The executive board of the Boy Scouts of America wants more time to consider input from members on what it calls a complicated issue: whether to lift its ban against openly gay members and scoutmasters — a ban that’s been in place for 103 years in the United States.
Approximately 1,400 voting members of BSA’s National Council will decide on a resolution regarding “membership standards” at the annual meeting in May.
Had the ban been lifted Wednesday, it would still have been up to each chartering organization to decide whether to allow gays as members and leaders in individual troops. Nearly 70 percent of more than 100,000 Scout troops are chartered through churches while around 23 percent are through civic organizations and 8 percent through educational groups.
Waiting three months to make this decision isn’t going to make it any easier. I thought leaving the choice up to individual troops was something of a compromise and a positive first step. But those against allowing gays found it unacceptable: “What they’ve said to us and to other religious leaders is that they are doing this under pressure, and we’re going to give people what basically amounts to a local option,” Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention told CNN. “You can’t have a local option of a core conviction.”
Others believe BSA was sending the message that discrimination is okay. “You can’t have children in one troop thinking that discrimination is acceptable and scouts in a neighboring troop to think that discrimination is unacceptable,” James Dale said on Hardball with Christ Matthews. Dale, an assistant scoutmaster and Eagle Scout, was kicked out of BSA when he came out as gay at the age of 19; his lawsuit against the BSA went to the U.S. Supreme Court which affirmed the Boy Scouts, as a private organization, could prohibit gays.
When asked in an interview before the Super Bowl about lifting the ban on gays in the Boy Scouts, President Obama — who’s the honorary president of BSA, like every U.S. president since William Howard Taft — simply said, “Yes.”
Asked to elaborate, Obama said, “I think that my attitude is that gays and lesbians should have access and opportunity the same way everybody else does in every institution and walk of life.”
In the last week since BSA announced the executive board would consider lifting the ban, thousands of comments have been made on the organization’s Facebook page. I’ve discussed the issue with members of my son’s Boy Scout troop. Some parents fear that openly gay leaders will put the safety of Scouts at risk by exposing them to sexual predators. Yet research contradicts that fear.
“Gay men are no more likely to sexually abuse children than heterosexual men are,” Brian Mutanski, associate professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and an expert in the sexual development of adolescents, said. In fact, “most sexual abuse is perpetrated by family members or others who are known to the child and…most victims are girls.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, on its Web site, states, “Depicting gay men as a threat to children may be the single most potent weapon for stoking public fears about homosexuality.”
The Boy Scouts probably have worked harder than any other organization to protect its members from sexual predators with the establishment of two-deep leadership that keeps any Scout from being alone with an adult. In addition, every adult who volunteers must take Youth Protection Training every two years. Granted, that’s not going to stop a sexual predator but it educates the rest of the adults; when I took the course last week, I found it had been updated to include information on how predators “groom” potential victims.
Meantime, some troops are quietly opening their ranks to gay members. Northern Star Council in Saint Paul, Minn. has accepted gay members for 12 years. Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ in Kansas City, Mo. “came out” last week with a rainbow-colored sign welcoming “all” Boy Scouts. Others have quietly practiced a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy similar to that of the military for many years.
If the decision can be made at the local level, it will allow parents to “shop around” for the troop they believe fits their values. We looked at various troops when my son crossed over from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts; I wanted a troop that accepted women as volunteers and leaders. Rumor has it there’s a troop in Independence, Mo. that refuses to let moms go on campouts or serve in leadership positions.
It will be interesting to watch who has the most influence with the voting members of BSA. More than 40 conservative groups sponsored a full-page ad in Tuesday’s USA Today stating that a change in the long-standing policy would be “a grave mistake.” But several major corporate donors have delayed contributions to the Boy Scouts over the ban. Will money be the deciding factor?
My favorite comment, so far, on Facebook: “Leave the lawyers home and let’s go camping!”
Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Overland Park, Kan. and the mother of a Boy Scout.