Yesterday was Jonathan's ninth birthday. In his pile of presents, along with some glow-in-the-dark race cars and a set of juggling balls, was a Webelos handbook from his father and me. In a few days, Jonathan is scheduled to leave with his father for a four-day Cub Scout camp-out (Webelos are the oldest Cubs) to be held in a famously sweltering field near Covington, Ga. He has been counting down to this date for months.
Jonathan is not an athlete, as many of his friends are. He's not particularly musical, like his brother. But he loves the woods, especially at night in the glow of a campfire. He loves the jab of a rock in his back as he squirms around in a sleeping bag, trying not to fall asleep. He has loved being a Bear.
Then last week Jonathan heard something on the car radio about the Supreme Court and the Boy Scouts. He wanted to know immediately what that was all about. Not wanting to conduct this discussion in a minivan, hollering across three rows of seats, I switched stations and turned up Roy Orbison, loud. I spent a long weekend avoiding the talk.
But sooner or later we're going to have to tell him that he belongs to -- and we support with our dues -- an organization that discriminates against gays, that equates being "morally straight" with having sex only with people of a different gender. The nation's highest court has upheld the right of the Boy Scouts of America to exclude gay Scouts from membership, even veteran Eagle Scouts with exemplary service records. I had been hoping, with willfully blind optimism, that the court would go the other way and spare us this discussion.
I enrolled Jonathan in Scouts a year ago, mostly because we had just moved to a new city. When I was 11 and my family moved, I found my warmest welcome in a troop of Girl Scouts. Our son's year of scouting, as it turns out, has been full of surprises -- some of them good, others unsettling.
First, the good, beginning with one of our pack leaders. A physician married to a physician, he has taken time off from his practice to be a stay-at-home father to his two sons and nearly a full-time scouting volunteer. The guy is always hacking his way through a wilderness bog with his high school troop, or teaching canoeing to Scouts from other area troops. He seems to have no ironic edge: He treats the principles of service and brotherly fellowship with utterly square earnestness. What surprises me even more is how the boys respond in kind, without any of their occasional pre-pubescent smirkiness.
It's also a shock and a thrill, in this age, to see your son pick up a stick and a penknife instead of a Game Boy. Our third-grader brought the same concentration to designing his Pinewood Derby car that he did to cracking Myst.
But it has been unpleasantly jarring, almost paranoia inducing, to witness the emphasis that scouting places on the dangers of childhood sexual molestation. Even ahead of the Cub Scout Promise in the Webelos handbook comes a primer on sexual abuse, which boys are required to read and discuss with their parents.
At the first pack meeting of the year, Cubs are supposed to watch the videotape "It Happened to Me," which features boys describing situations in which they were abused. And at camp-outs, they can't share tents with unrelated men, even their den leaders.
Considering how some pedophiles have used organizations like the Boy Scouts to get close to children, there's certainly good reason for the leadership to be scrupulously careful. And the video does prompt the intended results. A very young Scout I know was flashed by a teenager in a public bathroom. It became, as they say, a teachable moment when he came out of the bathroom and proclaimed to the adult who was with him, "I've been sexually abused."
And yet, considering how my son already equates scouting with these lessons, I worry that he's going to confuse his pack's warnings about sexually predatory adults with the Boy Scouts' ban on gays. A 9-year-old is just beginning to comprehend sexuality. It's a lot to ask him to sort through the nuances: what's criminal, what's moral or immoral and what any of it has to do with the law of the pack. No matter what distinctions I try to draw between our beliefs and those of the Boy Scouts national leadership, Jonathan may infer from all this alarm that homosexuals are the people who do bad things to little boys. Isn't that what some grown-up Scouts fear?
Which leads back to our family's basic problem. In commenting on the court's ruling, defenders of the Boy Scouts pointed to an ongoing increase in enrollment as proof that American parents support the organization's condemnation of homosexuals. I thought I heard a dare in those words: If you want to be around gays, start your own club. So if I allow Jonathan to stay with his pack now, I'm allowing the current Boy Scouts leadership to continue to misrepresent our family as anti-gay.
The alternative is to quit in protest. And break the birthday boy's heart.