The Boy Scouts’ policy on homosexuality has been making some waves lately, and as a long time Boy Scout, I feel obligated to say a few things about it. Rather than pitch a fiery argument for either side, I would rather focus on providing some perspective from an insider, augmented by my personal opinions.
First comes the legal perspective, because no matter my or others’ personal opinions on the issue, the fact remains that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is a private organization that has the right to decide who it admits into its ranks. Some would say that like a weight loss club that would naturally reject members who were destructive to the group spirit of weight loss, the BSA has the right to disallow anyone they deem injurious to the mission of Scouting. They will claim that gay scouts openly joining the ranks of straight ones will distract the group from their activities and pose a risk of sexual harassment.
I believe this argument is mean-spirited and wrong, but ultimately whether the policy changes is up to the BSA itself. As the Supreme Court found in BSA v. Dale, there is no valid legal argument to force an organization into accepting anyone it doesn’t want to. The BSA will have to change of its own accord.
The thing that most people don’t realize about the Scouts is that it’s a highly independent organization. That is, troops are run in complete isolation of each other with little guidance from the national council. Apart from some very basic rules that all troops must follow, each unit is essentially left to its own devices, often running with vastly different policies than other units, even those in the same local area.
This is how the current divide with regards to the handling of the national policy on homosexuality came to be. Some troops endorse it, others are ambivalent, and still more outright reject it, allowing openly gay leaders and scouts to join freely. I believe that this dichotomy is more of a reflection of the regional culture of each troop than an embodiment of national policy. In socially conservative parts of the country where homosexuality is generally frowned upon, Boy Scout troops don’t permit gay leaders to join. In more liberal parts like the Bay Area, acceptance of gay members is much more common.
Nonetheless, the lack of a unifying endorsement of equality from the national council can create a troubling “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” mentality, even in the most accepting troops, out of fear of running counter to BSA policy. Gay scouts, much like atheist ones, are left out in the cold; they are admitted but disallowed from being open about their identity, and many become frustrated and quit. Others carry on, sometimes even achieving the highest honor in Scouting, the Eagle rank, only to later be found out and have all of their hard work revoked.
The fact that these Scouts are denied the fruits of their labor even after showing that they have all the work ethic, integrity, and leadership skills to be qualified, shows a disturbing lack of judgement on the part of the BSA. The actions of the national council reveal it to be an archaic, discriminatory group which gives the entire scouting movement a bad image.
Regardless of what I or anyone else thinks, this policy is in the hands of the higher ups at the BSA. It would benefit the organization immensely to adopt a more modern concept of equality. Frankly, it embarrasses me that this is still an issue in our society, but the Scouts has given me so much that I feel it would be wrong to denounce the organization completely. Once you get past their stubbornness to change, the BSA is truly an incredible organization, one that has enriched the lives of millions of young people around the nation. I only fear that the leadership’s old ways have done irreparable damage to the entire scouting movement.