As I’ve read through the wide-ranging reactions to the Boy Scouts of America’s May 23 vote to lift the organization’s ban on openly gay youth, I’ve wrestled with some uncertainty and ambivalence about how to view the change.
Under the newly approved policy, which takes effect in 2014, youth may not be excluded from Scouting “on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.” But the BSA will continue to require the exclusion of openly gay and bisexual adults from leadership, employment and volunteer positions.
Some LGBT-equality advocates have argued that this is not progress. I was struck in particular by two on-line opinion pieces written shortly after the May 23 vote by prominent authors and advocates whom I greatly admire—Michelangelo Signorile and Ari Ezra Waldman—neither of whom pulled any punches in condemning the BSA’s recent policy change.
Related Link: The Boy Scouts’ Proposed Policy on Gays: Questions and Answers
Signorile’s piece at the Huffington Post (“The Boy Scouts: Demonizing Gay Men, Empowering Bashers on the Streets”) and Waldman’s piece on Towleroad (“The Boy Scouts Made it Worse”) are both powerful and worth reading in their entirety. Ultimately, however, I find myself in respectful disagreement with at least some of their conclusions. Unlike Signorile and Waldman, I believe that the BSA vote represents important progress, even if the organization still has a very, very long way to go. And I worry that it is counterproductive to condemn the vote as a step backward for gay equality.
Signorile frames his piece by drawing a link between recent hate crimes against gay men and the stereotype that gay men pose a threat to youth: “The ugliest lie about gay men,” he writes, “is that we are likely to be predators and pedophiles, preying upon children.” “[I]t’s a lie,” he says,” that empowers bashers and draws blood on our streets.”
I agree. Signorile starts to lose me, however, when he connects this point to the recent change to Scout policy, which he calls “far from any kind of progress.” The BSA’s policy, he argues, will now perpetuate dangerous anti-gay stereotypes in a “more powerful way.” He explains:
The message from the BSA to a scout who might be thinking he is gay is that he better hope he isn’t because he will grow up to be a predator. The Boy Scouts is telling gay boys that they won’t be able to be trusted around children when they become adults and that they’ll be booted from the organization. Perhaps worse than that, the BSA is telling straight scouts that the gay scout who comes out to them, or whom they might learn about, will grow up to be a predator. And that is exactly the kind of vicious demagoguery that feeds discrimination and violence.
I agree that the BSA policy conveys—or at least risks conveying—these destructive messages. But I’m not persuaded that the new policy exacerbates these problems as compared to the old policy. In other words, even we accept that the BSA sends these false messages about gay men, how is the situation worse than it was under the policy that excluded both openly gay adults and openly gay youth? Didn’t that policy send identical or at least extremely similar messages? Didn’t it arguably send even more dangerous and more hurtful messages by excluding all openly gay people? How exactly does a policy change that prohibits troops around the country from excluding openly gay youth convey these terrible messages in a “more powerful way”?
Let’s not forget that many people oppose the recent policy change because they view gay adolescents and teens (not just adult gay men) as potential predators that cannot be trusted around other Scouts. The new policy at least clearly rejects the anti-gay predator myth with respect to gay youth. That’s not nearly enough, of course, but how is it a step backward?
One might argue that the new policy is worse because it means there will be more gay youth in Scouts, and therefore there will be more gay youth exposed to the BSA’s hurtful anti-gay messages. Perhaps. But there have always been gay youth in Scouting; so long as they didn’t come out, they could remain in the organization. There have therefore been plenty of gay youth receiving these anti-gay messages for many years. With the policy change in place, however, gay youth will now be able to come out and remain in the organization, and their very presence will challenge and destabilize any anti-gay messages the BSA wants to send.
This brings me to my next point, which is that the BSA’s ability to effectively transmit all these awful anti-gay ideas and values will likely be weaker, not stronger, under the new policy. For example, even if the BSA’s policy suggests to straight Scouts that their openly gay peers “will grow up to be … predator[s]” (as Signorile argues), the policy change makes it less likely that Scouts will accept that false message, because heterosexual Scouts will now be more likely to interact with, and even become friends with, openly gay youth in the Scouting program. It is more difficult for youth—or people of any age—to accept outrageous stereotypes about gay people if they interact with a gay person on a regular basis.
Plus, it’s possible that friendships with gay Scouts will make heterosexual Scouts more likely to support additional BSA policy changes to make the organization even more inclusive.
The new policy doesn’t guarantee, of course, that any of this will happen. Plenty of gay youth will still fear coming out, and many who come out may face peer rejection. But the new policy at least makes interactions and friendships between gay and straight Scouts more likely, because it no longer requires (or even allows) that troops dismiss a youth from the organization merely for being gay.
Waldman takes a different approach, in that he doesn’t focus on anti-gay violence. But his criticism is in some ways harsher than Signorile’s: He writes that the BSA has changed its policy “for the worse,” that the change is “anything but a good thing,” and that adopting a ban on the exclusion of openly gay youth while continuing to ban openly gay adults is “the worst possible result.”
