The Boy Scouts’ Survey On Homosexuality Is Biased Toward Scrapping Its Ban On Gays

How you look at things.
March 13 2013 1:29 PM

Bent Toward Justice

The Boy Scouts’ survey on homosexuality is biased toward scrapping its ban on gays.

The Boy Scouts uniform fashioned with an Quality patch is on the arm of Brad Hankins, a campaign director for Scouts for Equality.
Boy Scouts uniform worn by Brad Hankins, a campaign director for Scouts for Equality, Feb. 4, 2013

Photo by Tony Gutierrez/AP

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Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The Boy Scouts of America has launched a survey asking its members about homosexuality. The survey’s purpose is to help the organization decide whether to drop its ban on openly gay Scouts or leaders. Media reports depict the questionnaire as neutral. It isn’t. It’s biased toward dropping the ban, and for good reason.

The best place to read the questionnaire is on the website that first posted it for public viewing: the Dallas Voice. There, you can see how it’s laid out. First you’re asked about various scenarios in which homosexuality might come up during typical Scouting activities. Then you’re asked whether to keep the ban on homosexuality or to defer to local troops, families, and chartering organizations. The scenarios answer that question for you. They make the ban look overbroad and clumsy, because it is.

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The section that deals with homosexuality starts with a list of “possible scenarios that could happen if the Boy Scouts keeps or changes its policy.” Here’s one scenario:

"Johnny, a first-grade boy, has joined Tiger Cubs with his friends. Johnny's friends and their parents unanimously nominate Johnny's mom, who is known by them to be lesbian, to be the den leader. Johnny's pack is chartered to a church where the doctrine of that faith does not teach that homosexuality is wrong. Is it acceptable or unacceptable for his mother to serve as a den leader for his Cub Scout den?”

Everything in the scenario tugs at you to say it’s acceptable. The person in question is the mom of one of the kids. Everyone in the troop, kids as well as parents, knows she’s gay. And all of them, knowing this, want her to be the den leader. The church that sponsors and manages the troop has no problem with it. To conclude that their decision is unacceptable, you’d have to override everybody involved.

Here’s another scenario from the questionnaire: “Tom started in the program as a Tiger Cub, and finished every requirement for the Eagle Scout Award at 16 years of age. At his board of review Tom reveals that he is gay. Is it acceptable or unacceptable for the review board to deny his Eagle Scout award based on that admission?"

Again, the scenario tugs at you. The kid has “finished every requirement” to be an Eagle Scout. Now, at the last minute, you’re asked whether to void all of that accomplishment just because he’s gay. It’s not even because he’s gay. It’s because of his “admission” that he’s gay. Are you willing to ignore years of dedication and work because, at his final review, he told the truth?

Here’s a third scenario: "A troop is chartered by an organization that does not believe homosexuality is wrong and allows gays to be ministers. The youth minister traditionally serves as the scoutmaster for the troop. The congregation hires a youth minister who is gay. Is it acceptable or unacceptable for this youth minister to serve as the Scoutmaster?"

Let’s see. The chartering organization has no problem with homosexuality. There’s a standard practice of assigning the youth minister to be the scoutmaster. To say no, you’d have to come in as an outsider and override the organization’s standard practice as well as its moral position. And since they’ve already hired this person as a youth minister, you’d have to second-guess that, too. This doesn’t feel like defending your morals. It feels more like employment discrimination, imposed on the employer by you.

Here’s a fourth scenario: "A gay male troop leader, along with another adult leader, is taking a group of boys on a camping trip following the youth protection guidelines of two-deep leadership. Is it acceptable or unacceptable for the gay adult leader to take adolescent boys on an overnight camping trip?”

Now we’re getting a whiff of child protection. But we’re also reminded of the youth protection guidelines, which put a second adult leader on the trip. The wording seems to imply that the other adult is straight. So even if you’re uneasy about the gay guy (which, statistically, you shouldn’t be), you have to ask yourself whether you’re so worried about him, even with a second adult on hand, that he can’t be allowed on the trip.

The two other scenarios on the questionnaire are trickier. One involves a gay 15-year-old sleeping in the same tent as a straight kid. The other involves a chartering organization that opposes homosexuality and wants to deny membership to an openly gay applicant. In these scenarios, it’s easier to say no. But then the survey hits you with the big question: "After reading the scenarios in the previous question, please answer one question again. The current Boy Scouts of America requirements prohibit open homosexuals from being Scouts or adult Scout leaders. To what extent do you support or oppose this requirement?”

Maybe you started this process with a general sense that homosexuality is wrong and the Scouts should oppose it. But now you’ve been forced to think about scenarios that complicate the picture. You’ve been reminded that many troops and chartering organizations have no problem with homosexuality and would like to appoint, as scoutmasters or den leaders, people they know are gay. You’ve been reminded about the “two-deep leadership” policy to prevent sexual abuse. You’ve been reminded that gay kids who want to be Eagle Scouts have to work just as hard as other kids and build all the same virtues. To stand by the current rules—which “prohibit open homosexuals from being Scouts or adult Scout leaders”—you have to take the hardest line, not just in one of the suggested scenarios, but in all of them. You have to be willing to declare homosexuality an absolute bar to service or membership in any troop, regardless of what the kids, their parents, or their church leaders think or do.

Or you can choose a second option. Here’s how the survey presents it: “Different organizations that charter Boy Scout troops have different positions on the morality of homosexuality. Do you support or oppose allowing charter organizations to follow their own beliefs when selecting Boy Scout members and adult leaders, if that means there will be different standards from one organization to the next?"

What a relief. You don’t have to take a hard line against Johnny’s mom, or Tom the Eagle Scout candidate, or that nice youth minister. You don’t even have to abandon your church’s policy against homosexuality. All you have to do is let each chartering organization run its troops by its own values.

Say what you will about the Scouts’ antigay history, or the conservatism of its chartering churches, or the objectivity of the polling firm that designed this survey. The structure of the questionnaire clearly challenges the organization’s members, leaders, sponsors, and alumni to rethink the ban on gays and to consider more nuanced alternatives. That bias isn’t the product of an agenda. It’s the product of moving beyond dogma and facing plausible scenarios in all their complexity. It’s the product of reality.

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