A Petri Dish of Texas Politics: Boys State Update

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(The response to my original post, from the general public and from Boys State attendees and counselors, warranted a follow-up. Or, as one young man tweeted at me: “If you weren't at Boys State (which you weren't), then stop acting like you know what happened from a few of your 'references.'”)

I received many emails from statesmen and counselors who were upset with how they felt Boys State was portrayed in my original article. They defended the program's ultimate goal–to expose young people to the political process–and took great pride in what they accomplished: In just one week, they elected a government and worked together to address the issues facing our state. As one statesman wrote in an email, “We've taken what we learned … and brought it back home with us, heads held higher, more mature and ready to meet the real world.”

In a response to my request for comment, Gary Flenniken, the Director of Texas Boys State, began his email:

“Thank you for taking the time to reach out to us for comment on your disappointment in the words of one 17-year old boy in a group of 920 this summer at Texas Boys State.”

More below the jump.It's important to remember: It was the boys I talked with for the original article who were disappointed, and not just by one speech. While many of the young men I traded emails with last week stressed that the sexist incidents were isolated events and not at all representative of their experience, one statesman acknowledged that “a more in-depth explanation of rules and conduct at the beginning of the program” would benefit the entire group.

A Senior Counselor I spoke with said that while the logo of the woman in the bikini was only shown on the projection screen for a brief period of time, “It was bad. And this is why I'm glad for the criticism.” He also noted the disconnect between that image and the Federalist Party's platform, which included equal pay for equal work for women: “I should have said, 'Hey guys, you have equal pay for equal work, but you're objectifying women, which is placing them at a lower level. You need to be consistent.'”

To his credit, he summed up the event: “I missed an opportunity to educate.” His views, though, sadly conflict with a number of public comments made by counselors and statesmen: “Just because many people believe something is sexist does not mean it is,” and “When a statesman stands up and talks about women or uses pictures from a magazine, they aren't trying to objectify or diminish the rights of women … sometimes they just want to be funny.”

While the images and the “Cold Titties and Beer” speech were, in all likelihood, not meant to be purposefully disrespectful, that doesn't mean they weren't.

In a comment on the original article that addressed the complaints of catcalling, one statesman explained:

“…we were waiting for a meal, opening doors for passersby and raising our arms over them as we created an opening, cheering and clapping. Naturally, a few were uncomfortable, but they were quite literally being treated like royalty.”

It was disheartening to read some comments from statesmen and counselors who defended the incidents by basically saying, “Boys will be Boys.” Not only is the phrase never an acceptable excuse for unacceptable behavior, it is unfair to boys. Rarely, if ever, is it used to positively describe behavior, like acting as a courageous bystander when a friend is being bullied or studying hard and getting a good grade on a test. Or, to use a more specific example, to describe the actions of the young men at Boys State who worked together to pass important legislation and respectfully debated controversial topics like gun control and welfare and immigration reform.

“Boys State has made great strides in the past decade to be more inclusive.”

The Senior Counselor I spoke with told me that when faced with public criticism, the program has made important changes. He explained that after the scrutiny that followed the 2005 Texas Monthly story, a homophobic joke was removed from the counselor manual. He also noted that while racism and homophobia have receded from the conference, “Sexism is the last holdout,” and he called the camp: “A petri dish of the political climate of Texas.”

Currently, Boys State counselors' training is focused mostly on the importance of their hands-off role. Since my original article was published, the Senior Counselor has been brainstorming ways to improve the training, including preparing “a 20-minute presentation about privilege so they can start talking about it [with the statesmen].” He acknowledged, “It's the first time in the camp's history where [that kind of presentation]would be accepted. In years past, I might have been laughed off the stage.”

However, a number of those I emailed with equated asking counselors to address sexism as breaking a sacred code of Boys State. As one statesman explained, “Should the staff of Boys State have supported any political/cultural view, they would have violated the program's most central tenets.” His comments reflected Flenniken's, who wrote “Our not influencing the ideas students come up with is an important way for us to foreground the “process” of democratic self-governance without embedding any kind of partisan agenda.”

Combating sexism isn't, or shouldn't be, the purview of any one political party or ideology. Asking the boys to consider whether an image is sexist, or asking them if they understand what the word means is not unfairly partisan; it's being an educator and a leader.

It's also admittedly difficult to balance the organization's insistence on keeping the proceedings partisan-free when counselor trainings in the past have included a pro-life presentation during which the question was asked: “What if Mary had aborted Jesus?”

“Teenage boys are rapidly changing, and as they change, the camp changes with them.”

What happened at Boys State isn't just a Boys State problem. It's a reflection of the kind of sexism, even when it's inadvertently perpetuated, that we face in our Texas State Legislature, our classrooms and workplaces, and our entire society. But there's plenty of room for hope. As a Boys State Senior Counselor told me: “I just want people to know that we're aiming to provide an open-minded, safe place for boys to learn. I'm sorry that things still happen on our watch. But we can adapt when faced with criticism, and I believe that [the camp]can change.”


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