Waldman worries that the BSA is welcoming gay youth into its ranks “to more directly implement the organization’s anti-gay dogma.” He appears to believe that the BSA is embracing gay youth merely for the purpose of pressuring them to reject their gay identity: “The Boy Scouts plan to include gay youth,” he explains, “not because they accept their sexuality, but because they see it as something to train out of them.” To bolster the point, he highlights a statement in the BSA’s newly approved resolution that “youth are still developing, learning about themselves and who they are, developing their sense of right and wrong, and understanding their duty to God to live a moral life.”
Waldman writes persuasively, but I’m not convinced.
First of all, neither the language quoted by Waldman nor the policy change itself leads me to believe that the BSA is adopting an affirmative, nationwide strategy to “convert” openly gay youth into heterosexuals. That would be a huge undertaking, which the leadership probably knows would be doomed to failure (even if rank-and-file members believe it’s possible). Indeed, in the hundreds of pages of materials released by the BSA in connection with its decision-making process, there’s virtually nothing to indicate that the BSA intends to engage in this massive effort to “convert” gay youth—an effort that would, incidentally, radically transform the BSA’s mission and focus. And if conversion efforts took place, they would surely get exposed and publicized, leading the BSA to lose much if not all of the good will it hopes to attain through the new policy.
Second, the extensive research undertaken by the BSA’s leadership demonstrated that Scouts (and families affiliated with Scouting) are very quickly becoming more accepting of gay people. Why would BSA leaders concerned with the organization’s membership rolls and continued survival secretly plot to become more anti-gay at a time when opinions within the Scouting community are shifting so rapidly in favor of gay equality?
It’s my understanding, moreover, that individual Scouting families, local councils, and organizations that sponsor BSA troops enjoy a fair degree of autonomy. And there are large areas of the country where parents, councils, and affiliated organizations would like to be more LGBT-inclusive if the organization would let them. I haven’t seen the slightest evidence that these more LGBT-inclusive Scouting communities intend to “train” openly gay Scouts not to be gay, or that the national leadership will pressure them to do so. On the contrary, they can now adopt a more inclusive approach to Scouting, since they can at least welcome openly gay youth into their ranks.
And again, regardless of what the BSA leadership may intend, the presence of openly gay youth in Scouting communities across the country will undermine any anti-gay messages that the organization attempts to convey. While Waldman correctly observes that “[g]ay scout leaders,” if permitted in the organization, would serve “as testaments to the fact that morality, esteem, and homosexuality are not incompatible,” the presence of openly gay youth may serve a similar role.
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I find it particularly difficult to view the new sexual-orientation policy as a step backward when I think of young Scouts like Ryan Andresen and Pascal Tessier, who worked so hard to become Eagle Scouts but suddenly faced rejection because they came out. Do Signorile and Waldman really oppose a policy change that would allow these young men and others like them to achieve their dream of earning the Eagle Scout honor? Perhaps Waldman and Signorile think these young men would be better off disassociating themselves from the organization altogether, and there’s certainly a powerful argument to be made for that approach. But shouldn’t the decision, in the end, belong to the individual Scouts?
None of this is to say that I find the BSA’s ongoing discrimination against openly gay adults (or against atheists, for that matter) to be remotely acceptable in any way. The organization’s policies and practices still carry the stench of homophobia and intolerance, and they will still inflict pain on countless members of the Scouting community and those excluded from that community. There’s no excuse for that, and I certainly don’t mean to offer any.
To be clear, therefore, I haven’t written this post to defend the BSA or its ongoing discrimination. Rather, I’ve written it because no matter how strongly I disagree with the BSA’s policies on gay adults, I think it’s a mistake to view the new policy on youth as a setback instead of a step forward. More importantly, I worry that by condemning the BSA’s decision to include gay youth, adult advocates could inadvertently end up alienating, confusing and discouraging some of the countless gay Scouts who need all the support they can get.
It’s easy for adult advocates to condemn the BSA and to express outrage over its ongoing discriminatory policies. But some gay kids, who so often face isolation and rejection from friends and family, may end up finding desperately needed community and comfort in their Scouting activities, despite the ongoing flaws in the BSA’s policies. These youth can now remain in the BSA even if they decide to come out (at least starting in 2014, when the new rules take effect). Do we really want to tell them that the world would be a better place if the BSA had kept its old policy and rejected them?
*Signorile photo by David Shankbone.
 The controversy surrounding the recent changes has forced the Scouts to articulate a position on whether gay men are more likely to abuse children, and the Scouts have stated that they reject the myth: “To be clear,” the organization now states, “the BSA makes no connection between the sexual abuse or victimization of a child and homosexuality. The BSA takes strong exception to this assertion. Some of the nation’s leading experts reinforce this position.” Still, the BSA’s actions speak louder than its words, and its ongoing discrimination risks fueling the myth that it purports to reject. (Jump back to the main text.)
 I also disagree to some extent with Waldman’s characterization of the legal issues he discusses. For example, it is inaccurate to call the Scouts’ policy “unconstitutional.” It may be true that the organization’s policy should be considered illegal under certain states’ antidiscrimination laws (notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s 2000 ruling to the contrary). But that doesn’t make it “unconstitutional.” As a general matter, only government actions can violate the Constitution. To my knowledge, LGBT groups that have challenged the policy as unlawful (like Lambda Legal) have never argued that it is unconstitutional. (Jump back to the main text.)