Why I’m not Especially Inspired by Obama’s Statement on the Anti-Gay Scouts Policy

Posted by MK on 8/9/12

Would the following statement sound offensive to you?
I believe it’s a valuable organization, as it has helped educate and build character among our nation’s youth for decades. I do oppose its policy of excluding people in interracial relationships, people in interfaith relationships, immigrants, people in relationships with immigrants, and openly Catholic and openly Jewish people. (I will not comment about the organization’s belief that everyone in those groups is “immoral,” “unclean,” and a poor role model for youth because of the lifestyle they have chosen.) And no, I will not resign as the Honorary President of this valuable, character-building, educational organization. 

I’m going to assume that your answer is yes — that is, that you would (and do) find this statement offensive. What would you think if the President of the United States said this?

To be clear, the President has not said this, and neither has anybody else, to my knowledge. But humor me, and imagine, for a moment, that Obama or somebody else had in fact spoken these words — to the press, no less. And let’s imagine that the underlying facts (of an organization that discriminated in this way, etc.) were true. We’ll call this Hypothetical Situation X.

Now let’s consider Real Situation Y, which occurred just yesterday.

In a written statement, a spokesperson for President Obama said that the President believes that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is a “valuable organization”; through the spokesperson, the President praised the group for “help[ing] educate and build character in American boys for more than a century.” The written statement then got to the point, saying the President “opposes [the BSA] policy that discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation.” A follow-up statement made clear, however, that the President would not resign as the BSA’s Honorary President, a position held by all United States Presidents for over a century.[1. The White House conveyed the statements to the Washington Blade.]

For those who don’t know, the BSA categorically excludes “avowed” gays and bisexuals on the ground that homosexuality is, according to the current BSA leadership, immoral and unclean. The Scouts also believe, relatedly, that openly LGB people do not make appropriate role models.[2. The Scouts also exclude atheists, though their reasons differ–which isn’t to say that I agree with them in the slightest!]

So what’s the difference between the statement in Hypothetical Situation X and the statement in Real Situation Y? Yes, yes, I intentionally crafted the statement in Situation X to sound more ridiculous to the average ear than the statement in Situation Y, but that only required me to do two things: The first was to change the identity of the groups subjected to discrimination (and to add more groups). The second was to bring a few of the undisputed, well-known, and ugly facts into the open (like the reasons behind the discriminatory policy), rather than leave them awkwardly unacknowledged, like the elephant in the room.

I don’t think there are other meaningful differences. So if we find the statement from Situation X appalling, as we should, then we need to ask ourselves: To what extent should we really be celebrating Situation Y?

This gets to why I am–while pleased–not quite jumping for joy at the President’s announcement that he opposes the BSA’s discrimination based on sexual orientation. The President’s (spokesperson’s) statement certainly nudges the BSA and the country in the right direction, and opposing the ban is the right thing to do. But it’s a bit depressing that for whatever (political) reason, the President felt he could not proclaim his opposition to the BSA’s exclusionary policy unless he first made clear that he “believes the Boy Scouts is a valuable organization that has helped educate and build character in American boys for more than a century.” (Does he mean “American boys” or “American boys who are straight or at least closeted”?) Nor could the President bring himself to “walk the walk”; that is, he will remain the BSA’s Honorary President. (Former Governor Romney has not been any better on the issue, but nor has he really been worse.[3. Romney said in 1994 that he respected the Scouts’ right to establish their own policy on this issue; he also said at that time that he would prefer that the group be open to youth regardless of sexual orientation. He recently reaffirmed that position through a spokesperson, and I’m unaware of any flip-flops on the issue in the intervening years since 1994.])

Photo of President Obama
Yes, he did some good today. But let’s aspire to more.

I understand that the President would likely have taken a political beating from some potentially important quarters if he had renounced his honorary BSA presidency or taken a stronger stance against the organization.[4. Then again, maybe there are ways the President could have protected himself politically but still conveyed stronger opposition to the policy. (And maybe it’s not too late to do so?) He could have said, for example, that as Honorary President, he looks forward to a dialogue with the BSA’s leaders about their recent policy deliberations, and that he will respectfully urge them to reconsider. Then he could have put off the dialogue until after November. Of course, the right wing would have then had one if its Fake First Amendment Fits. But if Honorary President means anything (it may not), I hope it would at least mean that dialogue is OK. Plus, the Boy Scouts have said that they would like to “work together” despite the disagreements. Work together with whom? Surely not gay people (or atheists). But maybe their Honorary President?] But the fact that the President might have made a wise political calculation does not mean that we have seen an example of clear moral leadership here, much less an inspiring defense of the youth and families who have suffered because of the BSA’s policies.

I also understand why LGBT-equality groups and activists have praised the President’s position, and the point here is not to criticize them. I do want to point out, though, that the LGBT movement is quite accustomed to celebrating progress while simultaneously demanding more progress, and that’s the sort of response I think would be most appropriate here. I commend the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force for immediately urging the president to take more action on the issue.

In an ideal world without political compromises, I would like to hear a President say something more like this:

LGBT youth need our full support. Sadly, they are still much more likely than their peers to face harassment and physical assault, to fear for their safety, to miss school because of those fears, to face rejection by their families, to feel isolated, to suffer depression and other health problems, to become homeless, and to attempt and commit suicide. While our nation has made important strides toward equality, there is much work left to be done. The Boy Scouts’ discriminatory policy undermines our progress, sends a destructive and terrifying message to our nation’s young people and their families, and denies equal opportunity to thousands of people. I oppose the organization’s discriminatory policies and I renounce the title of Honorary President–something I should have done my first day in office.