In a decision that quickly attracted national headlines Tuesday, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) decided to uphold their longstanding policy of excluding gays. The news came after a secret, though allegedly “diverse,” BSA committee concluded a two-year clandestine review of the programs discriminatory ban.
Although frustrated, gay rights activists have little in the way of legal recourse. In the 2000 case of BSA v. Dale, the Supreme Court - by a controversial 5-4 vote - ruled the Scouts’ exclusionary policy a form of expressive association protected under the First Amendment.
Putting aside the debate over whether Dale was rightly decided, it is clear that we as a society have a responsibility to counter such homophobic messages wherever they present themselves.
In a recent press release that went virtually unnoticed, the Williams Institute released a report on homelessness among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth. The results of that study are almost beyond belief. Although LGBT people account for only 3.8% of the U.S. population, LGBT kids account for 40% of the nation’s homeless youth - an over representation by a factor of more than 10.
68% of respondents listed family rejection as a major reason for LGBT youth homelessness, and another 58% indicated family abuse as a key factor. Even more concerning, another study found that 68% of LGBT homeless youth had attempted suicide at some point in their lives. By contrast, the rate of attempted suicide for homeless heterosexual kids was 29%.
The reasons for this sorry state of affairs are many and, in any event, too complex to fully explore here in great detail. But policies of exclusion, such as the one reaffirmed Tuesday by the Boy Scouts, are major contributing factors. There is no need to divine what message the BSA is trying to send in affirming the policy, the organization made their intentions abundantly clear to the Supreme Court in Dale. The mission of the Boy Scouts is, “to instill values in young people.” At the same time, the organization stresses that gays must be barred from membership because homosexuality is at odds with the Scouts' oath of leading a “clean” and “morally straight” life.
The final message, then, that the BSA sends is that gay people are morally inferior to heterosexual people and that, for this reason, they should be treated differently from, and less favorably than, straight people. This, after all, was the expression that the Supreme Court intervened to protect in Dale.
Bigoted "speech" of this kind is bad enough in regular circumstances, but it's social malignancy is compounded exponentially when uttered from the lips of a nationally emblematic organization that works directly with impressionable children.
In the 2003 case of Lawrence v. Texas, Justice Kennedy reminded us that, “when homosexual conduct is made criminal by the law of the State, that declaration in and of itself is an invitation to subject homosexual persons to discrimination both in the public and in the private spheres.” That logic - even if not for constitutional purposes - can nonetheless be extended to the actions of private actors. When the Boy Scouts of America so blatantly discriminates against gay people, that action is in and of itself an invitation to subject LGBT people to discrimination in other realms of life, especially in the classroom.
Perhaps unbeknownst to us, many children will be watching to see how the adult community reacts to the Scouts’ most recent condemnation of homosexuality. In places where adults react with cheering acceptance, or even with cool apathy, children will receive a social cue that discriminatory treatment against gays is socially acceptable, or worse, socially encouraged. They will enter their classrooms with this mindset.
For the young boy who is questioning his sexuality, ambivalence or praise for the Scout’s decision will place another bolt on the closet door, driving the youth deeper into isolation and pushing him toward the path of despair and self-loathing.
In 1999, James Dale, a gay Eagle Scout and Rutgers University student, sought to stem this social cancer by seeking a judicial affirmation of New Jersey’s public accommodation laws, which had been used by that state to invalidate the Scouts’ discriminatory policy. Five members of the Court decided, I believe wrongly, to uphold the Scouts policy through a warped and unprecedented reading of the First Amendment.
Eleven years later, another Rutgers student would make national headlines. On September 22, 2010, Tyler Clementi plunged to his death from the George Washington Bridge after finding out that his roommate had recorded him having sex with another man and had posted the video online. Responsibility for this tragic event does not rest solely on the shoulders of Tyler’s bigoted roommate, society is to blame as well.
But because society includes me, you, and several million other people, we are generally quick to defuse our share of the responsibility. We run from our complicity, sometimes forgetting that, in the end, we are all made to face the mirror.
Although the Boy Scouts of America did not push Tyler off the bridge on that fateful night, they, and the millions of people who still cling to homophobic views, were the wind at his back.