Boy Scouts Contradict Their Own Handbook in Defending Anti-Gay Policy

In a post last month, I explored the absurdity of the Boy Scouts of America’s frequent claim that “the topic of sexual orientation” does not have a “role” in Scouting, pointing out how frequently the BSA discusses−and celebrates−heterosexuality.

This follow-up post looks at how the organization’s attempts to restrict Scouts’ LGBT-supportive expression stand in conflict with the official Boy Scout Handbook and other BSA materials.

May Scouts Speak About Political Issues While in Uniform?

The BSA’s talking points on gay issues frequently include the claim that no member of Scouting, whether youth or adult, should “use” Scouting to promote a cause.

A 2013 BSA resolution on membership and sexual orientation, for instance, declared that no member may “use Scouting to promote or advance any social or political position or agenda.” More recently, a Scouting spokesperson defended the organization’s revocation of 49-year-old Eagle Scout Geoff McGrath’s membership, saying that McGrath inappropriately “use[d]” the BSA “as a means to further a personal agenda” because McGrath acknowledged publicly that he is gay. (As of January 1 of this year, the BSA prohibits discrimination against youth members based on sexual orientation while still requiring the exclusion of openly gay adults.) The BSA has also emphasized in the debate over gay Scouts that “Scouting is not the place to resolve divergent viewpoints in society.”

This doesn’t mean Scouts must refrain from public debate altogether. The BSA has explained, rather, that Scouts should only speak their mind on public issues outside of their Scouting activities. For example, in a document explaining its new policy on gays, the BSA says that “[e]ach youth member is free as an individual to express his thoughts or take action on political or social issues, but he must not use Scouting’s official uniforms and insignia when doing so.”

You read that right: Scouts may not even express their thoughts on political or social issues when they’re in uniform.

In line with this (supposed) policy, a Scouting official objected to a Scout’s participation (in uniform) in an LGBT pride march in Utah last summer, saying: “We do not, as Boy Scouts, show support for any social or political position. We’re neutral.”

Do the Scouts really enforce this neutrality policy for all social and political issues, prohibiting members from “expressing [their] thoughts” on any issue while in uniform? Or does the BSA only object when it comes to LGBT-supportive speech?

Conflicts with Official Scouting Materials

The sweeping restrictions probably only apply to expression that makes Scouting officials uncomfortable, like LGBT-supportive advocacy. The BSA takes a decidedly more permissive position on Scouts’ political and civic engagement outside of the gay-rights context.

Drawing of Boy Scouts meeting with community leader
This image appears alongside a section of The Boy Scout Handbook that encourages Scouts to speak with community leaders and public officials.

For example, the official Boy Scout Handbook (available on Amazon and iTunes) clearly encourages Scouts to voice their views on matters of public concern and to participate in political endeavors. Alongside a drawing of Boy Scouts in uniform talking to someone who appears to be a public official or representative, the Handbook encourages Scouts to “visit a community leader,” such as a “public official” or representative. “[M]ake notes about the subject you would like to discuss,” the Handbook suggests, adding, “Perhaps you have seen a problem in your neighborhood that you feel a community leader should know about, and you want to suggest a solution.”

What if a Scout believes that anti-LGBT bullying or discrimination is a problem? Can he discuss that with his local representative? Or would restrictions on “expressing [one’s] thoughts” suddenly apply?

The Handbook also encourages Scouts to earn merit badges related to civic knowledge and engagement, including badges for “Citizenship in the Community” and “Citizenship in the Nation.” The BSA website provides additional information about each of these badges, explaining, for example, that a Scout can earn the “Citizenship in the Community” badge by engaging in a series of educational activities; these activities include meeting with somebody who works in local government to learn what the government is doing about an “an issue that is important to the citizens of your community” and asking “how young people can help.” The same BSA webpage links to various organization that encourage civic engagement by youth, including the Youth Activism Project.

The BSA page on the “Citizenship in the Nation” badge also promotes youth activism of various sorts, noting that “[a]s Scouts fulfill the requirements for this merit badge, they will learn how to become active citizens,” something that includes “participat[ing] in their governments” and “standing up for individual rights on behalf of all its citizens.” The activities required for earning this badge include contacting a senator or member of Congress to share one’s views on a “national issue.” The page also links to the websites of various civic groups and advocacy organizations, including the League of Women Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Republican and Democratic National Committees.

These are not the only communicative and civic activities the BSA encourages. To earn the “Communications” badge, for example, a Scout may write to a magazine or newspaper to “express [his] opinion,” or may even publish a newsletter or create a blog.

In carrying out these activities (some of which are required to earn badges), must Boy Scouts refrain from mentioning to anyone that they are Boy Scouts? I’d be surprised if the BSA forced Scouts into that sort of closet. And if Scouts do not have to hide their BSA affiliation, how does the BSA reconcile its position on these activities with the supposed requirement that Scouts not “use” Scouting to advance a cause, as well as the requirement that they not “express [their] thoughts” on political or social issues while in uniform?

Another Attempt to Spin Anti-Gay Policies as Neutral

I seriously doubt the BSA could (or would) provide an honest, logical answer to these questions. Confronting the contradictions would most likely require Scouting officials to admit that they have invented special new rules on expression and civic engagement that only apply to gay-inclusive messages. Admitting this fact, however, is something the Scouts are almost certainly unwilling to do. As I observed in my last post about the BSA, the organization appears determined to describe its anti-gay policies in neutral, non-discriminatory terms, even if doing so requires it to contradict itself and make preposterous claims.

In some limited sense, this is a sign of progress. The BSA twists itself into these ridiculous positions only because LGBT-equality advocates have succeeded in making blatant anti-gay discrimination less socially acceptable.

Still, it is painfully clear−given the BSA’s ongoing discrimination and the media’s willingness to take the organization’s absurd explanations at face value−that a tremendous amount of work remains to be done.


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