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Was Boy Scouts’ founder gay? Author says yes

Post by Cheryl Tucker on July 20, 2012 at 10:57 am with 2 Comments »
April 26, 2013 9:05 am

In light of the recent decision by the Boy Scouts of America to continue the organization’s ban on gays, here’s an interesting read from The New York Times about the organization’s founder – who author/educator Brooke Allen believes was a closeted gay man. This is not universally accepted as fact and is often disputed.

Here’s the article in which Allen makes his case.

By Brooke Allen

With more and more American institutions becoming inclusive and even openly gay-friendly, the Boy Scouts of America has reaffirmed its unregenerate straights-only status: A special committee, formed in 2010, recently announced the organization’s intention of sticking with the 2000 Supreme Court decision that it is within its constitutional rights to exclude gays from leadership roles.

All this is richly ironic in view of the fact that the founder of the Boy Scouts, Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell, raised to the peerage as Lord Baden-Powell, was in probability a gay man himself – though closeted, of course, considering the circumstances.

A Victorian military hero who skyrocketed to fame after his valiant defense of the besieged city of Mafeking during the Second Boer War, Baden-Powell was one of the British Empire’s most adulated soldiers, looked to as the very model of muscular Christianity. Baden-Powell, author of the hugely popular and influential “Scouting for Boys” (1908), inspired a national cult of manliness even as he entertained serious worry about his own sexuality.

“Was B-P a closet queen?,” Ian Buruma asked in The New York Review of Books two decades ago. “The pointers are hard to ignore.”

Indeed they are, as a perusal of Tim Jeal’s superb and definitive biography of the hero, “The Boy-Man: The Life of Lord Baden-Powell” (William Morrow, 1990), will show.

Baden-Powell’s formidable mother, left an impecunious widow with a large family, forced all of her children to participate in her fierce and occasionally demeaning struggles to promote the family’s fortunes and social status. Young “Stephe” was a sensitive boy who liked playing with dolls, and as he grew into a young man he formed deep attachments to other boys. Once in the army he made a name for himself playing female roles in army theatricals.

Throughout his life he openly admired muscular men and pretty boys, while attractive women sent him into a state of anxiety. He was much more comfortable with plain, companionable ones. He was 55 before he decided to marry, but he panicked soon after his union with the lovely young Olave Soames, developing agonizing headaches that were relieved only when he left the matrimonial bed and returned to his ascetic soldier’s cot.

Baden-Powell’s strongest emotional bond was with Kenneth McLaren, a fellow army officer. The two met while serving in India, in 1881, acting in an army performance of a farce called “The Area Belle” in which Baden-Powell, for once, played a male part while McLaren, a 20-year-old who looked 14, appeared in the ingenue’s role. Baden-Powell nicknamed McLaren “The Boy,” and the two remained extremely close for years.

McLaren’s second marriage, in 1910, put strains on the friendship – Baden-Powell did not hide his disapproval of the match or his distaste for the bride – but it was not until his own marriage that the partnership ended definitively, for Olave was jealous of her husband’s old friends in general and of this special favorite in particular.

The two men never met again. “The Boy” slipped into clinical depression during World War I and spent the last few years of his life in an asylum.

Historians’ speculations about Baden-Powell’s sexuality have usually hinged on the question of whether the relationship with McLaren was a physical one, but this is not necessarily germane. A man as steeped in the puritan, idealistic mores of his era as Baden-Powell clearly was might well have been too repressed to act on urges that he, and everyone in his social circle, would have considered not only transgressive but sinful.

Baden-Powell was no revolutionary – he did not question the rigid sexual ethos of his time. Jeal, after very extensive research, found no direct evidence of a physical relationship between Baden-Powell and McLaren, but he certainly did not conclude from this lack that his subject was therefore a heterosexual.

Victorian England had a tradition of intense but chaste male-on-male friendships, of course, but “we are perfectly entitled,” Jeal asserted, “to question today whether the attempt to deny the undoubted link between love and sexual desire could have succeeded as well as it did without repression, sublimation and in many instances massive doses of self-deception.”

He added that “available evidence points inexorably to the conclusion that Baden-Powell was a repressed homosexual.”

Geoffrey Wheatcroft, writing several years before the biography appeared, expressed the same opinion.

“Without hard evidence,” Wheatcroft insisted, “it is not unfair to speculate – without hard evidence, speculate is all we can do – on B-P’s own fascination with boys and ’boyology.’ In the absence of physical attraction, after all, most adult men find most adolescent youths a pain in the neck.”

There is no particular reason that an awareness of the first Boy Scout’s sexual proclivities should affect the decision of the special committee convened by the Boy Scouts of America. Were Baden-Powell himself to be consulted on the subject, he would no doubt be horrified by any mention of open homosexuality in the scouting movement. His mother’s training had taught him that sex was dirty, and this was an opinion he did his best to impart to the boys – and girls – who took up scouting.

“A Scout is clean in thought, word and deed,” after all.

Still, Baden-Powell’s life is a poignant story that should be known. This man who gave so much to so many suffered from the forces of repression and taboo. It is unfortunate that the American branch of the movement he founded should perpetuate them.

Brooke Allen, the author of “The Other Side of the Mirror: An American Travels Through Syria” (Paul Dry, 2011), is a teacher of literature at Bennington College in Vermont. He wrote this for The New York Times.

Leave a comment Comments → 2
  1. Typical load of bollocks spewed by a New England know-it-all. BP was a Charterhouse boy (all male school of high reknown, far better than Eton) and then went on to a career in the Army (all male). Of course he felt more comfortable around men.

    If you were queer in the Victorian or Edwardian era, the last place to survive was the Army. If you were a cottager, you went into the theatre of other arts. Besides, homosexuality amongst men was illegal under modern times and punishable by a long stretch in a nasty gaol. The Army would have booted him in a heartbeat as there was no “don’t ask don’t tell” back then. For your amusement, it was always legal to be a lesbian as Queen Vic put a line item veto through the bill outlawing gays, by giving preferential treatment to women.

    This is simply rubbish by a Vermont leftie awaiting a new job as a speech writer for Howard Dean. If you want to attack the Boy Scouts, what better way than to attack the reputation of a man who has been dead for a 100 years from a continent far away with no understanding of Victorian British values for the purpose of pushing a “gay is OK agenda”.

    A massive load of bollocks.

  2. BLBeamer says:

    It is pretty obvious to me that Brooke Allen is a closeted heterosexual man. All the pointers are there, if one would only look for them.

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