Still Straight after All These Years: The Boy Scouts of America

I never made it to First Class Scout! Reading this morning’s New York Times article on the Boy Scouts makes me think the Scouts haven’t made it to First Class either! After being so adamant about never changing their policy on banning gays and then saying they would make a decision to do yesterday, they have delayed the decision until May because “the organization needs time for a more deliberative review.” Since the BSA has been under pressure to drop its discriminatory policy against gays for years, one wonders how much time a “deliberative review” really takes.

The main reason for the delay is that the BSA is being pressured from both sides—by pro and anti-gay activists alike, both with powerful financial, social and institutional clout. What’s at stake in either case is the survival of the Boy Scouts of America as it has been known for more than a century. In his Outline of History H.G. Wells says that the ocean floor is littered with the bones of creatures that refused to adapt. That’s the kind of extinction the Scouts face if they continue to exclude gay boys and leaders from the Scout program. My guess is that they will try to survive not by establishing a national policy but by leaving the decision to individual Scout councils. That will delay the skeletons on the Ocean floor for a while, but not forever, just as discrimination against minorities would have spelled the end of the BSA had their policies continued unchanged.

Perhaps the worst outcome of allowing some or all Scout troops to discriminate against gays is what the scouts in the troops that exclude gays will learn about gays and about equality. Given the mythology that exists in our culture about gays and given the rhetoric about gays from prominent anti-gay religious leaders, one anticipates that such scouts would be taught that being gay is wrong and dangerous, that gay leaders and boys are likely to be predatory, and that homosexuality leads to deviant behavior that violates the Scout oath and code.  For example, Pat Robertson warned that if the ban was lifted, it will lead to “predators as Boy Scouts [and] pedophiles . . . as scoutmasters.” Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association said, “A homosexual does not belong in the same tent with young boys any more than a man belongs in a tent full of Girl Scouts.” Linda Harvey of Mission: America sees the threat as coming not only from gay leaders but also from gay boys: “The kids themselves bring a whole new threat level, mostly to other kids.” Never mind that such fears are based not on mythology not science. (A review of all of the major research articles on pedophilia by psychologists at the University of California, Davis, concluded, “The empirical research does not show that gay or bisexual men are any more likely than heterosexual men to molest children.”)

Young men going through the scouting program in troops dominated by such ideology will learn similar attitudes toward gays, thus continuing discrimination against them as these boys grow into men and take leadership positions in business, education, political and religious organizations, just as the Scout ban on blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and other minorities reinforced racial attitudes in the Scouting program until at least the nineteen seventies.  (Although the ban against blacks was officially rescinded in 1942, the BSA allowed and even encouraged some councils to adopt a policy of racial discrimination for at least thirty years thereafter.) Thus, instead of the Scouts actually countering discrimination, as seems to be consistent with their charter, they would actually end up reinforcing and increasing it.

Where does the Mormon Church stand in regard to this issue? According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the Church was influential in asking for the delay in the decision. It also asked people not to speculate about its position, although stopping such speculation is tantamount to asking a man to “stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Mighty Missouri River in its decreed course.” Since the LDS Church is the most influential religious organization within the BSA (with 37,000 troops and 420,000 youth members), people can’t help but speculate about its position on the proposed change.

One of the most unfortunate results of the homophobia that has been rampant in American culture over the past hundred years is that it has produced and promulgated an entire mythology about gays. That mythology abounds in our society, especially among more conservative religious populations, including Mormonism. Part of that mythology is that it is impossible to be gay and be “morally straight” at the same time. The idea of being “morally gay” seems anathema if not a logical contradiction to many, and yet morality is no more associated with heterosexuality than it is with homosexuality, using almost any measure of behavior one chooses.

A gay scout is just as likely to make an oath to God and country, to other people and to himself as is a straight scout. He is just as likely to be trustworthy, loyal, courteous, kind, brave, clean and all of the other characteristics of the Scout Law. Given his likely experience with bullying and other anti-gay behavior, he is also more likely to be better prepared than his fellow straight scouts, and, for the same reasons, I would argue, more likely to Do a Good Turn Daily.

As a former Young Men’s President who shepherded a number of young Mormon boys through the scouting program and as the father of two scouts, my hope is that the Church will use its influence to encourage true equality in the scouting program. And, if the BSA chooses to continue its discriminatory policy against gays, my hope is that the Church might create its own inclusive scout program, one that is in harmony with the principles of acceptance, compassion, and inclusion articulated in its new website: That would produce scouts who would, in fulfillment of the hope of Scout-originator, Robert Baden-Powell, “leave this world a little better place than they found it.”



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