men, masculinities and gender politics

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The making of a man

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when i was in the sixth grade, i began learning how to be a man. i had just joined the boy scouts with a friend from my church, and the troop convinced us that it would be a good experience to spend a week during the summer at camp matigwa. we camped out in rustic army tents, started the day with a salute to the american flag, ate meals at the mess hall, learned how to use pocketknives and start fires, and earned merit badges at camp matigwa, a place which according to its motto is known as the “maker of men”.

my week at matigwa was an intensive training in the dominant norms of masculinity. each day was filled with activities that reinforced a macho, heterosexual image of manhood. in the shower room of the pool we compared penis sizes and made fun of the scouts who didn’t yet have pubic hair. every single one of us had a crush on one of the counselors, because she happened to be the only female counselor in the entire camp. the counselors-in-training caught a raccoon, doused it with gasoline, and laughed as they lit it on fire and watched it run about in flames. in the afternoon, by the man-made lake, we caught frogs and hacked them apart; sometimes to use as bait for fishing and other times just for fun. during rest hour, when we were supposed to write letters to our parents, we passed around the playboy magazine. my friend smoked pot for the first time one afternoon. the men produced by camp matigwa are confident, militant, obedient, and they all share common goals: to lust after women and to be leaders in their community.

one of the ironies of my involvement in the boy scouts is that it was the first place that i learned many skills that i considered to be feminine. in preparation for overnight campouts we had to write a menu, go shopping for groceries, and then cook the meals ourselves. i also learned the basics of sewing, because we had to sew badges onto our uniforms and mend equipment that was in need of repair. yet the attitude behind these activities was not to challenge gender roles and move toward equality, but rather to produce men who were self-reliant and independent, who would be capable of providing leadership (dominating) in any setting.

my training in masculinity continued the next summer when i went to philmont scout ranch in new mexico and spent ten days backpacking with an all male crew. on the bus trip to philmont we stopped in colorado and went on a tour of norad air force base, a highly militarized fortress located inside of a mountain, which is where the president of the united states would be protected in the event of nuclear war. these activities reinforced an ideal of manhood that views military service as the epitome of patriotism, asserts that married heterosexuality is the only moral relationship, and teaches men to be leaders in a way that disregards the voices of women and anyone of an inferior rank.

at this time i did not question my involvement with the boy scouts and by eighth grade i was the senior patrol leader of my troop. i enjoyed to the fullest the time that i spent camping, going on field trips, and doing community service projects with the other scouts. i had advanced through the ranks and was well on my way to becoming an eagle scout, the highest rank in scouting.

if it weren’t for the influence of two of my friends, the boy scouts might have made me into man who never questioned the dominant norms of masculinity. i was fortunate to become close friends with a boy who was very committed to social justice and environmental activism. he challenged me to do volunteer work without recognition rather than just do “good deeds” in order to earn awards and a higher rank. he also taught me that true leadership was not about taking charge, but about building community and empowering people who are systematically oppressed.

my girlfriend during high school had the most influence on my views about masculinity. she was an outspoken feminist who challenged the militant, sexist attitudes that i was exposed to in the boy scouts. she knew personally how such attitudes led to the oppression of women, because her father began abusing his wife after he returned from the vietnam war. her father’s understanding of masculinity was so sick that he used violence to force his wife and three daughters to cook him meals, clean his house and satisfy his sexual urges.

by the time i was in high school i had shifted most of my involvement with the boy scouts into environmental activism and volunteer work at an emergency shelter for youth from abusive homes. i also helped my girlfriend challenge homophobia in the public schools and defend a school board clause of non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. i was deliberately using the organizing skills i had learned in the boy scouts to challenge the sexism, homophobia, and violence that is perpetuated by the boy scouts.

but by the end of my junior year i had completed most of the requirements to be an eagle scout and was being pressured by my parents, teachers, and scoutmaster to finish my eagle project so that i could be recognized for earning the highest rank in scouting. at this point i faced the biggest barrier in my scouting career, and it was not lack of skills, lack of time, or the inability to be a leader—it was my conscience.

i knew that the boy scouts had a policy of not awarding eagle to anyone who was openly gay, and that it wouldn’t allow a gay man to be a scoutmaster. for several months i seriously questioned my own sexuality and spoke with my friends and mentors about what i should do. i realized that i needed to “come out” about my sexuality, either as straight, bi, or gay. although i was fairly certain that on a sexual level i was only attracted to females, i knew that i was emotionally attracted to many of my male friends and open to physical intimacy. i was aware of the tremendous privilege and responsibility i had to choose my identity based on the dictates of my body and my conscience. the only thing i was certain of was that i would not conform to the mainstream standard of heterosexuality.

at a conference for queer youth and supporters i met a gay man who told me about a national group made up of gay eagle scouts that was actively challenging the homophobia within the boy scouts. he encouraged me to accept the eagle award, but to challenge the institution at the same time. as a straight male i would have a lot of leverage that could help the gay eagles as they pursue legal action to challenge the homophobia of the boy scouts. based on this reasoning i decided to complete the requirements for eagle, to write a statement challenging the boy scouts, and if they still award me the eagle rank, i could always turn in my badge at some time in the future when it would serve as a critical statement against the boy scouts.

