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Boy Scouts of America  
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The Boy Scouts of America traces its orgins to Britain in 1907, when war hero Robert Baden-Powell led a group of 19 boys from a range of social classes on a camping trip on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbor. There he spent two weeks instructing the boys in skills that have come to identify the Scouting movement--camping, tracking, nature lore, first aid, and citizenship.

Given the success of this excursion, Baden-Powell published the first Boy Scout handbook, Scouting for Boys, in 1908, after which troops in Britain, the United States, and other countries began to form. The Boy Scouting movement had begun.

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Michael Rosenthal argues that the Boy Scouts was born in a moment of imperial crisis for the British Empire. He writes, "Scouting was from the very beginning conceived as a remedy to Britain's moral, physical, and military weakness--conditions that . . . were threatening the empire."

This imperial crisis was deeply rooted in an intense preoccupation with the health of boys and young men's bodies. Baden-Powell and his associates saw British manhood in decline, and their concern for the scrawny physiques of British boys--widely reflected in numerous articles on the subject in the early years of the twentieth century--reveals a widespread crisis of British masculinity that created an opportunity in which the Boy Scout movement would flourish.

It is perhaps ironic that in spite of his eventual marriage to Olave Soames in 1912, many biographers have described Baden-Powell as a repressed homosexual. For the first 55 years of his life, he lived the life of a confirmed bachelor, and most biographers agree that he had little romantic or emotional interest in women during the first part of his life.

Moreover, the most intense relationship of Baden-Powell's life was with another man, Kenneth McLaren, an officer whom Baden-Powell had grown fond of when they first served together in India. Referring to McLaren affectionately as "The Boy," Baden-Powell remained close to him throughout his life. They served with each other in the Boer War, and McLaren followed Baden-Powell into the Boy Scouts after he left the military.

Scouting in America

Two years after the first British Boy Scouts activities, troops in the United States began to form and pursue activities similar to those that Baden-Powell led on Brownsea Island and wrote about in his handbook.

The official Boy Scouts of America movement began in London in 1909, when American publisher William D. Boyce was lost in the dense London fog. According to Scouting legend, a young Scout appeared and offered to help Boyce find his way. When Boyce tried to tip him for his service, the boy refused, saying that as a Scout, he could not accept money for doing a good turn. This incident so impressed Boyce that he spent the next months learning more about the Boy Scouts, and on February 8, 1910, William Boyce officially incorporated the Boy Scouts of America in Washington, D. C.

The British anxieties about masculinity that shaped Scouting were no less pronounced in the United States. In On My Honor, Jay Mechling argues that there was a "similar 'crisis' of masculinity for that generation of middle- and upper-middle class Americans." Early leaders of the U. S. movement, such as Ernest Thompson Seton, Daniel Carter Beard, and James E. West, clearly expressed concerns about the future of American manhood in their work. Their use of Native American lore, nature education, and physical development all were "dedicated to making boys into model men."

The Threat of Homosexuality

The sexual tensions inherent in revitalizing American masculinity in an all male setting have proven difficult for the BSA throughout its history. Mechling writes of stories from the 1920s in which Scout leaders grew concerned about why some of the men volunteered with the organization. As one Scout executive coyly phrased it, "Some men just wanted to be around the boys."

Other incidents have more clearly given the Scouting leadership reasons to fear homosexuality, even as they conflate it with . Scoutmasters have been accused of everything from molesting boys in their troops to running their troops as prostitution rings.

Without dismissing the intense trauma such incidents inflict on individuals, it is important to see how an institution formed to rehabilitate masculinity in the early twentieth century has never ceased to see itself as under attack or at least challenged by homosexuality or effeminacy. Ironically, as much as the organization tries to distance itself from alternative sexualities or gender norms, it cannot escape a defining and overly determined relationship to them.

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Robert Baden-Powell, the father of scouting.
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