In a year that has seen a major legal victory for same-sex marriage and growing exposure for a range of LGBTQ issues, queer people and their allies have one more reason to smile today. On July 27, the Boy Scouts of America’s top leadership voted to end its ban on openly gay adult leaders. (The organization allowed openly gay scouts in 2013.) This is a huge step forward for the typically conservative BSA, a century-old American institution that has been battling public pressure on this issue since affirming its right to discriminate in a Supreme Court case in 2000. However, this policy change won’t bring an end the BSA’s difficulties on LGBTQ issues—in fact, it’s just the beginning of a larger cultural shift that’s sorely needed.
Under the new policy, there is no longer a wholesale exclusion of gay adults from the organization. However, the religious groups that sponsor many troops will be able to pick adult leaders who fit their moral principles. In essence, inclusion is now allowed by national policy, but the BSA is still willing to defend churches that exclude gay leaders from the troops they sponsor.
This compromise is better than nothing, but the Boy Scouts must go further to fully live up the principles the organization espouses. Now that the BSA has rid itself of blanket discrimination, it must create a culture that refrains from identity-based social judgments and actively supports diversity. When the Supreme Court secured same-sex marriage as a national right in June, many critics pointed out that while marriage equality was a big win, our culture is still fraught with discrimination. The BSA’s role in shaping American youth can be the seed of a culture that doesn’t hate and doesn’t make judgments based on sexual orientation, a culture that finds more reasons to accept rather than to exclude. These are the morals that the BSA was built on. This vote is not a vote for radical change, but rather to remind ourselves of what our own values have instructed us to do from the very beginning.
The BSA remains inextricably connected to religious organizations, which would seem to limit its imperative to become more inclusive. According to 2013 self-reported BSA data, religious charters operated a vast majority of troops in the organization. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints alone served nearly a quarter of the 2.6 million youth members that year. While a number of major Christian faith denominations—Presbyterian, Catholic and Methodist among them—are opening their troops’ doors to all, regardless of sexual orientation, some still choose to exclude gay men.
The BSA must recognize the conflict between its foundational values and the urge to exclude that is present in certain religious contexts. Randy Cline, an Eagle Scout and retired Girl Scouts of the United States of America council executive, believes that both religion and inclusion, while seemingly in discord, can exist in harmony. As troop members and leaders, we can navigate that unease by relying on the words of our Scout Oath. “On my honor, I will do my best … to help other people at all times,” it reads. To Cline, it’s clear that this means all people—not only the ones who share your religious preference. And as for being “morally straight,” as the oath commands? We must reclaim that phrase from those who redefined it to wage a war on sexual orientation. Morally straight is about knowing right from wrong, not about whom you love.
Monday’s change in policy is a crucial step, but it is only the first. Robert Gates, former U.S. Secretary of Defense and current president of the BSA, implies this move was a reaction to legal risks: a business decision, not a moral one. The BSA has rid itself of discriminatory policies for the wrong reasons—to assuage liberal and corporate pressures while preventing a departure of church sponsors that could balk at mandated inclusion of gay adults in their troops.
In a nation where 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT and same-sex marriage is enshrined in the laws but not necessarily the minds of our citizenry, the right thing to do is to create a BSA that proudly preaches acceptance of all members and fellow citizens. All troops of the BSA have to become a safe, affirming space, where youth can find themselves and gain the respect of their peers without concern for sexual orientation.
As an Eagle Scout, I know this will not be easy—but I also know our moral foundations are more powerful than any justification for hate. We must push back against all the subtle indignities ingrained in certain parts of this debate: the jokes about gay adults raping boys, the assumption that one who is gay cannot at the same time be clean or reverent, and the damning belief that faith and acceptance are mutually exclusive.
The BSA has a unique opportunity to shape the minds of our nation’s youth, and we must do so carefully and purposefully. In becoming an organization that doesn't make judgments based upon sexual orientation, the BSA will come closer to actually embodying the moral vision that it has aspired to from the beginning.