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A gay pride Boy Scout troop. That’s thinking. Take a troop of Boy Scouts – a symbol of recalcitrant tradition struggling in the new century to find a future – and attach it to an institution committed already to an unrealized future. Better still, find a place for the scheme where tradition is so entrenched, so fiercely intractable, that the only reality it knows is itself. It’s an idea of such audacious, convincing vision, it couldn’t fail, of course, to fail, but to light up our hypocrisy in its fall.

Peter Brownstein fell into this fool’s errand. With zero experience with scouting, he agreed a couple years ago to be the scoutmaster for the troop his son had joined, which was sponsored by the United Jewish Federation of Utah.

A gay pride center is confrontational enough. A pride center scout troop in a conservative fortress like Utah is rather like a McDonald’s opening in Pyongyang (or, perhaps, Twitter in Cuba). But where it would be hard to make the argument that North Korea – as needy as it is – needs the deep-fried icon of western capitalism, Utah does need radical diversity. In Utah, as this native Utahn sees it, difference is sinister – suppressed as much as is possible in a putatively free society, as is evident in the disturbing fact that a measly four percent of scouting groups in the greater Salt Lake City area are not run as extensions of the LDS church.

Not one to accept responsibility casually, Brownstein committed himself to scouting, and found the executives of the Great Salt Lake Council – the biggest and most powerful Boy Scouts of America council in the known universe, incidentally – looking for ways in late 2012 to expand and diversify their membership.

Well, that’s easy, Brownstein thought. Just remove the barriers to entry that scouting policy has put up.

This is where things get weird. When Brownstein voiced his opposition to the Boy Scouts of America’s organizational exclusion of, for instance, gay scouts, he met with the expected resistance on the part of the Mormon Boy Scouts of America leaders, but also found himself struggling with the United Jewish Federation of Utah. Citing an “excellent” relationship with the LDS Church – at which he was “not willing to point fingers” – the Federation’s executive director insisted that Brownstein sign a statement divorcing his advocacy of non-traditional Boy Scouts of America membership from the Federation.

Brownstein signed the statement, but, early in 2013, he went ahead with this bold attempt to charter a new troop with the Utah Pride Center, which went through two iterations. The second unsuccessful installment coming after theBoy Scouts of America voted in May, 2013, to undo its official exclusion of gay Boy Scouts. Even so, the Great Salt Lake Council reiterated its opposition to Brownstein’s proposal on the grounds that the Pride Center’s mission statement was incompatible with scouting.

No wonder that scouting executives turned themselves inside-out over, first, Brownstein’s participation in Utah’s June pride parade, and, second, his delivery in uniform of pizza, with his scout son, to hungry couples packed into a Salt Lake City courthouse during a sudden, miraculous suspension of Utah’s anti-same-sex marriage law this past December.

But, in the meantime, he didn’t anticipate the United Jewish Federation of Utah’s suspension of its own troop. Following an email referendum that affirmed Brownstein as the troop’s scoutmaster, and encouragement Brownstein received from his synagogue’s social action committee, the Federation, nevertheless, opted to discontinue its scouting activity, altogether, rather than suffer Brownstein’s ongoing activism.

Still interested in promoting diversified scouting in Utah, Brownstein has made several other good faith attempts to establish a scout troop in Utah that is explicitly committed to diversity and inclusivity. But, at this point, he finds himself back at square one, and wondering what happened.

Everyone around him has made noises that sound like “we’re ready for diversity” – even BSA, when it abandoned its officially discriminatory membership policies last year. But no one has been as willing to act in a way that would functionally make diversity a reality. Worse, forces have aligned against practical moves towards this ideal, as though a word toward difference were not only enough to realize it, but all that the situation demands.

Well, maybe Brownstein is too radical, after all. If we were to do more than talk, we’d destabilize the world. A simple, earnest profession of inclusiveness, in the place of efforts to make things different, has the advantage of sustaining a hope for change that cannot be disappointed by action. Even more profitable, a profession without action offers moral reassurance without threatening an excellent relationship with power.

 

David Mason is an associate professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. He is the author of Theatre and Religion on Krishna’s Stageand My Mormonism. Routledge will publish his biography of Brigham Young in December.


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