After years of public commentary on their policy of excluding gay members, the Boy Scouts are being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. At a May meeting in Dallas, Texas, members will vote on a proposal to lift the ban on gay Scouts, allowing anyone to participate in the organization regardless of sexual orientation. It’s big news, but it comes with a catch: gay adults will still be banned from serving as Scout leaders.
The structure of the proposal is a reflection of discussions among policy leaders at the organization, but also the result of an extensive survey sent out to Boy Scouts, family members, adults involved in Scouting and religious groups. The survey results were incorporated into the policy as leaders noted that older adults tended to be less supportive of out gay men and boys in Scouting, while teens and younger adults strongly supported a lift on the ban and the creation of an inclusive organization.
The reaction to this announcement, which was quietly dropped on Friday morning in the midst of a frenzied news cycle, has highlighted how polarized the debate over the exclusion policy has become. LGBQT rights groups and advocates argue that the continued ban on gay adults is wrong, and that in addition to depriving Scouts of potentially great leaders, it sends dangerous messages about homosexuality. Indeed, it would seem to reinforce the common stereotype that gay men are pedophiles interested in preying on children, and that they would take advantage of positions in Scout troops to abuse young boys. Furthermore, it promotes homophobia in society by normalizing the exclusion of gay men from a group that should be open to all.
Troublingly, in a press release about the proposal, the Scouts added a remark suggesting that they don’t understand homosexual kids any more than they do adults: “The resolution also reinforces that Scouting is a youth program and any sexual conduct, whether heterosexual or homosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting.” This would seem to imply that the organization expects a flood of sex-driven gay Scouts flooding troops and events, implying that gay boys aren’t any more capable of making informed choices about their sexuality than gay men.
Some religious groups and conservatives, on the other hand, are angry about the proposal to lift the ban, characterizing it as “caving.” The Boy Scouts clearly view the proposal as a way to meet in the middle, allowing any boy who wants to participate an opportunity to be in the Scouts without attracting the ire of homophobic proponents of a ban on gay adults. They’re worried that extending membership to all men could risk alienating religious groups, many of which sponsor Scout troops. The Mormon church in particular is closely tied with the Boy Scouts, and given its stance on homosexuality, it would be unlikely to maintain a friendly relationship in the wake of a decision to welcome gay members of all ages.
Notably, the resolution does not mention anything about transgender youth, who are currently not permitted to participate in Boy Scouts. While the possible inclusion of gay youth is something to celebrate, the Boy Scouts have a long way to go when it comes to truly being welcoming to all: because any boy, and any man, who meets the ethical standards of the organization should be able to join or become a leader and community supporter, no matter what his sexual orientation is and what gender he might have been assigned at birth.
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