The Scouts Ask: Gay or Nay?

Last week, the Boy Scout leadership did something very smart: It announced its policy change on gays in Scouts during an overwhelming news week, when almost no one would pay attention. 

Now let’s give it the ridicule it deserves. The Scouts say they will propose to the voting members of the Boy Scouts of America’s national council—nearly 1,500 of them who will meet in Texas the week of May 20—that the organization allow openly gay Scouts. But that openness will last only until a Boy Scout is 21. Openly gay adults will still be banned as Scout leaders. 

Various different ideologies could underlie this “compromise.” One is the blood libel that has long been levied against gay folks: that because we can’t “reproduce naturally,” we recruit by luring children into our ranks via molestation or temptation, and that allowing us near children is like inviting drug dealers to hang out on school playgrounds. Another is the idea that we are faultily gendered: that gay men are insufficiently manly, and lesbians insufficiently womanly, to be healthy adult models for either sex role. In this view, gay men are failing at their God-given task of being in charge of a family, while lesbians are failing our God-given task of following some man. A third viewpoint is less coherent: In this one, we are simply morally defective somehow, twisted in ways that should not be modeled to children lest we pass on whatever made us this way. Whatever the reasoning—and “reasoning” may be the wrong word, because the attitude is often felt rather than thought out—the underlying message is the same: Adult lesbians and gay men embody moral danger and will lead children astray. Gay kids, by contrast, are innocent, still mucking around figuring themselves out. For them, there’s still hope of being redeemed. 

Until now, the Scouts have essentially had a ”don’t ask, don’t tell” policy: You could be a gay Scout or gay Scout leader as long as you kept it to yourself. If you skulked around and lied, you were fine. But act as if being gay is nothing to be ashamed of—like Jennifer Tyrell, the stay-at-home mom whom other Cleveland parents were happy to have as their Cub Scout den mother, or Ryan Andresen, the Eagle Scout applicant who felt that being an Eagle Scout required him to be open and honest about his sexual orientation—and boom, you get the boot.

To say that the Scouts have been under pressure to change the policy would be an understatement. Just 13 years ago, the Supreme Court told James Dale (represented by Evan Wolfson, then of Lambda Legal) that the Boy Scouts could keep him out for being gay because they were a private organization and had the right to decide what their beliefs were—that, essentially, they had the right to be wrong. The response then was some opining and some eye-rolling, but little real pressure on the Scouts to change. Laws against same-sex intimacy were still constitutional, and much of the country was reacting against Vermont’s imminent recognition of same-sex couples via that shocking innovation, “civil unions”; state after state was busily passing laws that declared no such beast would be recognized within that state’s borders. 

This time around, things are different. The world has changed dramatically. Much of the country, and much of the establishment, now believe that gay and lesbian rights are a just and urgent civil-rights cause. We’re on the verge of winning federal recognition for our marriages at the Supreme Court, and Rhode Island is becoming the tenth marriage-equality state, sealing up New England. So there’s been enormous pressure, out front and behind the scenes. Members of the Scouts’ executive board have been lobbied intensively to change their policy. Corporate leaders like AT&T’s CEO Randall Stephenson have come out in favor of repealing the ban. As The New York Times reported:

Supporters of lifting the ban include several prominent Scouting board members, corporate funders, President Obama and his Republican challenger in last year's election Mitt Romney, several U.S. senators, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and others. Petitions purportedly bearing 1.4 million signatures were presented at Scouting headquarters in Texas.

In blue states, schools and liberal religious organizations have refused to let the Scouts meet on their grounds, in keeping with their nondiscrimination laws and policies. The California legislature is considering a bill that would end the Scouts’ tax exemption unless it repeals the gay ban.

However, there’s also real financial pressure from the other side. According to CBS News, about 70 percent of Boy Scout troops are sponsored by a religious group; one-fourth of all Scout troops are sponsored by the Mormon and Catholic churches alone. And while a growing majority of Americans believe same-sex couples should be allowed to wed, that still leaves more than 40 percent of the country opposed—and they don’t want homos left in charge of their kids, or anyone’s kids, for that matter. 

Let me pause here and point out a cheap shot that I am not going to take. Last fall, the Los Angeles Times did an impressive investigation showing how, in the newspaper’s words, “Boy Scouts helped alleged child molesters cover tracks”:

Over two decades, the Boy Scouts of America failed to report hundreds of alleged child molesters to police and often hid the allegations from parents and the public.

A Los Angeles Times review of 1,600 confidential files dating from 1970 to 1991 has found that Scouting officials frequently urged admitted offenders to quietly resign — and helped many cover their tracks.

It is important to finally hold the organization to account. But let’s remember that just about no one, during the 1970s and 1980s, understood anything about child sex abuse. No organization was doing a good job because the country didn’t yet get how damaging these offenses were—or how persistent the predilection could be. 

Yet it is offensive that the only thing the Scouts appeared to have learned from this expose was to continue to conflate “gay” with “pedophile.” The Centers for Disease Control has issued clear and useful guidelines for keeping children in youth organizations safe from sexually predatory adults—and keeping out gay men is nowhere to be found. 

Instead of accepting the gay-OK-till-21 recommendation, I hope that the Scout assembly at large will instead find a way to move forward on the earlier trial-balloon policy. A few months back, the Scouts let out the suggestion that perhaps each troop could decide its policy on gay members and leaders for itself. That was, I thought, a brilliant compromise, a kind of federalism that would allow each troop to remain in sync with its community’s attitudes. Such a policy would make it possible for individuals locally to lobby and educate their neighbors and friends. Mormon-sponsored troops could live by their own strictures, while the Unitarians or some other group could independently sponsor a gay-welcoming troop across town. That policy would allow the Scouts’ ban to fade slowly, along with anti-gay attitudes, until they were ready to flush it away as an embarrassment. In the meantime, yes, individual gay kids would be marooned in hostile troops as they realize that they might be, you know, like thatbut no matter the policy, you know that those troops (and the families that are putting their kids in them) are not yet going to be welcoming, no matter what the Scouts’ official policy might be. 

Our nine-year-old has been agitating to join the Boy Scouts. He longs for the badges and for another way (besides his multiplicity of sports teams) to hang out with boys and men. I wish we could send him. But if the message the Scouts want to deliver is that his moms (and all lesbian and gay adults) have cooties, we will be sending him somewhere else instead.

Meanwhile, the world continues to move in a single direction on accepting the idea that it’s just fine to love someone of the same sex. Yesterday, the Nevada Senate voted to repeal the statewide constitutional ban on marriage equality; now it goes to the house. Both Rhode Island and Delaware moved forward bills to open marriage to same-sex pairs. This month, France, New Zealand, and Uruguay all passed same-sex marriage laws. Which means that here’s the bigger problem for the Scouts: How far out of step with the times do they want to be?

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