Update (Feb. 4, 2013, 1:10 p.m.): Be sure to head over to QNotes to read the editorial, “Critics of Boy Scout policy should follow Scouters’ lead,” published this morning.
There was much controversy this past week as news broke that the national board of the Boy Scouts of America would be considering ending their national anti-gay membership and leadership policy.
“This would mean there would no longer be any national policy regarding sexual orientation, and the chartered organizations that oversee and deliver Scouting would accept membership and select leaders consistent with each organization’s mission, principles, or religious beliefs,” Scouts spokesperson Deron Smith said in a statement. “BSA members and parents would be able to choose a local unit that best meets the needs of their families.”
Smith also promised that the Scouts’ national leaders would “not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members, or parents” and that the national body “would not require any chartered organization to act in ways inconsistent with that organization’s mission, principles, or religious beliefs.”
The news of this week is stunning, reversing decades of exclusion of gay men and boys from participation in the nation’s preeminent organization for training and equipping young men with the tools, principles and values necessary for becoming good citizens.
There’s no firm deadline determined for making the decision, but it could come down as soon as this coming week’s national executive board meeting. And, in the meantime, LGBT and progressive leaders are speaking out with a variety of talking points, some helpful and others I believe ignore the reality of this small bit of forward movement, the chink in the armor of the Scouts’ long-standing discriminatory practices that will inevitably give way to extraordinary progress.
Mixed reactions from national leaders
Some in the national LGBT and progressive community hailed the decision, including folks at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and others associated with their long campaign to end the policy:
“The Boy Scouts of America have heard from scouts, corporations and millions of Americans that discriminating against gay scouts and scout leaders is wrong,” said GLAAD President Herndon Graddick. “Scouting is a valuable institution and this change will only strengthen its core principles of fairness and respect.”
“This would be an incredible step forward in the right direction,” said Zach Wahls, Eagle Scout and founder of Scouts for Equality. “We look forward to working with BSA Councils and chartering organizations across the country to end the exclusion of our gay brothers in Scouting, as well as the gay and lesbian leaders who serve the organizations so well.”
“More than 1 million people have joined Change.org campaigns urging the Boy Scouts of America to end their national anti-gay policy, and today, those signers are celebrating a huge victory for people-powered change,” said Mark Anthony Dingbaum, Senior Campaign Manager at Change.org. “Jennifer Tyrrell, Zach Wahls, and Ryan Andresen have proven that long-standing institutions of discrimination are no match for cutting-edge online tools and powerful storytelling.”
I, too, spoke out about the potential policy change, interviewing with NBC Charlotte and Greensboro/Winston-Salem’s FOX 8 WGHP, as well as The Associated Press. Each time, I recounted the positive experiences and lifelong lessons the Boy Scouts taught me and why I thought the policy change was progress, even if its potential approval presents certain challenges or complications. (See my letter to the national Boy Scouts office and learn how you can speak out to them as well…)
Other leaders in the movement weren’t as pleased. Though Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin initially had positive remarks about the news — “The pulse of equality is strong in America, and today it beats a bit faster with news that the Boy Scouts may finally put an end to its long history of discrimination,” he said in a GLAAD release — his organization later came out with a more strident tone.
“It might sound like good news. But it’s not good enough,” Griffin wrote in an emailed message to HRC’s tens of thousands of members as he outlined new criteria for the group’s annual Corporate Equality Index:
Imagine a fast-food chain that leaves its equality policies up to each local franchise. One restaurant might welcome LGBT employees, while a few blocks away, another bans them.
That’s exactly what the BSA is doing. And the price will be paid by vulnerable young people – kids who need, above all, acceptance and love but will be met with rejection.
That’s why today I am announcing a new criterion in our Corporate Equality Index. To receive a perfect rating on the CEI, companies in the future will have to demonstrate that they do not donate to organizations that discriminate, even at the local level. Organizations like the BSA should know that their corporate donors are watching.
And, from among the gay press, the news took a bit of beating, too. Mark Segal, publisher of Philadelphia Gay News, a colleague I deeply respect for his longstanding history in our movement and in gay media, decided to take on the Boy Scouts membership issue in his first column for The Philadelphia Inquirer and philly.com.
