In My Words: ‘The Rule That Dare Not Speak its Name’

In a newspaper guest column, Professor Rosemary Haskell points out the irony to a longstanding requirement for serving as a Scout leader.


The following column appeared recently in the Winston-Salem Journal, the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News the Charlotte Observer and the (Durham, N.C.) Herald-Sun (not posted online) via the Elon University Writers Syndicate


The BSA and the Rule That Dare Not Speak its Name
By Rosemary Haskell –

As the mother of a recently graduated scout, I have long been a supporter of Boy Scouts of America. The troop my son belonged to was—and still is—truly wonderful.

Led by dedicated and well-trained people, it has an ambitious program of activities: camping, biking, canoeing, hiking, and high-adventure expeditions. The boys who belong to that troop, and many like it, are extremely lucky. They are guided by leaders and encouraged by one another to be self-reliant and community-spirited, two of the values held dear by scouting movement founder, Robert Baden-Powell.

Of course, there’s some irony in that, especially in light of recent events.

You should know that I continue my connection with the BSA as a volunteer on District Eagle Scout Boards of Review, where a mix of scout leaders and “civilians” interview the young men who are seeking the movement’s highest award, the Eagle Scout. Boards analyze the scout’s Eagle project, which may have involved trail-clearing, shed-building, major landscaping, or other design and construction, and which probably benefited a local school, church or civic group.

We also talk about the scouting movement in general and the Eagle candidate’s own particular experiences of it. During these conversations, the future of scouting, and the candidate’s thoughts about his own continued participation as an adult, frequently arise.

I sometimes ask the Eagle candidate if he thinks the BSA’s national “no avowed homosexuals” rule is a problem. For some, the answer is “yes.” When asked why, the candidate may say: “When I try to fundraise, I get turned away.” “People in my school or neighborhood or church don’t like the `anti-gay’ rule.” “This rule will probably have to change if Scouting is to thrive.”

Other scouts say: “Well, the BSA will have to sort it out.” Or: “My troop is a ‘church’ troop, and I know our church is considering the topic.” Some scouts say they don’t think the rule should or will change.

I’ve thought of the Scouts often in recent days, as the men who run the national organization have pledged to reassess the longstanding ban. What prompted a grassroots outcry was a lesbian mother from Ohio, removed from her volunteer position leading a Cub Scout troop because of… well, you know.

As a Scouting parent and now as an advocate for the movement, I don’t like the “anti-gay” rule. Why can’t we follow the Girl Scouts’ example of openness and inclusion, I wonder? With strict rules about leader and member conduct, they have no policy on sexual preference, which they argue is a private matter.

However, I have allowed myself and my family to live with the BSA stipulation and to remain fairly silent about it. That kind of tense acquiescence isn’t particularly praiseworthy or useful.

I, too, think the rule will have to go, particularly if Scouting is to flourish. Flourishing means—among other things—that this vital youth movement should be able to attract a more varied range of boys from different ethnic and racial and socioeconomic groups, and from all shades of the political spectrum.

The question of gayness or straightness may not be a deal-breaker for many of the 10- or 11-year-olds who join up, no matter where they hail from, but it may be later, and it probably is already for at least some of their relatives, neighbors, school friends and churches.

Paradoxically, the day-to-day modus operandi in even the most liberal communities of North Carolina appears to be “don’t ask, don’t tell,” for scouts, leaders and parents alike. In a state generally conservative on sexual matters, as shown by the recent vote for a state constitution that defines marriage as the union between one man and one woman, the recently abandoned “military option” has certainly provided a way of getting along.

But who can say how much pain that approach has caused, and then hidden?

Another question I like to ask at the Boards of Review is about Baden-Powell: What do you know about this late-Victorian founder of the scouting movement? Some boys know he served in the Anglo-Afghan and Boer wars of the late nineteenth century; others can locate and date the first scouting campout, on Brownsea Island, in 1907.

But they don’t usually know, or care to mention, some biographers’ arguments that Robert Baden-Powell was, as far as we can tell at this distance in time, a gay man.

I don’t mention them either. I’m not sure what difference widespread discussion of such a speculo-factoid might make to the BSA’s rule about sexual orientation. It just complicates that tangled web of deception and self-deception a little bit more.

Rosemary Haskell is a professor of English at Elon University.


Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend ( in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Viewpoints shared by this syndicate are those of the author and not of Elon University.

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