Boy Scout Gay Ban: Why Lifiting the Ban is No Cause For Celebration

On Thursday, over 1,400 leaders from the Boy Scouts of America’s 270 councils convened in Texas and voted to alter the BSA’s long-standing policy preventing openly homosexual youth from participating in scouting. Under the newly-adopted policy, youth membership is open to all, but historical standards for adult leadership roles are left unchanged.

Following strong endorsement by BSA’s top leaders in a closed meeting Wednesday evening the measure passed with more than 60% support. While the vote was superficially a victory for progressive advocates and many of Scouting’s youth, a substantial majority of whom were in favor of the change, this premature celebration obscures a much more sinister aspect of Thursday’s policy change. Not only does the newly adopted resolution explicitly deny participation to openly homosexual scout leaders, but its stated reasons for doing so are deeply troubling and inject dangerously homophobic rhetoric into BSA’s official policy. 

I grew up as a Boy Scout, fortunate to experience only the wonderful parts of scouting – the camping, the hiking, the adventures, the emphasis on conservation, the great friendships. I earned my Eagle Scout award and even guided backpacking trips at a Scout reserve for two of the best summers of my life. But in recent years I've found it increasingly difficult to support BSA in any capacity due to their extremely troubling attitude toward homosexuality. 

BSA's long-standing policy stated that no inquiries will be made regarding sexual orientation, but that they "do not grant membership to individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals.” Just last summer the national board reaffirmed this policy, but in the past year there's been substantial backlash and growing momentum for policy change both from the public and from sponsors such as UPS, Merck, Intel, United Way, Chipotle, and others who have withdrawn support.

In February the national board met again and admitted to "reconsidering the ban;" in April they proposed the new standards adopted in yesterday’s vote which opened youth membership to all but maintained previous standards for adults in leadership positions (which includes anyone 18 or older involved in Scouting). Advocates were quick to point out the ultimate goal is for standards to be opened for adults as well, but I’ve been struck by the lack of discussion of the actual language passed in yesterday’s resolution. 

The proposed standard was fairly basic legalese, but what jumped out to me was the reasoning given for the distinction between youth and adult standards:

WHEREAS, youth are still developing, learning about themselves and who they are, developing their sense of right and wrong, and understanding their duty to God to live a moral life; […]

WHEREAS the Boy Scouts of America will maintain the current leadership policy for all adult leaders of the Boy Scouts of America,

To me this signals, if anything, a turn toward even more extreme anti-gay rhetoric than the previous standards. Did we really use this opportunity for increased tolerance to backslide into absurd claims about homosexuality being a phase that youth pass through? To cement as official policy that youth are allowed to be gay because they are ignorant, but as soon as a Scout turns 18 a magic switch flips and if he wants to stay in Scouting he must now hustle back into the closet?

The prevailing "reformer" view seems to be that we should welcome this incremental progress and keep working for more, and that policy change for leaders will soon follow. While I’m proud of the new opportunities available to BSA youth, I’m not sure I agree that this change was “better than nothing.” Publicity-wise, was it progress? Of course. But at the cost of entrenching truly terrifying homophobic rhetoric into official policy? I’m not sure it was worth it.

Already the Connecticut Yankee Council has vowed to continue defying national policy, and there are other groups such as Troop 56 in Cambridge, Mass., openly opposing current standards.

And so today I'm hopeful for the future, and I find some solace in the fact that these standards are rarely enforced at the local level. But that doesn't change the fact this hateful, discriminatory policy exists, nor that we are surrounded by amazing models to follow (like the Girl Scouts) if we only chose to do so.