my family was aware of my struggles, and as liberals they could see that the scouts should be challenged for their exclusive and prejudiced position. however, they did not necessarily agree with my insistence on a radical act of defiance. i agreed to let my family plan the eagle ceremony if i could have a chance to make a statement before the troop before i accepted the award. in the end, my family showed their understanding and progressive politics by a planning a ceremony that was, in many ways, subversive to the espoused ideals of the boy scouts.

to open the ceremony, before we said the pledge of allegiance, a lesbian couple who are close family friends performed a ritual to invoke the elements of the four directions. my four closest female friends each brought an object to the stage representing fire, earth, water, and air. then we proceeded through the normal boy scout rituals of repeating the scout oath and scout law while lighting candles. at the point where a member of the community was to speak on my leadership qualities, i asked my mentor in activism to speak on my behalf (he was the only adult i knew who confronted me when i told him i was in the boy scouts). he praised me as a co-worker in the struggle for peace, civil rights, and justice and entrusted me with the responsibility of working with existing institutions when they do good and challenging them when they are wrong. before i read my statement, my grandmother, the matriarch of our family, read a poem that she had written about the eagle who flies high, has a long range vision, and screams at what is wrong.

at this point i delivered a three page statement that i had prepared to thank the troop for honoring me with the eagle award, recognize the many people who helped me with my eagle project, share some wisdom with younger scouts, and to state my criticisms of scouting before the entire troop. this was the heart of my statement:

often scouts are confronted with peer pressure that scouting is not cool, is a waste of time, or that the uniforms are really geeky. those types of comments didn’t bother me, because i was having to much fun going on hikes outside, building fires, and sleeping under the stars to care what anyone else thought. however, i was confronted by many of my peers who were concerned that the boy scouts is a pre-military institution filled with commands and ranks, were angered with the boy scouts’ treatment homosexual men, and who were aware that women often have a limited role in the scouting experience.

i am the first to stand up for the values and virtues of scouting, but i believe that as an institution, the boy scouts must be confronted for the role it plays in fostering hostility and prejudice toward people who are homosexual, especially gay youth and gay men. it is a tragedy that as an institution, the boy scouts will not offer its valuable skills and experiences to openly gay youth, and it is also a shame and an act of irresponsibility on the part of the boy scouts to perpetuate a myth that gay men are inclined toward pedophilia and are inevitably a threat to youth. this simply is not true, for a statistical breakdown of sexual offenders in iowa shows that over 90% of child molestation is caused by heterosexual men. the boy scouts must always be concerned about the safety and well-being of its members, but this is not achieved by targeting gay men with lies and bigotry. fortunately, the mid-iowa council adheres to a policy of non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as a condition for its affiliation as a united way organization. however, further steps must be taken to change the discriminatory, anti- gay practices of the boy scouts and insure that the boy scouts is a place of respect for all people.

for those of you who may be shocked or offended that i have made such a bold and confrontational statement at my eagle ceremony, i just want to say that i would collapse with guilt and shame like schindler did during the holocaust if i did not stand up for the many friends, family members, and role models of mine who are gay, lesbian or bisexual. it is wrong that so many beautiful, loving and inspirational people should suffer from the hatred and exclusion of a society that is very ignorant when it comes to respecting the differences of others.

so now, i am reaching out to all of you here today who have been such a tremendous inspiration to me as i have gone through the ranks of scouting, and i hope with all of my heart that you can understand that it is not because i am straight that i am deserving as an eagle scout, but because i believe in the boy scouts and am committed to making the world a better place.

it was, indeed, quite a shock to many of those present to hear these words coming from my mouth. i could see many of the other scouts, their parents, and the adult leadership of the troop squirming in their seats as i suggested that openly gay youth and gay scoutmasters should be allowed in the boy scouts. at the same time i could sense my friends and family cheering me on as i took a stand on my beliefs, with my activist friend and my girlfriend present as my proudest supporters.

a few days later i got a letter from the chief scout executive of the mid-iowa council of the boy scouts of america, who had been present at the eagle ceremony. it said that he disagreed with the statements i made and that it was irresponsible of me to use the eagle ceremony as pulpit for my personal beliefs. but that letter was just a slight reprisal. as far as i know, i am a still able to put “eagle scout, highest rank in scouting” on my resume and gain access to one of the most elite and decadent old-boy networks in the world.

almost three years after receiving my eagle award, i am still grappling with what it means to be a blond-haired, blue-eyed anglo-american male from an upper-class family who has been bestowed with about as much privilege as it is possible to have in this world’s hierarchy of oppression. i have done everything i can to use my privilege for good, but i know that it is still not enough. i know that every day i will be confronted with the injustices of the world and in my mirror i will see my role in perpetuating those injustices. it is my hope to dedicate my life to the struggle for peace and justice, and in so doing to experience the true greatness of the human spirit.

 

Reprinted with permission from On the road to healing: A booklet for men against sexism, issue #1. Contact: PO box 84171, Seattle WA 98124, USA. http://www.pscap.org