Scouting for Boys

The alternative lifestyle of Lord Baden-Powell, the first Boy Scout.

In Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, Lord Sebastian Flyte turns the pages of the News of the World and sighs, “Another naughty Scoutmaster.” This was 1923, only a few years after the Boy Scouts had been created, but they had already become a source of indelicate mirth.

Now another scoutmaster (I do not say naughty) has led to an important ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court. James Dale is 29 years old and has been in the Scouts since he was 8. He was happy in his work as a scoutmaster, but Scout officials saw a newspaper photograph of him leading a gay rights group at Rutgers University, and they threw him out. He sued and won, the court ruling that the Scouts may not discriminate on grounds of race, creed, sexual preference, or whatnot.

“Most good schoolmasters,” Waugh wrote, “are homosexual by inclination–how else could they endure their work?” He had English public schools in mind but might well have been thinking of any number of other organizations where men instruct boys. The Boy Scouts have long elicited private sniggers about the sort of men they attract–going back, in fact, to their founder, that curious Englishman Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell.

He created the Boy Scouts in 1907, shortly after returning to England from a tour of duty as a cavalry officer in South Africa. During the Boer War he successfully commanded a vastly outnumbered force of 1,250 men during the siege of Mafeking, and he went home a national hero. Within just a few years, the Scouts had spread throughout the British Empire, Europe, and the United States, and almost from the beginning there were scoutmasters who loved their little charges not wisely but too well. One naughty leader after another trailed sadly through the courtrooms, to the delight of the dirty London tabloids.

Although Baden-Powell himself never landed in court, he was certainly a strange man. He was obsessed with boys and “boyology.” The index of Tim Jeal’s excellent biography Baden-Powell speaks of his “aesthetic and sexual interest in men,” “pre-marital celibacy,” “dreams of young men,” and “anxieties over sexuality.” He got married, at 55, to (as Jeal put it) “a sporting girl whose interest in outdoor comradeship seemed at least as great as her desire for sexual fulfillment,” and he even managed to beget three children. But thereafter he always slept out on his balcony (and this in the English climate) rather than in the marriage bed.

“B-P,” as he was known throughout the Scout movement, studiously recorded his dreams, which were often about young men. In one, he recalled, a soldier snatched a whip away from him and asked whether he had ever been “disciplined.” And in his 1908 manual Scouting for Boys, which has a fair claim as one of the most influential books of the 20th century, he focuses keenly on lust (though he does not mention homosexuality outright). Baden-Powell considered sexual desire a transitory phase in adolescence, and he was obsessed with self-abuse. He recommends that a young man beset by impure thoughts should drive them way by plunging his “racial organ” into icy water.

It seems unlikely that James Dale thus counseled his own Scout troop, though certainly any naughty scoutmaster who nowadays passed on that advice from the founder of scouting would more likely find himself in hot water, rather than cold.