Why the Boy Scouts’ Policy on Gay Leaders Is a Spineless Disgrace

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May 24 2013 12:18 PM

Scout’s Dishonor

The Boy Scouts’ strange new policy on homosexuality is a spineless half-step that is doomed to fail.

Members of Scouts for Equality hold a rally to call for equality and inclusion for gays in the Boy Scouts of America as part of the Scouts for Equality Day of Action, May 22, 2013, in Washington, D.C.
Members of Scouts for Equality hold a rally to call for equality and inclusion for gays in the Boy Scouts of America as part of the Scouts for Equality Day of Action, May 22, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

In a clear effort to appease a divided membership, the Boy Scouts of America has voted to change its national policy on homosexuality: It will now allow gay youth to become and remain scouts, but it will still ban adult leaders “who are open or avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA.” A spokesman told me the focus is on youth so as to ensure that the Scouts can “provide kids a place to belong while they learn and grow.”

Some will view the policy change as progress, which it certainly is for the estimated tens of thousands of gay boy scouts who will finally feel a sense of belonging that was needlessly denied them before. But this modicum of progress virtually dries up when you consider what those same boys will face as they age out of the Boy Scouts: a giant slap-down for anyone wishing to become a Scout leader, with the attendant message that, while being a gay kid is now sort-of OK, being a gay man is still shameful. How is that a place for gay kids to “belong while they learn and grow”?

But the real problem with the Boy Scouts’ new policy is the same problem the military suffered with its “don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise: It leaves the organization with a discriminatory policy that literally has no rationale besides the whim of opinion surveys and the vague sense that even talking about gay things is somehow untoward. To officially allow gay scouts while explicitly banning “open or avowed” gay adults sets up a climate of dishonesty and deception, a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” for the post-DADT era. It’s a badge of dishonor that will cling to the Boy Scouts for quite some time.

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“Don’t ask, don’t tell” was formulated 20 years ago, which raises an obvious question: Why would any organization implement an outdated and spineless policy two full decades after the military tried the same, faced ridicule, found it a failure, and killed it as the 21st century began to leave it behind? As was said then about “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a policy that takes baby-steps forward while reinforcing groundless and increasingly unpopular discrimination is in many ways worse than a policy that just lingers on the books through inertia. It tars the organization as out of step and just plain mean-spirited.

I asked the Boy Scouts of America repeatedly for an explanation for why it would remove the ban on gay scouts but continue the ban on openly gay adults. But there isn’t one. Like “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the Boy Scouts’ policy is a compromise measure—devoid of all principle—that bows to opinion polls, fears, and the yelps of religious conservatives.

Boy Scouts spokesman Deron Smith took strong exception to any inference (such as my own) that the focus on banning adult leaders implied a belief that gay men are prone to molesting boys, and he cited academic experts refuting that notion. His only explanation for the distinction was this wholly empty assertion: “By reinforcing that Scouting is a youth program … this resolution rightly recognizes there is a difference between kids and adults while remaining true to the long-standing virtues of Scouting.”

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