“Is there a Boy Scout merit badge for bulls***? If not there should be, and the first recipients of it should be the National Boy Scouts Board,” Segal wrote. “And the second should be all the LGBT activists and writers who were gushing all over themselves without having a single shred of concrete information.”
Segal went on to express his concerns, like Griffin, of removing a national policy of discrimination and replacing it with one geared toward local autonomy.
“Seventy percent of chapters of the Boy Scouts of America are sponsored by either the Mormon or Catholic churches,” Segal wrote. “So in reality, they have shifted the battle from their front door to thousands of local communities, a city-by-city battle. This policy may be a good thing for big progressive cities, but what about the rest of the nation?”
Calling for something better, praising progress where you see it
I initially took Griffin’s second statement on behalf of the Human Rights Campaign badly. It, like Segal’s, comes across harshly. For his part, Segal seems to ignore the progress that has occurred here. Though the proposed policy seems like small progress when compared to a larger potential for a national policy of inclusion, such a view ignores the reality of the movement for inclusion in the Scouts thus far.
Both Griffin and Segal are right on some accounts. The proposed policy isn’t perfect. First, the Scouts’ aren’t at all addressing their long-standing policy of discrimination on the basis of religious belief and this proposed local policy on gay members and leaders will inevitably leave some Scouts and leaders stuck with anti-gay policies handed down by local chartering organizations.
But, for an organization that has consistently, as recently as last July, upheld their anti-gay policies time and time again, this one small step backing away from discrimination is a milestone unlike any other — the first and only time the national leaders of the Boy Scouts of America have signaled they are ready to accept openly gay boys and young men into the honored and storied tradition of American Scouting.
That is nothing small. Indeed, it is big news. Really BIG news. The kind of news that I’ve waited to hear for more than a decade since I was dismissed from Scouting at the age 14; news that a good colleague and fellow booted Scouter has waited to hear for more than 30 years.
There’s no doubt that the proposed policy, if approved, will cause complications and challenges. It’s not inappropriate to point out how the policy could be made better nor is it inappropriate to keep pushing for change. But the real-world implications, which Segal, in particular, does not address, will be the final straw in breaking the Scouts’ history of discrimination. Herein lies the real progress and its potential for future movement.
Among the implications:
- Differing troops and differing policies: If the new policy is approved, there will be an inevitable ideological split in Scouting even down to the local level, as one troop agrees to allow openly gay Scouts and leaders while another, just down the street or across town, decides to retain its exclusionary practices.
- Differing policies and confusion: Young Scouts who are coming of age and coming out, as I did at 14, may not know that their troop has retained their anti-gay policies. They will come out and the troop and its chartering organization will be faced with a tough decision: How will we treat this young man, knowing that a boy in a similar situation in the troop across town is being accepted with open arms and compassion? Troops and leaders in positions like this will be put into situation of near-impossible circumstances. If news breaks they’ve discriminated against a gay young person but the troop across the street has not, there’s no way the perpetrators of exclusion and discrimination will receive a fair hearing in the court of public opinion and there’s no easy way for local council leaders to manage the resulting media fallout.
- Confusion and interaction: Ultimately, confusion over the policy will affect relationships beyond the local unit. Troops, some with openly gay Scouts and leaders and some without, will inevitably interact at regional camporees, annual summer camps, national Scouting reservations and programs and the national jamboree. Leaders, some of them openly gay and some of them not, will interact in district, regional or council leadership meetings. What is to stop a closeted gay young person from being inspired by and comforted by the openly gay peers he meets from another troop set up at the campsite next to his? What will stop this young person from coming out even in the face of his troop’s anti-gay policies? How will the local governing council ensure all the boys in their care are treated with dignity and respect? Certainly, council leaders can’t allow one boy in one troop to be treated with derision while another boy in the exact same situation is treated with honor and safety. Again, the media fallout would be excruciatingly difficult to deal with.
