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 — 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, the 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 1989 biography of the hero, “The Boy-Man,” 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 ingénue’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. Mr. 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,” Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.