The Boy Scouts of America recently announced that the long-awaited decision on whether to allow gay men and women to serve as scout leaders would be postponed until May of 2013. This decision was met with considerable derision of the gay community and supporters – it was even mocked by Seth Meyers on SNL – who see the issue as another element of social justice; for them, it’s a no-brainer and the delay is simply the reticence of an antiquated old-guard who refuse to yield to what they deem to be morally right. But reality is never as simple as we would wish, especially in the sound-bite/bit-byte age when issues are shortened to catch phrases that serve as ultimately serve as much intellectual value as a Burma Shave sign. What are the issues – and potential consequences – that national scout leadership must walk through in making a decision about gay scout leaders?
Full Disclosure: I’ve been a scout-leader for ten years, serving at the request of two sons; as Youngest leaves the cub scout level, he’s asked that I continue on with him as an adult leader at the boy scout level (5th grade and upwards).
The debate over gay scout leadership is an example of what occurs when ideologues – on both sides – take up a debate without any real understanding of how an affected organization actually works. There has been public pressure brought by gay rights activists for years over the issue and with considerable success. Multiple large cities and school districts have withdrawn support for the organization with a resultant loss in terms of financing and logistics; in Philadelphia for example, the city sought – and finally lost in court – to evict the local scout council from it’s headquaters – privately owned but on city land with a perpetual $1 annual lease – unless it permitted gay leadership. Apart from this legal defeat, other cities and districts have refused permission to use facilities. Corporations have quietly removed sponsorship for the organization and its events with a resulting loss in funding, and in some cities, the United Way has removed the BSA from it’s umbrella of supported organizations. As recently as last week, Carly Rae Jepsen joined the band Train in boycotting a national scouting event for which she was scheduled to sing this summer. The tide of public opinion would certainly appear to flow against the present BSA stance.
But why do they want additional time to sort things through? The reasons are partly due to internal culture, tragic history and the organization’s infrastructure at the local level.
The BSA was founded in 1910 by Lord Baden-Powell in England, and it was created as an organization to create men of character. Baden-Powell created it with structure and ranks partly because of his own previous military experience and the understanding that boys best grew into good men when they were challenged. It came out of a different cultural time in which homosexuality was universally condemned and for an organization that concerned itself with helping create good men – the concept of manhood – any challenge to the notion of manhood was a shot to the heart. Change doesn’t always come easily and in our short-attention span age, the notion that an organization will easily alter its founding conception of manhood is frankly naive; in terms of history, four decades – the timespan since the Stonewall riots – isn’t a long period for social change. What about the scouts and how they’ve changed over time in other aspects? The organization was created in a massively predominant Christian culture and while I’m not certain, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if there was no thought of including non-whites at the outset. These would have mellowed as the organization spread throughout the world – scouting now exists in over 160 countries – and after the start of the Civil Rights actions of the 1950s and 1960s, packs and troops began to integrate accordingly. Likewise, the spread of scouting meant that there was a less-Christian emphasis although there is still a distinct acknowledgement of a Supreme Creator; that said, the acknowledgement of God to a scout can vary according to his own personal faith. There are faith-based badges for any number of religious beliefs apart from Christianity, including Judaism, Islam and Buddhist. At the boy scout level, the only acknowledgement of faith is in the scout law in which a scout pledges to be reverent; there are no rank advancement requirements for religious belief and a scout can be agnostic or atheist. My comments to a few kids have amounted to the notion that reverent would ultimately mean respectful of another’s faith even if you don’t practice or believe it.
But the admission of gay scout leaders in this matter is in one respect a different issue from race and creed. Communications and global awareness have helped spread the idea – operative but imperfect – that there is value to other races and creeds, but the United States is one of a small handful of countries that has actively pursued full equality for gays. There is a now an understanding that there are good men of any number of races and creeds, but gay leadership for an organization that ultimately exists to help boys learn and grow into good men begs the simple question, what does it mean to be a man? The question sounds insulting, but it does exist. Women today decry the state of husbands and fathers – men in general – but the social and economic changes of the past several decades have contributed as traditional roles have also changed accordingly and more than a few men have foundered as their role-model templates simply ceased to exist. I can attest that there are single mothers bringing their sons to scouting with the idea that the scout leader can provide a strong, operative role model for their boys to become men. As confused as today’s family situations can be, will a gay leader simply create further confusion for the boys?
The BSA suffered the same damage as the Catholic Church in America as pedophilic leaders surfaced in the organization; the crimes were often not reported and efforts were made to protect the organization at the ultimate expense of the boys. An onslaught of civil litigation against the BSA starting in the 1970s showed that the organization was wholly unprepared to deal with predators who found that it was an exceptionally easy means to gain access to the boys, who could be stalked and groomed for molestation. While it isn’t universal – and not shared by me – there is a fear among some scout supporters that the admission of openly gay leaders would increase the possibility of again permitting access of predators to the boys despite the multiple safeguards that have been instituted since those years.
