The Washington Post

No merit badges for the Boy Scouts’ proposal on gays

(Tony Gutierrez/AP)

It’s often said you can’t please all of the people all of the time. But in announcing a proposal to lift the ban on gay scouts but not gay leaders, the Boy Scouts have managed to please no one at all.

The proposal, announced Friday amid what must have been one of the biggest news days of the decade — a live manhunt that shut down the city of Boston — may have been an attempt to get no one to notice. It didn’t work. On the one side, the conservative Family Research Council is calling the compromise “incoherent” and saying it would suggest that “homosexuality is morally acceptable until a boy turns 18.” On the other side, GLAAD, which advocates for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender individuals, said that “by refusing to consider an end to its ban on gay and lesbian parents, the Boy Scouts have missed an opportunity to exercise leadership and usher the organization back to relevancy.”

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. View Archive

The proposal will be considered for approval when the organization’s national council meets the week of May 20. It follows a review of the group’s policy that began in February. (Before the Boy Scouts reaffirmed its policy last July, some board members had spoken out for more inclusion and diversity.) Meanwhile, national polls of the Boy Scouts’ members have shifted quickly on the issue. While still divided, parents’ support of the current ban on gays has moved from 57 percent three years ago to 48 percent today.

But as with most things in life, it’s hard to have it both ways. For one, the recommended proposal may not be discriminatory toward kids, but it still is to adults. That kind of mixed message is hard for anyone to wrap his head around, let alone the millions of children involved in scouting who are trying to make sense of the world.

The Record’s Alfred Doblin put it well: “Imagine a youth organization announcing it will allow blacks as members, but will not hire any black leaders. Imagine a youth organization announcing it will allow Jews to become members, but will not hire any Jewish leaders. Now substitute blacks and Jews for gays. You have the Boy Scouts of America.”

Moreover, if the recommendation is in fact accepted in May, what will message will that send to the young Boy Scouts who are gay? We accept you, but not once you become an adult? We believe you are worthy of being a Boy Scout now, but should you try to be a leader in this organization someday, we wouldn’t allow it?

If it is going to be inclusive of gay scouts but not of their futures, the organization risks being the opposite of the empowering, character-building organization it purports to be. Instead, it will give the impression that these young persons’ opportunities are limited, narrower than their peers’ — in a word, unequal.

Finally, by trying to straddle the issue, the Scouts’ national leaders risk finding themselves in an even more difficult position than before. The move comes less than a year after it emphatically reaffirmed its ban, with a spokesperson calling it “absolutely the best policy for the Boy Scouts.” Then, several big corporate sponsors pulled their funding, and the Boy Scouts said the organization would review its policy. By recommending a change — but not for everyone — the Boy Scouts of America is teaching its members neither the value of standing firm about something they believe best nor the importance of embracing tolerance and supporting real change. There are no merit badges for courage to be awarded here.

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