In 1908, General Robert Baden-Powell, later elevated to Lord Baden-Powell, a highly decorated veteran of the Boer War, founded an organization he called The Boy Scout Association. That same year, he published Scouting for Boys, a guide to safely camping outdoors, and the first iteration of what would become the Boy Scout Manual. The year previously, Baden-Powell had tried out his ideas for what he hoped would become a national organization to promote wholesome, enjoyable outdoors activities for young men, by taking twenty boys to Brownsea Island and having the first Scout Camp. Two years later, an American businessman named W. D. Boyce discovered the British organization, and decided to start an American version. There’s a lot of mythology regarding the histories of both Baden-Powell and Boyce, but the basic facts are clear enough; Baden-Powell is the founder of Scouting, and Boyce the father of American Scouting.
Baden-Powell was, by all accounts, a charismatic leader, a ripping good storyteller, and a kind-hearted and gentle teacher. It’s quite possible that he was also a closeted homosexual. There have been several biographies of Baden-Powell, most of them hagiographic, intended for boys. Tim Jeal’s 1990 biography, The Boy-Man: The biography of Lord Baden-Powell is superb; meticulously researched, judicious in its conclusions, engagingly written. Jeal concludes that Baden-Powell was also gay. Two earlier biographies had reached similar conclusions. Evidence for this conclusion is entirely circumstantial. Baden-Powell came from a generation where homosexuality was considered a grave moral defect, deeply shameful and immoral. He almost certainly never acted on his feelings.
But consider the evidence, circumstantial though it is. He was a deeply sensitive and artistically talented boy, who played with dolls, but avoided girls at all costs. As an artist, his favorite subjects were attractive young men. In the army, he acted in a number of amateur theatricals, always playing women’s roles. Pretty young women sent him into a state of anxiety, which his friends all teased him for, and his closest emotional attachment was to a young man named Kenneth McLaren, a friendship which nearly ended when McLaren married, and finally did end when Baden-Powell married. In 1912, Baden-Powell, aged 55, met Olave Soames; she was 23. They married, but Baden-Powell was crippled by terrible, psychosomatic headaches every time they went to bed together. Eventually, he had to leave their shared bedroom, and sleep in an army cot elsewhere in their home.
I do not mean to suggest that his marriage with Olave was unhappy, nor was it childless; they had three children, a son and two daughters. Olave was his steadfast companion in running both the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides, the equivalent girls’ organization he founded in 1912. Nor did he seem to be a particularly unhappy man; Scouting became his life, and he was a beloved figure among British boys.
Jeal’s biography (which I whole-heartedly recommend), also deals judiciously with the one genuinely dark rumor about Baden-Powell; that his politics were essentially fascist, and that he supported the Nazis in the Second World War. What’s true is that Baden-Powell was both conservative and politically naive, and reflexively patriotic, and that he distrusted communism. It’s certainly true that an early Scout badge included a swastika. But that was well before that particular symbol had been appropriated by the Nazis. He was, finally, a former military officer who valued discipline, and wanted his Boy Scouts to conduct themselves in an orderly, restrained manner. The evidence does not, however, suggest that he was a fascist.
And here’s what Jeal concludes about Baden-Powell’s homosexuality; it drove him. His accomplishments are startling; something drove him to achieve. He was an honorable and brave soldier, a genuine war hero, a man who devoted his life to working with children, and a charming and funny raconteur. Jeal quotes at length Baden-Powell’s final letter to his beloved Scouts; I think it captures him beautifully:
I have had a most happy life, and I want each one of you to have a happy life too. I believe that God put us in this jolly world to be happy and to enjoy life. . . One step towards happiness is to make yourself healthy and strong when you are a boy, so that you can be useful and enjoy yourself when you are a man. . . . but the real way to get happiness is by giving out happiness to other people. Try to leave this world a little better than how you found it, and when your turn comes to die, you can die happy feeling . . . that you have not wasted your time, but have done your best. “Be prepared” to live happy, and to die happy.
So what does any of this mean in relation to the current controversy regarding Scouting and gay leaders? I would say that it doesn’t mean anything. If, as seems likely, the founder of Scouting was gay, it did not impact the importance or value of the organization to any degree whatsoever. What was the exact nature of his relationship with Kenneth McLaren? We don’t know, we will likely never know, and it does not matter.
Lord Baden-Powell was a wonderful man, who devoted his life to improving the lives of boys and girls world-wide. He was also a fine writer and painter, and a genuine war hero. That’s how we should think of him, because it’s the only aspect of his life that matters. And if today, a similarly gentle, decent and talented man, who also happened to be gay, were to be named Scoutmaster of a troop in the Boy Scouts of America (or for that matter, the Boy Scouts Association in England, or any of the Scouting organizations active internationally), the result would be, not just benign, but actively positive. Children would learn valuable skills, and have a lot of fun doing it. Period. And, in time, that someone else could say, like Baden-Powell, ‘I have had a most happy life, and I want you to have a happy life too.’ That’s the good Scouting can do. Irregardless of the orientation of the volunteer leaders that make it great.