Scouting out equality
Allowing gay members in the Boy Scouts of America would be a huge step toward social justice for LGBTQ communities
THE BOY Scouts of America are an iconic organization. For generations, young men have learned about leadership, the outdoors and public service by spending their time with the Scouts. But the BSA has recently been embroiled in a series of controversies stemming from its ban on gay scouts. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the organization’s right to ban openly gay boys and men from membership as scouts or leaders. Facing increased resistance to this policy, the Boy Scouts of America launched a two-year internal review that ended about six months ago. Despite the length of the process and ever-increasing public support for LGBT rights, the Scouts decided to risk negative press and continue their ban. The issue has recently gained more attention, thanks to cases of former scouts such as Ryan Andresen, who was denied certification as an Eagle Scout because of his sexual orientation. Ryan’s petition on change.org has gained almost 500,000 signatures.
Though I was never a member of the Scouts, I have always been a fan of their mission. My father was an Eagle Scout and passed a love of camping and the outdoors on to me, and I often wished I could have been a Scout myself. More recently, my younger cousin joined the Scouts, and the focus and structure of the program has helped him learn to channel his talents in a positive way. Though he often struggles to leave his comfort zone, the Scouts provided an outlet where he felt comfortable taking risks. Seeing how much the Scouts meant to him gave me a lot of respect for the organization’s ethos and ability to make an impact on a young boy’s life.
This respect inspired a lot of conflict in me when I learned about the BSA’s discriminatory policy toward gay scouts. Although I continued to be supportive of its core mission of service to others and the natural world, I couldn’t justify support of an organization with such an illogical and outdated stance toward a trait that had nothing to do with its work. In some cases, the policy reached extreme levels of irony, as in the case of Andresen, whose Eagle Scout project was a “tolerance wall” composed of accounts of several acts of kindness that fought bullying in his community. The Scouts were turning into one of the destructive forces I had respected them for fighting. Whereas I had previously admired the strength of the Scouts’ conviction, I saw its policy as an excuse to discriminate against children who failed to meet an arbitrary standard.
My conflict of opinion on the Boy Scouts is why I was so encouraged to hear the Scouts are now reconsidering their policy toward gay members. This time, the change would allow local chapters to make their own decisions about whether or not to accept gay scouts and, conversely, would allow for potential members to find a chapter willing to accept their identities. Though I hope the BSA can someday make a strong statement about tolerance and inclusion, even such a moderate change would prove a huge step. A gay inclusion policy would not only let scouts like Andresen achieve the recognition they deserve, but would likely encourage many more children to join the Scouts. Intolerance is often because of a lack of understanding, so the organization’s increased exposure to the LGBT community will likely result in more members broadening their perspectives. A small change like this could be the first step in a long process toward complete acceptance.
This change’s impact would not be limited to the Scouts themselves. If an organization as committed to fundamental values as the BSA can take even a moderate step toward tolerance, it sets an example for other organizations with discriminatory policies to make similar changes. A high-profile move toward inclusion will also be a huge boost toward the larger fight for LGBT marriage rights, and more importantly, the effort to broaden the perspectives of all Americans who don’t yet acknowledge the equality and humanity of their gay neighbors.
The Scouts still have a lot of work to do, but even their marginal willingness to change is enormously important — not just for current scouts, but also for past members who can have a little more pride in the organization and for future scouts who will participate in a more enlightened and open community. Ending such a dated policy toward a characteristic irrelevant to its mission will strengthen the BSA’s credibility as an organization that promotes service, leadership and strength of character in young men of all backgrounds.
Forrest Brown’s column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.