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Entangling and Enabling: A handbook for BSA that encourages right relationships despite a disabling culture

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For my final project, I chose to expand upon my third web event, which explored the idea of forming a right relationship between the Boy Scouts of American and the LGBTQ community. A restatement of my original introduction is useful in understanding the issue at hand: 

“The Boy Scouts of America’s website is covered in testaments to the organization’s commitment to the betterment of America’s male youth. Its mission statement professes dedication to building active and conscientious citizens, its parent portal promises that it is the best organization to reinforce ethical standards and promote self-confidence, and its timeline gleams with the success of past service projects and awards from numerous presidents. What the website neglects to publicize, however, is perhaps the most telling statement of all about BSA’s moral and ethical belief system: the Boy Scouts do not allow openly gay members to join their ranks.”

In my prior event, I expressed my dismay with the unjust nature of the Boy Scout’s unwritten policy and suggested some ways in which BSA and the LGBTQ community could form a right relationship, which proved to be a difficult thought experiment. Reflecting on that paper, I’m struck by the idea that it was hard to fathom building some sort of right relationship with an organization that fosters an inherently disabling institutional culture. Towards the beginning of our course, we read the work of Ray McDermott and Hervé Varenne, which emphasizes the power of culture to disable individuals within a given context. The work illuminates the idea that the process of disabling can occur not just through limiting physical access but also by perpetuating ideas that limit symbolic access. More specifically, the Boy Scouts disable when they perpetuate ideals about masculinity, i.e. that a boy should be proficient in woodworking and riflery in order to become an outstanding male member of society. The Boy Scouts also disable by excluding all who are not heterosexual from their ranks, which takes the right to freedom of identity away and turns a culture that should be about open dialogue into a culture that encourages silence and discomfort with oneself and one’s peers.

So, is it even possible to form right relationships in the face of disabling culture? My answer to this question is inspired by one of Humbach’s quotes: “Right relationships are human relations in which each (or all) seek, without abandoning themselves, to be attentive and responsible to the needs and emotions of one another, quite apart from considerations of entitlement” (2). While this can be interpreted in a number of ways (I know because I tried out some of them before I settled on the interpretation I agreed with most) I believe this to mean that relationships form from compromise and not concession. Asking the Boy Scouts to suddenly become the People Scouts and allow anyone and everyone into their ranks without regard for the gender binary is an idealistic goal, and I don’t believe that making such a radical leap would be a productive first step towards an alliance; instead, it would just make for a resentful relationship. To take a page out of Sharon Welch’s book (quite literally) the goal is “community and solidarity, not justification and universal consensus” (Welch, 15).  With that in mind, I sought to create a “first step” that would serve to broaden horizons and make the issue that has been swept under the carpet, sexuality, become relevant in an age- and context-appropriate way. Thus, I decided to add a chapter to the Boy Scout Handbook. Attached to this event is Chapter 13: Right Relationships.

 Circle of Friends

The large majority of the current handbook’s chapters are dedicated to the ways in which an individual can better himself. That being said, there are some chapters that aim to make Scouts aware of their place in the larger context of the world, including chapters on nature and citizenship. However, these pages are filled with the concept of IN but devoid of the concept of WITH. In implies distinction of one from another. In contrast, with implies a reciprocal relationship, one that resonates with support and alliance. That is the goal of my chapter: to have Scouts understand how their individual identity is not easily disentangled from the identities of everyone around them.

The badges I designed are meant to be completed in sequence, and in theory, they could only be completed by a Scout who was no younger than 14. While the issue of forming right relationships is important to address in middle school, the sequence I have laid out requires a deep amount of introspection that I feel would be most meaningful to complete at the high school level, when one is questioning and solidifying one’s identity. To that end, the chapter is written with an older audience in mind. Additionally, there are no explicit references to sex or sexuality in these pages, which is intentional. I was pretty confident that BSA would never consider including an entire chapter on sexuality and sexual preferences as a first step towards right relationship, since their current policy is complete silence. In the spirit of compromise towards an end goal of alliance, I carefully chose activities that encourage tolerance and understanding and that are applicable to issues of sexuality but could also be applied to other concepts. To be more specific:

The Self and Identity badge pushes a Scout to understand what it means to have an identity and to consider the contexts in which some aspects of identity are more or less relevant. It addresses the reality that some identities are more important to society as a whole but simultaneously encourages questioning why this is.  Most importantly, it promotes constructive dialogue amongst peers. This badge is listed first in the sequence because it is useful to know and accept oneself before attempting to know and accept others through the formation of right relationships.

Once a Scout has had the opportunity to consider the makeup of his overall identity, he can attempt to earn the Gender Studies badge. This badge narrows a Scout’s focus to an aspect of identity that becomes salient every time he acknowledges he is a Boy Scout. It is meant to illustrate Eli Clare’s idea of, “The body as home, but only if it is understood that bodies are never singular, but rather haunted, strengthened, underscored by countless other bodies” (Clare, 11). Thus, by completing the requirements to achieve this badge, a Scout should better understand how gender identity, including his own, is actively socially constructed rather than biologically determined. 

Finally, once a Scout has reflected upon aspects of both self and other, the badge on Conflict Resolution encourages the active formation of right relationships through training in peer mediation. This requires knowledge of one’s own morals and ideologies while still understanding the morals and ideologies of others and working towards compromise. As Humbach points out in his comparison of rights to right relationships, rights involve adjudication, while right relationships involve mediation and reconciliation (Humbach, 17). The badge also applies aspects of peer mediation training to real-world conflicts that are broader than person-to-person interactions. These portions of the requirement encourage Scouts to acknowledge the ways in which culture can disable but to simultaneously empower them to find enabling solutions.

While the handbook I’ve created was clearly made with this course in mind, I plan to show it to some local Boy Scout leaders and see how they respond (something I would have done earlier were it not for the constraints of finals week!). I look forward to being part of the formation of a right relationship that, if agreed upon, will not only change the course of millions of young people’s lives but will also be one more step towards equality and acceptance of all.


Clare, Eli. Exile & Pride: Disability, Queerness & Liberation. Cambridge, MA: South End, 2009. Print.

Humbach, John. Towards a Natural Justice of Right Relationships. From Human Rights in Philosophy and Practice, Burton M. Leiser and Tom D. Campbell, eds., 2001. 1-18.

Jordan-Young, Rebecca M. Brain Storm: the Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2010. Print.

McDermott, Ray, and Herve Varenne. "Culture as Disability." Anthropology and Education Quarterly 26 (1995): 323-48. Serendip. Web. 18 Sept. 2011.

Roughgarden, Joan. Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People. Berkeley: University of California, 2004. Print.

 Welch, Sharon D. A Feminist Ethic of Risk. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990. Print.

Wilchins, Riki Anne. Queer Theory, Gender Theory: an Instant Primer. Los Angeles, [Calif.: Alyson, 2004. Print.

Images from handbook:

1st Half Final.pdf1.16 MB
2ndHalfFinal.pdf1.19 MB