Being Bisexual in the Boy Scouts (then and now)

I was 7 when I first bh_boy_scouts_01sought to earn my Bobcat badge in order to become a Cub Scout.  My early years in the Scouts were spent with my two best friends, Cliff and Mark.  They each had two younger brothers.  I always wanted to have brothers, and I wanted the camaraderie of hanging out with other guys.  That’s what Scouting provided for me.

My family moved to Hawaii when I was a teen.  Around that time, the Scouts became an even bigger part of my life.  Our troop leader, Mr. Lim, was a rugged, soft-spoken, long-haired man.  He took us on great adventures, hiking and camping on many of the islands of Hawaii.  We learned to carve a spear and how to catch a white moray eel, which we cooked and ate together.

On our own in the woods, the boys often talked about sex when the ghost stories became repetitious.  Boys will be boys, and there was a sense that we needed to prove our manhood with such talk.  Sometimes, things happened at night in our tents that were anything but straight, yet in the end it was important that we all presented as unabashedly heterosexual to one another.  I knew I was attracted to men (as well as women), but I didn’t feel I could discuss that fact with the other scouts.

So, I approached Mr. Lim, privately, for advice.  I confided in him that I liked girls and boys, and always had.  Mr. Lim told me about the Hawaiian gods who teach humans how to love all kinds of people, all genders.  He told me my feelings were valid and okay.  It was empowering to receive such understanding from an adult.  My confidence in myself grew as a result of knowing Mr. Lim.

By all visible measures, I was a model Scout.  I became a Patrol Leader, then a Senior Patrol Leader, then a Troop Leader, and eventually a Life Scout (which is only one step below the highest rank—Eagle Scout).  Very few people knew about my bisexuality.  Had I been more open about my feelings, I surely would have been kicked out.  “Gay” people were not welcome in the Scouts in those days (I doubt “bisexual” people were even on the leadership’s radar).

When my family left Hawaii and moved back to the conservative South, I was increasingly aware of my same-sex interests, and I thought it was too dangerous to get back into Scouting.  So, like many young men, discrimination against LGBT people ended my career in the Boy Scouts.  Still, my years in the Scouts helped me become who I am today.  I wouldn’t give up the experience for anything.

Fortunately, the Boy Scouts have been making great forward strides on this issue as of late.  Two years ago, the national organization allowed the first openly gay Scout to become an Eagle Scout.  Last year, the governing body of the Boy Scouts of America officially voted to end the practice of banishing Scouts with same-sex attractions.  Earlier this month, the board voted to allow openly LGBT adult Scout Leaders.  The decision was approved by 79 percent of the board, who ruled that the exclusion was “no longer legally defensible.”

I’m glad that things have progressed since I was a boy, but more protections for LGBT people are still needed.  Since individual troops can make their own decisions about their leadership, institutionalized discrimination will likely remain in more conservative parts of the country.  Right-wing opposition will no doubt continue for some time.

Conservative pundits are claiming that opening up the Scouts to LGBT youth and leaders will spell the death knell to this traditional male institution.  They are already looking for loopholes to prevent “homo infiltration.”  But past Scouts, like me, know that LGBT people have always been part of the Boy Scouts, earning merit badges, winning honors, doing our good turns, just like everyone else.

For me, the Boy Scouts didn’t necessarily help me come out, but it certainly did help me have a healthier attitude toward my attractions when I finally did.  Ultimately, Scouting is as much about growing up as it is about camaraderie, learning, and fun. Troop leaders are vested with a great responsibility, helping young men grow to be the best that they can be.

Mr. Lim was not married, and he had no children.  I don’t know if he was gay or bi, but it would have been a shame for the Scouts to lose such a kind and caring leader.  Perhaps he was just lucky and somehow stayed under the radar.  In any case, it is a tragedy how very many men were kicked out of the Scouts over the years just for being bisexual or gay.  Recent developments are very promising.  Let’s hope that the future for LGBT Scouts will be a brighter one, one where we are genuinely welcomed and where we no longer feel compelled to hide our true selves in a space that is supposed to be about honesty and personal integrity.

Mike Szymanski
at
Mike Szymanski has written about bisexual issues since 1989 and has one of the longest-running regular bisexual columns as the National Bisexuality Examiner. He came out as bisexual in a cover story of Genre magazine, which resulted in more than 50 television appearances, including Ricki Lake, Phil Donahue Show and 20/20. Szymanski won the Lambda Literary Award in 2007 for co-authoring an informative humor book “The Bisexual’s Guide to the Universe: Quips, Tips and Lists for Those Who Go Both Ways.” Write him at [email protected]