The concern is accentuated by the opening of the "BSA Perversion Files" in late 2012 as the result of an Oregon Supreme Court decision. The files – showing approximately 1200 instances in which the BSA handled allegations of sexual abuse from the 1960s to 1985 – renewed awareness of the organization’s handling and sensitivity to the issue and in the eyes of some, overshadow the training and safeguards put in place by the BSA. The contents of these files are not solely academic; my local paper ran a series of articles highlighting local instances of pedophilia allegations and one of the men named as an alleged pedophile committed suicide within weeks of the particular article.
BSA Organizational Infrastructure
If change is indeed both right and necessary, then the group most affected by the change has to take great care that it’s done in a manner that the resulting effects aren’t more harmful than the change itself. This idea is best encapsulated in the absurdity of the Vietnam War remark, we had to destroy the village in order to save it. While people talk of the BSA as a monolithic organization at the national level, they’re unaware that the group’s organization is a microcosm of some of the divisions within larger American society. If things aren’t handled properly and with great care, there’s a real risk that the organization will literally gut itself.
The national organization oversees dozens of local/regional councils that exist to support the thousands of cub scout packs and boy scout troops and it’s here that the first inklings of different opinions appear. The councils for central Arkansas or West Texas, for example, comprise regions with people whose general attitude is considerably different from councils covering Boston or New York. It sounds academic, but the strongest councils are mostly in those areas that are politically and socially conservative, whether urban, suburban or rural and it’s in these areas that the heart of scouting is located. But the activist gay communities that most support gay leaders are located in the urban areas that do not have strong concentrations of scouting; there’s considerable risk of strong backlash and damage in the former if the national BSA bows to activist pressure, even with the resumption of funding and the halt of celebrity denunciations.
Part and parcel of this division occurs at the local levels of scouting, immediately beneath the councils. For a pack or troop to be officially chartered by the BSA – meaning that they have access to the scout programs, ranks and awards – it must have a sponsoring chartered organization; the chartered organization agrees to provide meeting space for the group and abide by scouting principles. Many of these organizations provide more just the minimum required and enter into a partnership with the troop so that the local scout leadership also agrees to abide by sponsoring organization policies . In my case, I’ve not only submitted to a criminal background check for the scouts, but also additional criminal checks to meet the sponsoring church’s child/youth safety policy. The simple reality is that the great majority of sponsoring organizations are individual churches, many of which are of denominations that do not recognize homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle for religious reasons. The heart of that particular question is whether homosexuality is hard-wired from birth or a chosen behavior and for that I have no answer. On a personal level again, the scout troops in my hometown are sponsored by two churches, neither of which acknowledges homosexuality as acceptable. If the national organization approves gay leadership, expect a significant number of sponsoring organizations to withdraw their support with the practical effect that hundreds – if not thousands – of local packs and troops would lose their support and be forced to find new homes. With civic groups decimated themselves by dwindling membership, what other churches are out there to take up the slack?
The end result – from a social and religious – level is that the BSA would be self-inflicting serious and potentially fatal wounds upon itself.
Change isn’t easy and frankly, it’s damned hard for anybody. What makes it harder is that ideologues on each side usually take a scorched earth approach so that the collective value of an organization is minimized unless a particular view is adopted, even if the adoption threatens to overturn everything else positive that’s accomplished. How many gay adults really wish to lead and does the larger gay community have the right to financially and politically coerce a private organization to amend core beliefs to accommodate them? For all of the internal damage that could occur from such a switch, what is the larger gay community willing to do to help the BSA? Simply telling the supporters that it’s now okay to turn on the fiscal taps isn’t going to be enough. Will the gay community actively step in to help with the infrastructure – while abiding by core scouting principles – or are they going to plant the flag and declare victory, moving on while the BSA tries to recover from it’s wounds?
Compromise is even more difficult than change. Supporters on either side have to truly examine their beliefs to determine what’s most important, then lay those lesser notions to rest as they take up the work to build for the future. Compromise is frankly possible here, as well. But much will depend on whether the ideologues are willing to lay aside the rhetoric and examine the realities of the situation.
Much of what I write is centered around the family, the economy and society. I’m a supporter of the scouts and have resolved to remain one after my own son is through the process, as far as he chooses to go, regardless of the decision. What is so immensely frustrating is that many of the central tenets of the scout law – trustworthy, loyal, honest, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent – are what are so sorely needed by an American society beset by moral and ethical failures. Do you trust your senator or representative? Do you believe that the financial system is truly regulated? Are you respectful of the ideas and beliefs of others, even when they’re at odds with your own? Can you live within your means? These aren’t rhetorical questions but lie at the heart of our present national predicament and if there’s ever a time that we needed to prepare leaders with such qualities, it would be now.