I think it's safe to say I grew up in Scouting: I was one of five kids and we were all in Scouts or Guides; my mom was a Guide leader and my dad, after both his sons joined Scouts, became a Scouter himself.  My maternal grandfather was a Scoutmaster back in the 1950s and 60s, and I remember how proud he was when I was invested as a Scout.  I went from Beavers all the way to Rovers, and attended my last Rover meeting about a month and a half before I left home for college.

Our troop -- 1st Blenheim Township -- met every Saturday morning, usually at Peacehaven Scout Camp.  This meant that our experience was a bit different from the school-gym/church basement evening scout troops of our contemporaries.  Our scouters adopted a very old-fashioned approach to scouting, with heavy emphasis on outdoor activities, bushcraft and woodsman skills.  The single most important milestone for every boy in our troop -- without exception -- was earning our BP Woodsman Badge and the right to carry a knife on our belts and matches in our pockets, a point of considerable pride when you're ten or eleven years old.  (The BP Woodsman was the 1980s-90s version of the Tenderfoot Badge.)

I understand now, as an adult, that our scouters were bucking the growing trend in Scouts Canada by focusing on traditional scoutcraft at a time when it wasn't being encouraged.  The mid-90s "modernization" push was still building up, and while we were an unusual scout troop -- even at that age we were dimly aware of it -- our scouters tried to insulate us from the growing friction that was beginning to develop between their nonconformist approach and the growing bureaucracy of the national organization... a friction would later lead to several very good scouters quitting the movement, and the eventual dissolution of 1st Blenheim Township.

Despite the eventual fate of my troop (and the closure and sale of Peacehaven, a place which every boy in that troop loved and which hit me unexpectedly hard) my scouting experience was without exaggeration among the most formative aspects of my youth, and a touchstone of stability during my tumultuous teen years... although of course I didn't understand that at the time, and I wouldn't have appreciated it if I had; teenage boys not being the most introspective of creatures.

One of the reasons my teen years were so rough probably won't surprise very many people in the BPSA: at about the same time my peers and I were starting to notice girls, I was also starting to notice boys. Since this was the early 90s and we didn't have cable, I was pretty confused about this state of affairs, which was exacerbated by a devout Catholic upbringing. I was dimly aware that there were Dangerous Perverts who were called "Gays", and that being gay was a Very Bad Thing and acting upon my Dangerous Temptations would be a Mortal Sin (thanks for nothing, Father Terry.) The notion of being bisexual wasn't even discussed. I had no openly LGBT peers, no openly LGBT role models, and in fact had very little idea of what being LGBT meant. This made for a lonely, confusing and eventually miserable adolescence (and set me up for some fairly stupid relationship decisions in my early twenties.)

Scouts, Venturers and Rovers was a shelter against that misery. Sure, I might be a Secret Gay Monster, but I could hike five miles and light a campfire with a single match, so obviously I wasn't a complete sissy. At a time in my life when I was confused and frightened by a lot of stuff inside myself that I couldn't tell anyone about, I reveled in the comfort of certainty: Being secretly gay didn't change the way to safely handle a knife or lay a fire, it didn't change how to roll a bedroll or organize my hiking pack, and it didn't reduce by an inch the distance we'd have to paddle before setting up camp.

Of course, all things had to end: I left Rovers, moved away to college, found a boyfriend (who turned out to be a bad call), got unwillingly outed as gay, went to university, found a girlfriend (who turned out to be another bad call for different reasons), came out of the closet as bi (which was even less fun the second time around), had a string of short relationships, dropped out of school, worked for a few years, went back to school, met my current partner and -- in a stroke of completely uncharacteristic good fortune -- convinced her to marry me. In short, I lived my life.

And through all of this I missed scouting... but as an openly LGBT person I figured that door was closed forever.

In retrospect, of course, I was doing Scouts Canada a major disservice. There was so much bad press about BSA's appalling anti-LGBT policies through the early 2000s that it tended to tar all scouting organizations with the same brush: as well as being co-ed and to their considerable credit, Scouts Canada had adopted and maintained an LGBT-positive position all through those years. Had I just looked past my assumption that LGBT people weren't allowed in Scouts, I might have been able to get back into it quite a bit sooner.

The impetus which brought me back to Scouting happened this past spring: I came down with kidney stones. As anyone who has ever had the experience will attest, this was a case of middle age being Definitely No Fun. In the aftermath, my doctors decreed that I would have to be more careful about salt, hydration and alcohol intake and that I needed to lose weight and be much more active. I'd let my outdoor activities fall by the wayside as I got into my thirties, and since we had just moved to the Niagara area, complete with its extensive nature preserves and gorgeous geography, I decided to start hiking again. My partner bought me a set of hiking boots as a birthday gift, and I started day-hiking around the escarpment, especially on the Bruce Trail and in Short Hills Provincial Park. I dug out my old camping gear and rehabilitated what I could, in the process began rediscovering the old skills that I'd learned in scouts, and learning new ones from the substantial hiking and bushcraft communities online.

