The gay mother of two scouts is hopeful for change on the 104th anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America
On Saturday of this week the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) will celebrate its 104th anniversary. BSA is one of the largest youth organizations in the United States. Since its inception, more than 110 million American boys and men have been members, with close to four million currently involved. Historically, over two million men have earned the top rank of Eagle Scout, learning and being recognized for leadership skills that have helped them rise to the upper echelons of American society. There is no comparable organization offering boys the unique combination of leadership training, community service opportunities, and development of self-sufficiency that BSA provides.
At the same time, it would be easy for me and others in the LGBT community to view BSA’s anniversary with some cynicism. Nationwide, and in the Northeast particularly, the Boy Scouts have become a wedge issue. One side lauds BSA for its efforts to mold boys into successful men with a strong commitment to mentoring and community involvement while worrying that the “radicals” in the Northeast are chipping away at the fundamental values that have defined it throughout its history, while the so-called radicals see the century-old organization as anachronistic, intolerant, and in danger of losing relevance due to its exclusions of women, atheists, and gays. As the National BSA has wrestled with the task of redefining its policies and local councils have pushed for autonomy in their membership rules, people are abandoning Scouting in droves, with overall membership down, according to some, by as much as 25%.
On a personal level, the decision to allow my sons to become scouts was a no-brainer. I believe in all that Scouting has to teach: conservation, life skills, ethics, self-reliance, community service. Where else could my sons be surrounded by men who were the kind of men I wanted them to become? And where else, as a woman married to another woman, could I so easily find male role models for my boys? The men I met in Scouting were independent, motivated, ambitious, and kind—the kind of men I would want to date … if I were interested in dating men.
My friends, both LGBT and straight, thought I had gone mad as I described campouts, badges earned, and a group of male leaders who were sensitive, smart, and skilled. Every time a news story broke about the membership debate, they all made sure to clip it, send it to me, and ask if I was OK. I began to feel uncomfortable, not because of Scouting itself, but because I had unintentionally become an apologist for a whole host of other things I don’t believe in, beginning with intolerance.
Scouting began in an era of progressive politics that constituted the first great push for inclusiveness. It was the time of the formation of labor unions, an increasing commitment to public education, and the beginnings of equal rights for women. Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting in England, was committed to the idea of “making men,” and he wrote repeatedly that “Scouting is for all boys.” William Boyce, the American founder of Scouting, donated $1,000 a month to keep Scouting running, on the condition that boys of all races and creeds be included.
For its first 80 years, Scouting did not define classes of boys to exclude. It was not until 1991 that the BSA released a position paper stating that they considered a gay identity to be “inconsistent with the values of Scouting.” Nine years later the BSA revised its practice in a press release stating that they would “make no effort to discover the sexual orientation of any person,” essentially don’t ask, don’t tell. At the national policy level, the rule did not expressly forbid a gay identity, whether in youth or adult members, though the practical reality around each local campfire was and remains different, especially in different areas of the country.
The Scouting that I witnessed in my sons’ local troop allowed them to find friends, acquire valuable life skills, and develop a sense of who they would be as men. Far from the brown-shirted paramilitary organization my friends saw as they fixated on the uniforms, the neatly turned out troop I saw imbued my sons with a sense of belonging as they wore their outfits with pride. As their fellow scouts overcame challenges, they recognized each other’s strengths and supported each other’s weaknesses, and the scouting I observed was both diverse and inclusive. To their credit, our local scoutmasters as well as their older predecessors were both tolerant and supportive of the open secret that my sons had two moms. I eventually learned that a number of local councils have tacit or overt policies that differ from the stated national membership policy, and because each local council is a hybrid organization that mixes paid employees and volunteers, this practice is likely to continue. Many of the leaders whispered in my ear that change is coming.
Ironically, in the national struggle over defining the direction of BSA membership, some of the most conservative constituent organizations are the most ardent advocates of change that, in truth, would signify a return to the original inclusive philosophy behind Scouting. The Mormon Church, which has an energetic and well-developed Scouting program, has embraced tolerance, along with Mitt Romney. And Jim Turley, former Chairman and CEO of Ernst & Young and a BSA executive board member, along with Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, have both publicly opposed a gay ban.
At last year’s national BSA meeting, several local leaders from the Northeast led the fight for a compromise that would allow local councils to set their own membership standards. Ultimately, though, an agreement with potentially devastating effects was adopted: effective Jan 1, 2014, gay scouts would be allowed, but gay leaders would be banned. The absurdity of this policy could not be clearer. Now a gay young man can remain in Scouting until he turns 18, after which he will not be allowed to assume any of the Scouting leadership roles he has been trained for, while also facing the painful choice of whether to reveal his sexual orientation—which may never have been declared—to his fellow scouts as the reason for his withdrawal. If the young man has earned the rank of Eagle Scout, he will also face the bald truth that flies in the face of his ascent: regardless of his mastery of all things Scouting, BSA considers him unfit to lead his own flock.
On Saturday, I will be celebrating the Boy Scouts I know and love: an organization that from its beginnings and throughout its history has worked towards cultivating true leaders, fostering brotherhood, and developing strong and compassionate men. And I am hopeful that change will, indeed, come, enabling gay men to take on leadership roles in Scouting, and enabling my friends to stop sending me all those clippings in the mail.