As you've probably heard, the Boy Scouts of America's national leadership is considering a change to their controversial membership policy against gay scouts and adult leaders. Under the proposed revision, "The Boy Scouts would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members, or parents"; instead, individual troops and the local charter organizations (churches, schools, Kiwanis chapters, etc.) that support them would decide whether to allow gay participants or keep excluding them.
As a former Eagle Scout who cares deeply about discrimination in scouting, I've spent perhaps a few too many hours since Monday's announcement in discussion with LGBT activist friends, gay men who are or have been Eagle Scouts, and conservative commenters on the Scouts' official Facebook page. Many of them have serious reservations about the proposed policy, but I continue to hope that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) will adopt it. For those of you who disagree, or are looking to understand this issue a little better before weighing in, I’ve taken some of the most common and/or interesting objections I came across and, with some help from my friends and family, tried to answer them.
1. The proposed policy exposes kids to pedophiles.
I have a hard time taking this claim seriously in light of all the mature, compassionate, not-at-all-predatory gay people I know, but the homosexuality-equals-pedophilia myth is still very real in the minds of some Facebook commenters. So let’s take a look at the facts.
From what I've read, many child molesters don't actually develop what we think of as sexual orientations (i.e., patterns of desire for adults of one or more genders) at all; instead, they're sexually fixated on children or adolescents more or less exclusively. That may be why relatively few child molesters — even men who molest boys — identify as gay: Since we generally think of straightness as a default category (in the language of identity theory, it’s “unmarked”), it’s socially easier for pedophiles who are neither straight nor gay to present themselves as straight.
More than one commenter warned that allowing out gay people to serve as adult leaders was tantamount to inviting Jerry Sandusky along on campouts, but Sandusky actually illustrates how totally disconnected open gayness and child molestation are: when he committed his heinous crimes, he presented himself as straight and was legally married to a woman, so the current policy on out gay people wouldn't have done a thing to keep him from signing up as an assistant scoutmaster. And, try as I might, I honestly can't imagine how the new policy might give extra encouragement to predators.
Finally, whether or not the policy in question changes, the Scouts' "Two-Deep Leadership" practice, which prohibits adult leaders and Scouts from spending time together one-on-one out of view of other adults, will continue to serve as a safeguard against inappropriate and harmful conduct of all kinds.
2. It lets lots of people keep discriminating.
That's true; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) and the Catholic Church charter tons of troops and aren't likely to voluntarily adopt pro-gay troop membership policies anytime soon, given their track records on issues like same-sex marriage. But would a nationwide, top-down formal policy change for all BSA subsidiaries really do a much better job of ending discrimination?
Forced to adopt a membership policy they find morally abhorrent, many troops might be expected to either splinter off and form their own even more anti-gay group, or simply find more subtle and damaging ways of making gay participants unwelcome. The neat thing about the proposed change is that even if, for example, every single troop currently operating in the Salt Lake City metro area decides it won't allow gays to participate, it's a safe bet that a strong-willed mom or dad in that area will start a new troop, and nearby parents who don’t condone discrimination will flock to it with their kids. Which brings us to the next objection:
3. It'll decimate the organization.
Even though the proposed change wouldn't necessarily affect their troops at all, plenty of angry parents have threatened to pull their kids out of the BSA should it take effect. That's a threat not just to the BSA's impressive membership roster but also to its budget: Various levels of the organization pull funding from membership dues, summer camp revenue, and official paraphernalia sales.
Fortunately, any misguided exodus from the program will be offset at least in part by an influx of parents (including many straight parents) who have kept their boys (including many straight boys) from participating until now because they object to the current exclusionary membership policy. Well before any of us knew I was gay, my dad seriously considered refusing to let my little brother and me join the organization for just that reason, and several of my male peers have told me that their parents ultimately did decide not to let them join.
Given how much public opinion has changed since I was a kid, I have to imagine that many more parents of Cub Scout-age (elementary school) children today have similar qualms about the policy but would be happy to involve their kids in a BSA that’s even partially reformed.
4. It's not Christian.
Firstly, says who?
Sure, LDS and Catholic churches sponsor troops, but so do Methodist, Unitarian, Episcopal, and other churches that take a laissez-faire or “hate the sin, love the sinner” approach to sexual minorities. Even the idea that the Bible prohibits same-sex relationships is hardly settled theology. Instead of rehashing the old surprising-things-prohibited-in-Leviticus discussion, I’ll just recommend Matthew Vines’s incredible presentation on what the Bible does and doesn’t say about modern homosexuality.
But even if you are convinced all legitimate Christendom is anti-gay, so what? The Scout Law says “A Scout is Reverent,” not “A Scout is Christian.” Plenty of other faith traditions have long been honored by the BSA.
5. It exposes individual chartering organizations to lawsuits.
This is a crafty argument, meant to stir up sympathy for innocent little community churches that can’t afford legal fees. But a moment’s consideration makes clear that it’s frivolous.
Even if local churches are in some sense “forced” to discriminate for themselves rather than relying on a powerful national organization to do it for them, who in their right mind is really going to try and sue a church for an internal policy regarding sexuality — especially in the aggressively pro-speech judicial climate that’s given us Citizens United — when they could simply get their own troop chartered at a nearby public school or business?
Even gay people believe in American pluralism and moral self-determination.
6. It's a demonstration of weakness on the part of the BSA.
The tenth tenet of the Scout Law is that a Scout is Brave, and it doesn't seem particularly brave of the national leadership to go back on their recent reaffirmation of the current policy or to try and wash their hands of this issue by passing the buck to local groups — especially if they’re doing so in an effort to get back lucrative corporate sponsorships with minimal real change, as some have suggested.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to understand why the BSA finds this option attractive. As the response to even this truly minor proposal shows, a hardline change nationwide might legitimately imperil the entire organization. Even though LGBT people have made great strides, the nation’s still deeply divided — along regional, generational, and political lines — on whether and how to treat us as legal equals. The same is true of the national scouting community.
Fortunately, whatever the motivation behind it, a policy tweak that brings pro- and anti-gay local civic organizations together under the BSA umbrella is exactly the sort of thing that’s likely to encourage long-term change for the better. Based on the experience of the LGBT rights movement to date, even if all-straight troops refuse to interact directly with gay-friendly troops at local gatherings, once they see for themselves how competent and normal gay Scouts and leaders can be, they’ll be much more likely to favor granting them equal formal status.
Since de facto integration is probably out of the question in some areas, why insist on the formality? I’m honestly conflicted on this point, because I recognize that that formality would send a clear and much-needed message of acceptance to LGBT kids who are struggling to come to terms with their identities or find affirmation in their home communities. On the whole, however, I think the benefits I’ve described in this piece still make this an acceptable compromise.
For those of you who still aren’t comfortable with the idea of gay people, I understand that this kind of change can seem scary and uncomfortable and complicated. But I hope you’ll trust me when I say that this change will be remarkably minor for you and hugely meaningful for people like me.
Pro-gay folks, I hear you too. This isn't the best possible policy, but it may be the best practical one — and it's certainly the only one that's on the table right now. Compromise with and compassion for those who find us objectionable might even be the best way to change their minds in the long run.
The BSA’s national leadership meets next week to make a decision — and the mere fact that we know that when they’ve been so secretive about past rounds of decision-making is a sign that they want feedback. Between now and then, please get on the phone, write an email, and do whatever else you can to let the BSA know you support this historic compromise.