The Anti-Gay Policy that Dare not Speak its Name (or, an Exercise in Insulting the Reader)

A stamp issued on February 8, 1960, for the 50th anniversary of the Boy Scouts in the U.S. As interpreted by the organization’s current leadership, the Scout oath is incompatible with being openly gay or bisexual.

News and commentary continue to sprout up all over the Internet about the recent reaffirmation by the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) of its anti-gay policy. I’m pleased to see all the coverage, as it draws attention to an important issue affecting millions of young people. Plus, most of the coverage has been favorable, or at least fair, to those advocating for equality and inclusiveness. Among the BSA news items that most struck me, however, was a piece written by the chief scout executive, Bob Mazzuca, and the BSA’s national president, Wayne Perry; together they penned a defense of the policy for a recent installment of the New York Times’ “Room for Debate” series. I’m not sure what the authors intended, but their contribution to the debate is so evasive and transparently inaccurate that it’s much worse than merely unpersuasive: It’s also an insult to the reader.  

Am I being too harsh? Let’s take a look. The authors begin with the following:

This week, the Boy Scouts of America announced that after a two-year evaluation, it is maintaining its membership policy to allow the organization to most efficiently accomplish its mission of preparing young people for life. As a private organization, the Boy Scouts of America may deny membership to anyone whose behavior creates a distraction to its mission.

Did they not get the memo? This installment of the Times’ “Room for Debate” series is called “Why Do the Boy Scouts Exclude Gays?” Every other contributor to the debate seems to have caught on to that. The controversy here is not about “efficien[cy],” and it’s not about whether the BSA generally has a right to kick people out if their “behavior creates a distraction to [the BSA’s] mission.” Rather, the debate is more specifically about the BSA’s belief that the presence of openly gay or bisexual people necessarily creates such a distraction; the debate is also about the BSA’s categorical exclusion of gay and bisexual people from membership and leadership positions on that basis. (By the way, wouldn’t the authors’ introduction be more accurate if it referred to the BSA’s “mission of preparing young heterosexual people for life”? Not that the organization can effectively do so by pretending gays don’t exist…)

Let’s see if they get around to recognizing or addressing any of this. Mr. Mazzuca and Mr. Perry continue:

Let’s be clear. The Boy Scouts of America does not proactively inquire about anyone’s sexual orientation.

Great to hear! But again, this isn’t really the issue that anybody is debating. (However, if the authors would like to write more on this issue, could they please explain why they qualify “inquire” with “proactively”?)

Sadly, the piece only gets worse from there:

Nor does [the BSA] have an agenda when it comes to gay or lesbian issues. Businesses, government, religious leaders and families will continue to grapple with those complex issues. Scouting will not.

Wait a sec. What was that two-year evaluation about? The BSA didn’t spend any of that time “grappling” with “gay or lesbian” issues”? Or is it just that, after two years (plus many more years of LGB-policy-related litigation), they’re done with all the “grappling” and will not speak of the matter again?

As for the organization’s “agenda,” I am at a loss to understand how the BSA can lack “an agenda when it comes to gay or lesbian issues” while maintaining a policy of excluding openly gay and bisexual people from membership and leadership positions. Should we be more comfortable with this policy, and with the BSA’s oft-repeated public position that homosexual conduct is not “clean” or “moral,” on the basis that none of the foregoing is part of an “agenda”? What do the authors think an “agenda” is?

They continue:

The fact is, most of our youth members are under the age of 12, and the majority of the parents we serve do not believe scouting is the right forum for same-sex attraction to be introduced, discussed or demonstrated in any way.

OK, this is where the piece sort of gets close(ish) to a direct acknowledgement that the BSA categorically excludes openly gay and bisexual people. And it even offers a little bit of an explanation: Discrimination is what the parents want, because the kids are young. The piece doesn’t spell out the reasoning on the age issue–perhaps because doing so would have been highly offensive.

