On May 23, 2013, the Boy Scouts of America’s National Council voted to stop denying membership to youth on the basis of sexual orientation. The change goes into effect Jan. 1, 2014. The similar restriction for adult leaders, however, will remain in place.
When asked about the policy change by KCTV5 reporter Justin Schmidt, Eagle Scout Jason Boyer expressed his hope for further progress: “I think they could go a lot farther because they’re still telling all these kids that they’re bad. They’re telling them, ‘as soon as you turn 18, you’re no longer good enough’ so I still think they have some ways to go, but they’re making progress.”
The resolution allowing openly gay and bisexual youth members came after the most comprehensive listening exercise in BSA’s history. Sixty-one percent (757 yeas) of 1,232 voting members approved the change. Noting that Scouting has the best youth-protection program around, BSA president Wayne Perry affirmed, “Kids are better off in Scouting.”
The scout movement
British war hero Robert Baden-Powell had used boys as scouts during conflict in South Africa. Based on his experiences there, Baden-Powell wrote manuals on military reconnaissance and scout training. After learning that some schools had been using his manuals to teach observation and deduction, he decided to revise and combine them into a handbook, written specifically for young males.
Initially published as installments in 1908, his Scouting for Boys: A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship came out one year after Baden-Powell had tested his methodology at Brownsea Island Scout camp in southern England. This camp is seen as the original event of the scout movement. Baden-Powell used observation, deduction, woodcraft, camping, boating, lifesaving, chivalry and patriotism as tools to shape the character of boys with the intention of building good, strong, honest, hard-working citizens. Baden-Powell set up a central Boy Scouts office, and over the next few years, the organization grew by leaps and bounds. He created Girl Guides as a separate group.
Boy Scouts of America
The scout movement spread over the globe, especially in the British Commonwealth. In 1910, publisher William D. Boyce founded the U.S. version of Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed a congressional charter for the group. Over the decades, the BSA has reached out in new ways, amid wartime, civil flux and societal advancement. The Boy Scouts of America’s official manual, the Boy Scout Handbook, is in its 12th edition.
Although it is technically part of the World Organization of the Scout Movement’s Interamerican Scout Region, the BSA maintains its own governing structure and makes its own rules. One requirement for scout troops is that each unit has a sponsoring institution. Based on Dec. 31, 2012, data, 70 percent of all units were chartered to faith-based organizations. The faith-based organization that sponsors the most units (by far) is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormons). The Mormons were early adopters of BSA. It’s reported that every single U.S.-based LDS church sponsors a troop, and the troops are integral parts of Mormon boys’ lives. This church’s response to any change in membership policy would be critical.
The gay ban
The language used to restrict gay people from the Boy Scouts of America membership was at one time fairly harsh, citing the Scout Oath’s “morally straight” requirement and the Scout Law’s “clean in word and deed” clause. Although not explicitly stated in the early years, the implicitly understood BSA policy was later verbalized: “that a known or avowed homosexual is not an appropriate role model of the Scout Oath and Law.”
Boy Scouts of America v. Dale was a huge case for the BSA. In 1990, assistant scoutmaster James Dale publicly stated that he was gay during an interview unrelated to the BSA. Due to this acknowledgment, he was removed from his leadership position with Scouting. He sued. The New Jersey Supreme Court held that the state’s public accommodations law required the BSA to readmit Dale. But the U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision, finding that based on the First Amendment right of freedom of association, a state could not, through nondiscrimination statutes, prohibit a private organization from discriminating as to its membership.
In recent years, words and methods began to be parsed more gently. A 2000 press release stated, “Boy Scouting makes no effort to discover the sexual orientation of any person.” However, there were cases where members were dismissed when their homosexuality became known to the organization. This seems to be true primarily of adults in leadership positions, but with gay people coming out as teens and pre-teens, the issue of openly gay youth members was set to become salient.
Nevertheless, in 2012, the BSA reaffirmed its discriminatory membership policy position:
While the BSA does not proactively inquire about the sexual orientation of employees, volunteers, or members, we do not grant membership to individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA. Scouting believes same-sex attraction should be introduced and discussed outside of its program with parents, caregivers, or spiritual advisers, at the appropriate time and in the right setting.
One of the problems, however, was that Scouting continued to use public land, spaces and buildings for free or at much-reduced rates, while essentially retaining full discretionary power to violate state and municipal nondiscrimination laws at will. Certain tax-paying citizens were subsidizing the operation of the group while being barred from membership to it. So people continued to sue and the equality-minded frowned upon the blatant, not-so-private discrimination.
With opposition growing, pressure was mounting on the BSA to reverse its policy. Major health groups affirmed that homosexuality is not a mental illness. The number of nondiscrimination ordinances was multiplying. Corporate policies realigned. Marriage equality was becoming a common reality. Friends and families recognized their gay and lesbian members as equals. Corporate sponsors were pulling funds from Scouting. Incoming and current BSA brass soon hinted that they would work internally to change the restriction.
In February 2013, the Boy Scouts of America embarked on an elaborate and thoughtful listening program, taking in the counsel, advice and opinions of many groups, including youth, parents, local and national councils, chartered organizations, finance streams and legal advisers. Youth protection and policies of peer organizations were also reviewed. The outcome was a recommendation made to voting members to change the youth membership policy. The LDS church released a statement in support of the proposal. And on May 23, the BSA National Council members cast their votes, approving it.
Some groups were outraged at the move toward equality, including the Southern Baptist Convention, which passed a resolution expressing its disappointment. Randy Thomasson of SaveCalifornia.com advocated for starting a new homosexual-free scouting organization. And GOP Rep. Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma called reformers “intolerant bullies” who had targeted the BSA, rather than forming their own group.
If your troop has an LGBT-unfriendly sponsoring institution, consider asking a welcoming congregation to sponsor your scout unit.
Groups that welcome LGB youth and leaders
Girl Scouts of America — girlscouts.org
Camp Fire — campfire.org
Big Brothers Big Sisters — bbbs.org
Although progress is being made, the acceptance of transgender people as youth members and in leadership roles in many pre-teen and adolescent-focused groups is likely lagging and/or ambiguous. In 2011, after initially rejecting a transgender girl, the Girl Scouts of Colorado decided to welcome her as a member and restate its policy more clearly.
See Camp’s “Youth and Young Adult Links” — bit.ly/14uHbWt — for more youth activities and local groups that target LGBT young people.