Quite literally rediscovering old skills, in fact: One of the handier items in this quest was my old 1960s-era Canadian Scout Handbook, found in an old box with my uniform shirt, my neckerchief, a couple of woggles and the moth-eaten remains of my campfire blanket (all the badges were untouched, which I suppose is a testament to the unappetizing qualities of nylon.) The other quite useful item was the internet, a source of so many bushcraft and scouting resources that (as usual) I've come to wonder how we all did without it. And with all my re-reading, I looked into Scouts Canada again, found out that there's no reason why I couldn't be a volunteer, and began investigating their current program as a first step in the process.

And then, to be frank, I was rather disappointed: A lot of the old scoutcraft skills have fallen by the wayside or been bound up in red tape, so much so that they've had to develop a complicated "Canadian Path" program to organize badge-earning; instead of being central to the program the patrol system has either been abandoned or severely sidelined; hell, even the Scout Law has been re-written. It's great that LGBT people are welcome, even encouraged, to take up leadership roles but I feel like the discipline and structure that I found in scouting and which was so formative for me is no longer there. Worst of all is the current cost of their program, which I view as prohibitively expensive and likely to serve as a deterrent for the poorest families getting their kids involved in scouting. On top of that, Scouts Canada seems to be afflicted by a fully-developed bureaucracy in it's late-stage, metastatized form, seemingly more concerned with liability insurance and fundraising than with mentoring and encouraging youth -- not an environment in which I am likely to thrive.

Disappointed, and rather discouraged, I ran one last Google search on "traditional scouting"... and found the BPSA. This is very much scouting as my grandfather would have known it: a return to Sir Robert Baden-Powell's original vision of molding youth into self-reliant, responsible citizens, but with the added strengths of co-ed, non-religious and pro-LGBT policies. In the US, the BPSA's start seemed to be largely rooted in rejection of and resistance to the BSA's anti-LGBT policies; in Canada it was very much a response to the ever-increasing expense and bureaucracy of the national scouting organization. From my -- admittedly introductory -- read on the situation, regardless of the reasons behind their foundation, both organizations are growing steadily due to the strengths of the Baden-Powell's original program.

I was very fortunate, during my research into the organization, to discover that a new BPSA troop had started up just around the corner (almost literally so: I can walk to meetings.) The 9th Welland Traditional Troop was formerly a well-established Scouts Canada troop that made the decision, as a unit, to move over to the BPSA as a cost-saving measure for the families. They're currently trying to navigate the transition from a "modernized" Scouts Canada troop to a traditional scouting troop, complete with lots of outdoor activity and scoutcraft skills. Fortunately, there's a lot of enthusiasm for it, from the youth and the leaders both, and we're not far from a couple of well-established and very helpful traditional scouting units in Burford and Cambridge. I've been out to a few meetings and have begun the process of becoming a leader -- at this point my application paperwork and mandatory police checks are underway -- and I think I've got both a lot to learn and a lot to offer, if I have the chance.

Which is one of the reasons why I've joined Trailhead. Given the history of BPSA US, I have to assume I'm not the only LGBT person on this forum. I'm hoping that, by drawing on the experiences of scout leaders across North America, I can learn to be the best scout leader I can possibly be. I'm not worried about the scoutcraft -- I know how to handle a knife safely, and how to lay a fire, etc., and probably I'll be able to teach others these things, but what I want to learn is how to be an effective role model, LGBT or otherwise.

Because one of the things I really, really want to do, what I think is important that I do, is to be an openly LGBT scout leader. Not in an in-your-face sort of way, but in a matter-of-fact sort of way. I want the youth to see me as a leader and (hopefully) a mentor, who happens to be LGBT. Because statistically speaking, some of them are going to be like I was 25 years ago: young, becoming an adult, and LGBT. If I can help provide them an example of a positive and yet non-confrontational role model, perhaps I can help normalize LGBT people for a new generation of scouts. And if some of those scouts are LGBT and struggling with it, like I did as a youth, then maybe they'll know there's someone they can talk to about it.

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Comment by John Granger on November 19, 2016 at 6:59pm

Paul, thank you for writing this very insightful and thought-provoking piece. I too went through all of that rather miserable adolescence and right through my 20's too, for the same reasons as you, although I 'dropped out' of scouts at 15 years old. Moving to the US from the UK 18 months ago I found BPSA-US almost by chance, and I absolutely love it. The welcome I received, the lasting friendships I have made, and the activities it has enabled me to undertake have all been amazing. I am now RSL of our group, the 23rd Oaklanders in California, and became a Rover Knight earlier this year. And I even love traditional uniform, although whenever I wear it my husband Tim tries not to laugh......! Like in the UK there is apparently no LGBTQ issue in Scouts Canada yet traditional scouting is flourishing. BPSA is expanding in the UK too, I guess for the same reasons, back to the original outdoor programme and shorn of most of the cost and bureaucracy that gets in the way of real scouting. Good luck - I am sure you will make a wonderful leader. 


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