Also, while math is admittedly not my forte, the article’s claim that “most of” the BSA’s youth are “under the age of 12” seems a little misleading, even if technically accurate. The problem is that the organization’s flagship program, the Boy Scouts, is (with a few exceptions) for boys aged 11 to 18. And other programs, like the Venturers program, are for older youth as well. Surely most of those young people aren’t under twelve. But I won’t harp on this further: Even if the claim is not misleading, we still haven’t been told why the presence of young boys justifies excluding openly gay and bisexual people.

And let’s be more explicit than the authors about the BSA’s position on whether Scouting is the right “forum” for discussing heterosexual “attraction”: Discussing boys’ attraction to girls and women–and the marriages that ultimately may take place as a result of those attractions–is most definitely considered appropriate. The organization explained to the Supreme Court in a 2000 legal brief that

[w]ith respect to sexual behavior, Boy Scouting “espouses family values” based on marriage and fatherhood. The Boy Scout Handbook describes how a young man attains “[t]rue manliness” by accepting his “responsibility to women” [and] his “responsibility to children” when he marries and has a family . . . . “Abstinence until marriage,” the Handbook counsels, “is a very wise course of action.”

Speaking of sex, the very next sentence in the Mazzuca-Perry piece is as follows:

Nor does scouting endeavor to teach about sex.

Pardon? Please see above. And if you don’t spot the contradiction between the Supreme Court brief and the Mazzuca-Perry claim that the BSA doesn’t teach about sex, consider the following statement, taken from the same BSA brief to the Supreme Court:

If a boy is in doubt about how to conduct himself, the Boy Scout Handbook tells him that he may look to his Scoutmaster . . . . “If you have questions about growing up, about relationships, sex, or making good decisions, ask. Talk with your . . . Scoutmaster.”  In turn, the Scoutmaster Handbook advises adult leaders to be responsive: “Be accepting of their concerns about sex. Be very open and clear when talking with them.”

Yes, “[b]e very open and clear,” but don’t “endeavor to teach” anything! 

The Mazzuca-Perry piece goes on to explain that the Boy Scouts are a diverse group, and that the organization respects differences of opinion. Nevertheless, they say, the organization

won’t miss its small window of opportunity to teach lifelong lessons to its youth. [Scouting’s] role is to equip young people with life skills so one day, they can make their own decision about these issues. And we teach our members to treat those with different opinions with courtesy and respect at all times and to adamantly oppose the mistreatment of others based on any perceived difference.

I asked earlier for a definition of “agenda.” Could the authors also clarify their understanding of “mistreatment”? First, though, I should ask how the authors understand Scouting’s role in “equip[ping] young people” with the ability to “make their own decision about these issues” in light of the authors’ belief that Scouting is not the forum to even discuss these issues. 

The Mazzuca-Perry piece concludes with a real gem:

We fully understand and appreciate that not everyone will agree with the direction we’ve chosen and may criticize the decision. But the Boy Scouts of America won’t use its youth development program to advance an agenda or sacrifice its mission in order to enter a social and political debate beyond its level of expertise.

OK, so is it sort of like, “Sorry we kicked you out of our group, but your gayness is just way beyond our expertise”? Or is it more like, “We really don’t understand the issues, even after a two-year evaluation and decades of litigation, and we can’t change our policy if we don’t have the right expertise (but certainly we’ll continue to defend that policy in court, despite not having the expertise to understand it)”?

Surely the authors wouldn’t accept this characterization of their statement, but I really can’t think of a reasonable interpretation of what they’ve written. I’ll leave it to this blog’s readers to try to make more sense of the piece than I’ve been able to. In the meantime, I’ll respectfully recommend to Mr. Mazzuca and Mr. Perry that if they are going to defend their policy, they’ve got to recognize what it is and what it does. To defend it, they need to own it. Of course, it would be much better for the nation’s young people–even those under 12!–if they abandoned the policy altogether.


For more BSA coverage, check out last week’s post and video about the Scouts.