- Interaction and softening approaches: As gay Scouts and leaders interact with each other at regional or annual events and as gay leaders step up to the plate in regional, district or council leadership committees and boards, those with anti-gay views will be forced to make yet another decision; their options: Stay in Scouting where gay youth and leaders are now accepted and keep my mouth shut, stay in Scouting and continue pushing for organization-wide discrimination though national policy no longer allows it, stay in Scouting and change my views, or leave Scouting and take my discrimination with me. In each of these cases, it’s the gay Scouts and leaders who eventually win and the voices of exclusion who lose.
- Softening approaches and full inclusion: Ultimately, as more gay Scouts and leaders become more visible, local councils and, eventually, the national governing body will be forced to deal with the issue yet again. Needs and concerns will arise on a variety of levels: How can we maintain unity while at the same time allowing some to promote division and exclusion? (Answer: You can’t.) Do some Scout leaders have the training and knowledge necessary to deal with the sensitive issues of coming out and the potential for bullying and harassment by a gay youth’s peers? (Answer: They don’t, and youth protection and anti-bullying training will inevitably be updated to include matters related to LGBT youth safety.) If we admit that gay young people can be full members and that they must be treated with respect, dignity and safety, how can we not demand the same practices from all troops at all levels? (Answer: You can’t, and the discrepancies and disparate treatment won’t take long to become so obviously problematic that better, more inclusive solutions will be necessary.)
No turning back
The Boy Scouts of America has made their case to the nation. Segal says they “leaked” the news and “floated” the idea to see what reaction they’d get. Maybe it’s true, but so is this: The cat is out of the bag. The national media narrative has sealed the deal: “Boy Scouts are ending their anti-gay membership policies.” There’s no turning back, and if the Scouts do, they’ll face a bigger backlash than they’ve ever faced before. Their corporate donors, including those who sit on their national board, are watching and so is the general public.
If, and, I hope, when, the proposed policy is handed down, we’ll begin to see change in local Scouting units and councils the likes of which we’ve never seen. Openly gay young men will serve side-by-side in their troops with their straight peers. They will take leadership roles as patrol leaders, quartermasters, scribes and librarians and historians and, like I once did, as chaplain aides. They will be elected to the Order of the Arrow, Scouting’s national honor society. They will lead and teach younger peers about the values and principles of Scouting. Their younger peers will respect them not only as mentors but also as friends, regardless of how they identify their sexual orientation. They, though I was once denied the opportunity, will work toward and earn their Eagle Scout awards. They will be honored in public ceremonies in front of their peers, their parents, their mentors, elected officials and other members of their community. They will take adult leadership roles, serving as assistant scoutmasters and, eventually, as a scoutmasters themseves. And, they will do so with honor and achievement, proving that openly gay Scouts and Scout leaders are just as capable of living the values of Scouting as any of their straight peers.
When all this comes to be, the final standing walls of discrimination and exclusion will come falling down and Scouting and America will be made better from it. When that day comes, the Scouts can finally say that their guarantee that “every American boy shall have the opportunity of becoming a good scout,” first made in the 1911 Boy Scouts Handbook, is a true promise that will never again be abridged nor broken.
Photo: Elvert Barnes, via Flickr. Licensed CC. Description (National Park Service): “The memorial to the Boy Scouts of America stands on the site of the first Boy Scout Jamboree in 1937. It is one of the few memorials in Washington, D.C. commemorating a living cause. The funds to build this memorial were raised by Scout units throughout the United States, and each donor signed one of several scrolls that were placed in the pedestal of the statue. The memorials was unveiled in a ceremony on November 7, 1964. The statue was accepted for the country by Associate Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark, who noted that the day marked his fiftieth anniversary as an Eagle Scout. The bronze statue consists of three figures. The Boy Scout represents the aspirations of all past, present, and future Scouts throughout the world. The male figure exemplifies physical, mental, and moral fitness, love of country, good citizenship, loyalty, honor, and courage. He carries a helmet, a symbol of masculine attire. The female figure symbolizes enlightenment with the love of God and fellow man, justice, freedom, and democracy. She holds the eternal flame of God’s Holy Spirit.”