From January 1 the Boy Scouts of America will begin accepting gay scouts into the fold, a victory that was hard won but well fought during 2013.
After a lengthy campaign, of which many Care2 members were a part, the BSA announced in May 2013 that over 60 percent of the organization’s 1,400 strong voting council had approved opening the BSA’s doors to gay scouts.
This followed a bitter national debate in 2012 with gay rights advocates pointing out that the ban was antiquated and against the ethos of the BSA, which has always striven for fairness and tolerance to all.
Under the new membership policy young men cannot be excluded from the Cub Scouts, the Boy Scouts or the coed Venturers program solely on the basis of their identifying as gay. Of course gay scouts, like their straight counterparts, were reminded that sexual conduct is barred by the association. The Scouting association will also make plain that the Scouting Association will not tolerate any political messaging, including on gay rights.
The BSA has had to clear up a few things regarding what else this change in policy means. For instance, Scouts won’t be allowed to march in uniform in gay pride events. They are of course free to express themselves in this manner while not in uniform.
A more contentious issue is how the BSA is parsing what is acceptable and not acceptable speech. According to the Associated Press, the BSA has issued materials that offer an outline: “While a youth member may acknowledge his or her sexual preference, that acknowledgment may not reach the level of distraction, which may include advocacy, promotion, or the distribution of information of a sexual nature.”
Obviously, what constitutes a “distraction” and “information of a sexual nature” is open to interpretation. Is a gay youth giving another young person a book about coming out and safe sex a distraction of a sexual nature? These are questions that individual scouting troops will perhaps face through the course of the next few months. That said, resistance or large problems relating to the policy change aren’t anticipated.
This is perhaps in part because the association has also given a lot of deference to parental rights too, with the BSA stressing that should an individual scout or his parents not want to be housed with another scout during camping trips or the like, a different placement can be requested. This isn’t a new policy but with openly gay scouts in the mix it is notable. The BSA has also seen fit to change its showering and changing room policy, encouraging local chapters to de-emphasize communal showers.
The BSA says it has seen some loss of support among, in particular, more conservative church organizations which in the past have been heavily involved and staunch supporters of the BSA. Indeed, Care2 reported earlier this year that there are several breakaway groups that have formed as a result of the BSA announcing it would open its doors to openly gay scouts, including Trail Life USA which is peddling itself as a BSA-alternative centered on a religious conservative ethos.
That said, the BSA’s major supporters — the Church of Latter Day Saints and many Catholic institutions, for instance — haven’t deserted the BSA and in some cases have even praised what they see as the BSA’s even-handed approach to the issue.
Not Full Equality: The Work Still to Come
Of course, this change leaves one great big bit of inequality still in force: that as soon as those openly gay scouts are old enough to become scout leaders they will be summarily dumped — the BSA has not changed its stance that openly gay scout leaders are against its “morally straight” ethos.
This has been seen as a dubious compromise by many who supported the BSA’s policy change. They point out that the ban now seems arbitrary and wasteful given that there will be young scouts coming through the ranks who will be barred from taking leadership positions solely because of their sexuality.
There may be a chance to change that, however. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will become the BSA’s next president in the spring. Gates is of course the man who helped topple the United States Military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell ban on openly gay soldiers. Whether Gates can help gay scouting leaders defeat the BSA’s own DADT policy for scout leaders remains to be seen, but the signs would suggest that, if the change is to be made swiftly, it would come from Gates.
So this isn’t a perfect change. It is, however, one step in the right direction for the BSA and one that is among the list of notable gay rights victories achieved in 2013.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.