On the Silence of the Closet

“We don’t want other troops to think we’re like that,” I remember my scoutmaster saying while making the stereotypical feminine swish of the wrist so often used to denigrate gay and gender non-conforming men. We had been talking about what color to make our troop t-shirts for camporees and other scouting related events. Someone had, not entirely unseriously, had suggested pink.

The Boy Scouts of America “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, whereby the Boy Scouts do not engage in active efforts to discover queer identity amongst their members, but which they reserve the right to expel members who openly identify as gender or sexual minorities, was the main reason I decided to stay in the closet as a teenager.

To live in the closet, is to silently drown in slow motion. Everyone you know exists from a distance. You can see the people in your life, but an ever thickening barrier stands between you.

Since I graduated high school, the policy has changed to allow LGBTQ individuals membership as scouts, but not in adult leadership roles. As a teenager, I took the existence of the don’t ask, don’t tell policy as something that always was and always will exist. I never dreamed that I’d one day discover the origins of that policy while researching the history of a city over 1000 miles from where I grew up.

“The Mayor Says There’s No Discrimination Here,” wrote Jim Chalgren in the poem Headline News wrote regarding a statement made by former Mayor Herb Mocol. The words were memorable to me even before I fully came to understand how they had impacted my own life long before I had even moved to Mankato.

When two members of the Police Explorers Post 243 program were outed to the Mankato police sergeant in charge of the program in the 1970s, they were promptly expelled. That decision would ultimately have widespread repercussions. Scott Ford, one of the former police explorers, would appeal the decision, first to the Mankato City Council, then to the Boy Scouts of America National Office.

The response from the Mankato City Council when Ford made his appeal was a stark silence. It was a familiar silence to Mankato’s Gay Consciousness Group, who had only weeks earlier made a push to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation following the Tradder and Trapper incident. The response from Mayor Mocol at the time had been to deny the existence of widespread discrimination in Mankato.

According to the Mankato Free Press, the BSA endorsed the decision by the Mankato police sergeant in expelling two gay scouts from Explorer Post 243. What’s more, Russell Bufkin the director of public relations who was interviewed by the Mankato Free Press at the time, notes that this incident was the first time that any scouts had been expelled because of their sexual orientation. This story can be found in the Mankato Free Press, Jan. 31, 1978 issue.

It gives me no pleasure to note that having previously volunteered with the Mankato Public Safety Department, that things have not really changed for the better. I quit volunteering with the MPSD after being alienated and facing what I felt was discrimination when I tried to advance within the organization.

While I was a volunteer, I suggested the MPSD should appoint an LGBTQ liaison. The suggestion was ignored. When I applied to be a reserve officer with the MPSD, they turned me down. I decided to continue volunteering with them for a year, with the intent of reapplying during their next round of hiring. Unfortunately, a year later when an email was sent out saying they were hiring again, I was to discover that the MPSD would not even interview me due to a policy saying that one had to wait three years before reapplying. Since I had already spent the interim year volunteering, I found myself feeling like I had been straight up exploited.

It’s worth noting as well, during that year, I found myself working with a reserve officer during the Mankato Marathon who had been selected during the same round of hiring I had also applied for. While talking with this reserve officer during the event, I found out he had no relevant experience or education to law enforcement. As a result, I felt like I had to take on the role of training someone who was getting paid to do, while I was stuck as an unpaid volunteer.

While researching the incident with the two explorer scouts who had been expelled, I kept finding parallels to my own experiences with the MPSD. For example, my volunteer work was described as “A+” and I was complimented on my “enthusiasm”. Likewise, one of the scouts had received a commendation for their volunteer work and strangely enough, the sergeant who expelled them, described them as “brave” when they stood up for themselves at the city council.

Looking back at both what I uncovered in researching Mankato history and my own experiences as a volunteer, I feel comfortable in saying that the MPSD is an institution desperately in need of change while ironically being dead set against making any kind of meaningful changes. There was no excuse for the way they treated two young men they expelled from the Mankato Police Explorers Program, just as there is no excuse for the way they exploited me as a volunteer.

We live in a time when the need for police to meaningfully reform so that they can continue to operate in a diverse society. Yet my work with the MPSD revealed an institution unwilling to make those changes that are so desperately needed.

Header Photo: My merit badge sash with the badges I earned during my time as a Boy Scout. I still have fond memories of earning the sailing and canoeing merit badges at Camp Henderson. (Jeremy Redlien/The Reporter)

Write to Jeremy Redlien at Jeremy.Redlien@mnsu.edu

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