Boy Scouts Gay Ban: Public Pressure Will Change Boy Scouts' History

The Boy Scouts of America has a notorious history of excluding gay youth from their organization. In recent years, it has faced more and more criticism for this controversial policy as the U.S. has become more accepting of gay rights. Now, despite last summer’s affirmation that their policy of excluding gay scouts would stand, recent news indicates that they are reconsidering the ban and may announce a decision next week.

In 2000 the Supreme Court determined that the Boy Scouts were allowed to uphold their homophobic, discriminatory policy on First Amendment grounds. The ruling overturned the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision obliging the scouts to reinstitute assistant scout member James Dale to his former position, after he was dismissed for his sexual orientation. The court argued that forcing the scouts to admit Dale into their organization would be forcing them to endorse homosexuality, violating their “right” to express anti-gay sentiments. It’s not difficult to imagine the uproar that this ruling would have created had the scouts been arguing for the exclusion of non-white people based on the freedom of expression. Since the ruling, the scouts have repeatedly dismissed gay members as well as adult volunteers, such as Jennifer Tyrrell, a lesbian mother who served as the den leader and treasurer for her son’s chapter.

Recently, however, corporate sponsors have spoken out against the policy, some even going as far as to withdraw their support for the institution. UPS, the Intel Foundation, and the Merck Family Company have all either dropped or postponed funding to the organization. The Ernest and Young and AT&T CEO’s have voiced their disapproval of the scouts’ discriminatory policy but did not go so far as to withdraw their financial support, stating that they believed that these policies were best changed from within the organization.

As with other gay rights issues, however, the good news in all of this is that the Boy Scouts’ abrupt and unexpected reconsideration of its policy is the result of the growing rate of acceptance of LGBT individuals in American society. In fact, the most likely reason why they are contemplating re-evaluating their policy is due to grass roots pressure from local scout chapters themselves. As recently as January 27, a Maryland based Cub Scouts chapter attempted to include a non-discrimination pledge against gay scouts but the higher ups coerced the chapter into abandoning the pledge.  

The scouts’ National Capital Area Council threatened to remove the chapter’s membership status unless it rescinded the policy, which was voted on with overwhelming popular support by both scouts and their parents. As such, they faced backlash from community members and organizations such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

In similar instances of popular protests against the organization’s discriminatory policies, over 462,000 people signed a change.org petition requesting that the Boy Scouts grant an Eagle Scout application for the openly gay teenager Ryan Anderson and several eagle scouts returned their badges.

If the Boy Scouts wish to remain relevant in the modern era, they must start by changing their discriminatory and bigoted attitudes towards LGBT youth and adult volunteers. Hopefully, this process will begin as soon as next week. Nonetheless, before we bust out the rainbow flags and declare victory, it is important to note that the proposed policy change leaves it up to the local organizations leading the scouting chapters, some of which are headed by conservative Christian churches, to determine their own policies on admitting LGBT members. Essentially, this is the scouts’ version of the oft-favored “leave it to the states” line of thought when dealing with pertinent civil rights issues. This move is undoubtedly a welcome step in the right direction but the Boy Scouts will soon have to do a lot more to remedy their bigoted past and end up on the right side of history. 

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Bryant Harris

Bryant Harris is a reporter with Inter Press Service News. He has worked in Muscat, Oman and was a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco. He graduated from UW-Madison in 2011 with a BA in Middle East Studies.

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