At this year's Texas Boys State conference, 920 high school students, or statesmen as they're referred to, gathered at the University of Texas at Austin to form municipalities, run for office, and pass legislation.
During their hectic week learning the “rights, privileges, and responsibilities of franchised citizens,” they debated the legalization of marijuana and drafted strategies for water conservation and education and immigration reform.
They also gave speeches touting “Cold Beer and Titties,” designed campaign logos showing women in bikinis, and created a party platform shaming teenage mothers.
Founded in 1935, American Legion Boys State is a highly respected, nationally-operated educational program whose motto is “Learn by Doing.” The boys nominated to attend are chosen for their character, scholarship, and service.
While Texas Boys State has earned its prestigious reputation, it faced criticism in 2005, when Texas Monthly reported that three statesmen withdrew from the program, due to their fellow students' homophobia and the “atmosphere of hatred and intolerance.” The young men I spoke to who attended this year's conference said they overheard homophobic slurs, but were proud the group had overcome the bigotry of a few and worked together to approve civil unions. What troubled them was the degrading way a number of statesmen treated women.
As evidence, a statesman shared a photograph he took with his cell phone of a slide from the Nationalist Party platform, one of two non-partisan parties the boys are assigned to.
He said he approached a party leader for further explanation of the requirement that pregnant teenagers on welfare must “out” themselves to their neighbors and was told:
- “So you know how sex offenders have to go door to door, basically it's the same concept except the teen pregnant mom has to go door to door.” The leader added, “We're not trying to shame them, we're just trying to get them help from the community.”
I asked another statesman if there was any discussion of what would be required of teenage fathers. He lamented: “It's all on the woman. The moral dilemma is completely the woman's.”
Even if you tried to explain-away the requirement as just a poorly-phrased attempt at bringing more attention to teen pregnancy, it would be hard to rationalize a statesman's campaign speech at a county convention: “He just said 'Cold Beer and Titties' and sat down.”
It would also be difficult to justify the appropriateness of the campaign materials for the Federalist Party, as seen in images tweeted and shared on Instagram, adorned with versions of the #txboystate hashtag:
When a statesman asked a counselor if there was a way to complain to the higher-ups about the problematic speeches and images, he was told that “there wasn't time” due to their busy schedules. However, one counselor did verbally reprimand students who catcalled women and pre-teens attending classes and camps on the campus. I emailed Texas Boys State to ask if there was a formal way for counselors to pass on students' complaints and was told to visit the website. The only information I could find stated that one of the duties of City Counselors was to “assure that the delegates under their supervision conduct themselves appropriately at all times.”
Put nearly one thousand high school boys together and you're bound to have shenanigans. But it appears that the adults at Boys State missed an opportunity to ask certain young men to reconsider their attitudes towards women.
Or maybe that sets too high of a standard; after all, some of the elected officials in our Texas State Legislature aren't exactly modeling excellent statesmanship. In the Texas Observer last year, Olivia Messer reminded readers that in 2011, State Rep. Mike “Tuffy” Hamilton “interrupted Marisa Marquez during a House floor debate to ask if her breasts were real or fake.” She also reported that female state legislators observed “senators ogling women on the Senate floor … watching porn on iPads and on state-owned computers … legislators hitting on female staffers or using them to help them meet women.”
What happened at Girls State, the female counterpart to Boys State run by the American Legion Auxiliary, might offer us a glimmer of hope.
The young women I spoke with said they had an empowering experience and felt inspired to run for public office. Even though they didn't have a single member of the state legislature speak to them, while more than 30 state representatives, senators, and current and former statewide elected officials visited the boys.
They raved about the program and were especially proud to have passed legislation legalizing gay marriage. They even elected a justice of the peace who “married” eight couples. One young woman excitedly recapped the day:“We just started marrying people!”
The girls also wrote legislation addressing rape on college campuses and requiring Texas high schools to fund performing arts programs, and had a heated debate about raising the minimum wage. They spoke of their efforts to create meaningful compromise and the respect with which they were treated by their fellow attendees, regardless of their race, socioeconomic background, religion, or sexual orientation. As one young woman told me, “Everybody made an effort to make sure everyone's voice was heard.”
Encouraging more young women to pursue public service in the future is just one way to combat the sexist attitudes of our society and state legislature. Supporting the young men who speak out against inappropriate behavior and the demeaning treatment of women is another. The young man from Boys State who reported the catcalling told me his hope is to return as a counselor, to help make changes and ensure that the statesman “respect the privilege and uphold the responsibilities” of their position.