons stole your breakfast.

In my seven years as a Scout, I never met a boy who conformed more to the Norman Rockwell image of clean-cut, good-natured service to others than Tim did. To no one's surprise, Tim rose rapidly to the rank of Eagle, which, as everyone knows, is the pinnacle of a scouting career and is often assumed to presage great success in the business world. But no one guessed at the time that Tim was about to become the most famous Eagle Scout in America.

When Tim turned 18, he graduated from the status of Scout to that of "Scouter," the generic term used for Scoutmasters and other adult leaders. He intended to stay with our troop -- Troop 37, which met Tuesdays at 7:30 in the North Congregational Church, Walnut and Cedar streets, Berkeley, Calif. -- as an assistant Scoutmaster, and had earlier worked with a troop based at the California School for the Deaf (Tim was fluent in American Sign Language). But as I say, Tim had no secrets, and when he graduated from high school, he decided to take his boyfriend to the senior prom.

The principal of Tim's high school had a cow, and the story was on the front page of the Oakland Tribune. The school authorities ultimately relented on the prom, but by then the Boy Scout authorities were having a much bigger cow. On the orders of the regional poohbahs, our troop dismissed Tim from his assistant Scoutmaster post. With the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union, he filed suit against the Scoutocrats under California's anti-discrimination laws. That was in 1981. Ten years later, the case was tried and Tim lost -- the trial judge finding, in effect, that the Boy Scouts of America is a private club that can exclude whomever it wants to. And just this week, the California Supreme Court upheld the lower court's decision on appeal (as well as a similar decision that allowed the Scouts to bar two agnostic boys in Orange County), bringing an end to one of the longest civil suits in the Golden State's litigious history.

When Curran vs. Mount Diablo Council of the Boy Scouts of America was at trial in Los Angeles in 1990, I sat in the witness box while a lawyer for the Scouts asked me whether Tim had ever told me he was gay. I said no, which was a true answer in the legal sense but perhaps not a truthful one. The truthful answer would have been that I had known Tim through the key years of our adolescence and that during those long, slow afternoons at summer camp, I had assimilated a lot of information about him -- as he had about me, I'm sure -- that was never spoken out loud. Gradually, as we grew up, I got the impression that Tim probably liked boys better than girls, and by the time we were 18, I no longer had any doubt.

I'm pretty sure Mark and Phil, the other boys our age who hung out with us the most, felt the way I did: We neither approved nor disapproved of Tim's sexuality, and we didn't see him as a symbol for anything. Like most teenage boys, we were troubled and fascinated by the specter of homosexuality, but we never saw Tim as a representative of that demonic realm. He was just exasperating, eccentric Tim, and we could like him or dislike him, but we had to take him the way he was. If anything, Tim participated less in the sex jokes and the inevitable homoerotic/homophobic horseplay of adolescence than most boys did. And if he ever felt any stirrings of lust toward the members of Troop 37, he dutifully squelched them. There was no place for such feelings in scouting, and Tim took scouting seriously.

As I see it, Tim's belief in scouting was his key mistake. By my third or fourth year as a Scout, I already saw the organization's outdated rituals and purported all-American ideology as at best insipid and at worst fascistic. For Mark and Phil and me -- and, I imagine, most other American boys -- the appeal of scouting was mostly the chance it offered to go on modestly adventurous camping trips with minimal adult supervision, where we could stay up late, listen to music, eat junk food and occasionally partake of a pilfered joint or can of beer. (I don't remember Tim indulging in such things, although he did have a mischievous side, and once helped me design a hilarious phony pamphlet for the nonexistent Drug Abuse merit badge.) But Tim bought the whole scouting package -- he joined several honor organizations, took leadership courses, attended the massive national gatherings known as Jamborees. He was quickly recognized as a rising star by regional and even national authorities, and was clearly poised for a long career, if he wanted one, in the scouting priesthood.

I'll never understand why Tim loved this ludicrous institution so much, but he did, and his presence in it would have helped make it just that little bit more humane and tolerant. Certainly I supported Tim's discrimination suit on principle, but I can't help feeling ambivalent about its outcome. On the whole, scouting seems to me a dangerous influence that should be kept away from impressionable young people, and the sooner that becomes clear, the better. The organization's official fantasy of 1950s-style boyhood is like an engraved invitation for perverts, and it's no wonder that scouting is haunted by recurring pedophilia scandals (which are never perpetrated by officially gay men).

I can almost hear Tim's voice telling me to lighten up, telling me that the very forthrightness and honesty that landed him and his boyfriend on Page 1 of the Tribune were virtues he learned while becoming an Eagle Scout. But I have a personal bias that ultimately has little to do with Tim. I was an Eagle Scout too, in the end -- Tim and I received our awards at the same ceremony -- and the only thing I learned about myself in the process was that I lacked the force of personality to resist my father's intense vicarious drive.

Tim "went for Eagle," as Scouts say, because he genuinely believed in what it was supposed to represent. I was driven relentlessly forward like a plow animal by my dad, whose miserable Depression childhood in Ireland and the South Bronx had imprinted him with the idea that scouting was what real American boys in stable families did. He was ferociously determined that I would make Eagle, whether I wanted to or not. So I did it, with all the pride and enthusiasm of a convict working on the rockpile, and it meant nothing to me and I went on with my life. When my dad was involved with our Scout troop, he and Tim got along famously. In fact, I knew the whole time that Tim -- except for that one genetic accident or personality quirk or however you want to describe it -- was much, much closer to the all-American boy my father wanted for a son than I could ever be.

Tim has had a successful career in the media and is now making documentary films for a production company in Florida. (He's still the up-with-people type, as you'll discover if you visit his painstakingly constructed personal Web site. He isn't living in the past, but during our occasional contacts, I can tell he still misses the loss of his avocation as a Scout leader. To me, this isn't a story about sexuality or tolerance or civil rights or anything high-minded like that. It's about how systems and institutions inevitably decay; if the Scouts couldn't tell that Tim Curran was the real thing and I was a hopeless fraud, they're doomed. And it's about how people who innocently and wholeheartedly put their faith in American institutions like fatherhood and the Boy Scouts -- people like Tim and my dad -- get their hearts broken.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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