The announcement — that the Boy Scouts should change its policy to admit gay leaders — was radical, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to Gates’s speech. His tone was measured and matter-of-fact. His audience: totally silent.
It was an astute capitulation from the former secretary of defense, but it might not be enough to save one of America’s most iconic youth organizations.
That’s because the Boy Scouts are now in a position where politically they can do no right. Besieged by the left for decades for not allowing gay scouts or leaders, the Boy Scouts are now being attacked from the right. By allowing gay scouts two years ago and now considering allowing gay leaders as well, a deeply traditional organization is trying to stay attuned to the times. But it also risks alienating many core members, for whom the Boy Scouts have long been a bedrock of conservative American life.
In a way, the Boy Scouts are a barometer of how far the country’s attitudes have shifted on issues of race, gender and sexuality.
The 2 million-member, 100,000-chapter organization has long promoted itself as a stronghold of morality and traditional manliness. W.D. Boyce, the man who brought scouting to America in 1910, famously said that his goal was “to make men.”
In the years since, “Boy Scouts” became a byword for wholesome, good-natured, God-fearing youngsters, inextricable from America’s own view of itself. The Scouts were the subject of Norman Rockwell paintings, the launchpad for national celebrities and public officials. Neil Armstrong and Andy Griffith were Boy Scouts, as were five of the last 10 presidents. As Kate Tuttle wrote in the Atlantic, “The Boy Scouts quickly came to represent a kind of all-American ideal of health, outdoor exploration, and patriotic goodness.”
But steeped in tradition as they were, the Boy Scouts often struggled to handle change. Though the Girl Scouts formally banned segregation of its troops the 1950s — prompting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to call the group “a force for desegregation” — the last Boy Scout troop wasn’t integrated until 1974, according to NPR.
Then again, the Girl Scouts have the benefit of being an essentially progressive group. Their founder, Juliette Gordon Low, was a suffragist who challenged gender roles by teaching girls to pitch a tent and communicate through Morse code. The organization she founded couldn’t be anything but untraditional.
And unlike the Boy Scouts of America, from the beginning the Girl Scouts declared themselves to be “non-sectarian in practice as well as theory.” In 1993, when a prospective member protested the phrase “serve God” in the Girl Scout Promise, the organization ruled that members could substitute whatever phrase fit their beliefs. The Girl Scouts have never had a policy on homosexual members and have admitted transgender members since 2011.
The Boy Scouts, on the other hand, have long been inextricably tied to tradition and religion. The Scout’s oath pledges boys to “do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” A 2011 study of messaging in the Girl Scout and Boy Scout handbooks found that the Boy Scouts handbook relied on “organizational scripts” rather than autonomy and critical thinking, promoting “an assertive heteronormative masculinity.” Meanwhile, more than 70 percent of all troops are chartered to faith-based organizations, most of them Christian.
To many longtime supporters of the Boy Scouts, this is exactly what makes the organization so valuable. It’s a bulwark of conservatism in a time of flux. Former Texas governor Rick Perry, who devoted an entire book to the subject, wrote:
“The so-called ‘War on the Scouts’ is a microcosm of a larger phenomenon, a ‘culture war’ that has been tearing at the seams of our society for forty years, and that pits traditional values such as service, selflessness, and sacrifice for the common good against a newer doctrine that elevates the self above society and regulates morality to a shapeless form of relativity.”
That was in 2008. By then, the Boy Scouts had already softened its stance considerably. In 1991, the organization expressed open distaste for gays. “We believe that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the requirement in the Scout Oath that a Scout be morally straight and in the Scout Law that a Scout be clean in word and deed, and that homosexuals do not provide a desirable role model for Scouts,” according to a Boy Scouts position statement.
Within a decade, however, the organization had adopted more of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. “Boy Scouting makes no effort to discover the sexual orientation of any person,” the Boy Scouts announced in 2001. As in the U.S. military at the time, however, gay Boy Scouts employees or Scout leaders were dismissed as soon as their sexual orientation became public.
This tenuous situation was supported by the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2000 that the constitutional right to freedom of association allowed the Boy Scouts to exclude people when “the presence of that person affects in a significant way the group’s ability to advocate public or private viewpoints.”
That same year, Vermont became the first state to recognize civil unions between gay or lesbian couples. Other states soon followed, as public opinion polls documented steadily rising support for gay rights. Today, 37 states allow gay marriage, 26 because of court decisions. President Obama officially repealed the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 2010. A recent public opinion poll found 59 percent of Americans support gay marriage.
It was this shifting reality that led the Boy Scouts to reverse course in 2013 and allow gay Scouts but not leaders. That decision exposed cracks in the already struggling organization. Conservative leaders within the Boy Scouts warned that the organization was sacrificing its principles.
“The fallout from this is going to be tremendous,” Robert Schwarzwalder, a senior vice president of the Family Research Council and a father of two Scouts told the New York Times. “I think there will be a loss of hundreds of thousands of boys and parents. . . . This great institution is going to be vitiated by the intrusion of a political agenda.”
The group has been fending off attacks from the right ever since. This month, long before Gates’s announcement, conservative critics slammed the Boy Scouts for new initiatives such as including girls in activities and emphasizing math and science. “The Boy Scouts are once again reforming themselves into oblivion,” wrote James Bovard in an opinion piece in USA Today. “With falling enrollment nationwide, the Scouts are desperate for good publicity. Their latest politically correct gambit involves offering STEM programs for boys and including girls to help close the ‘gender gap.'”
Like other critics, Bovard argued that the Boy Scouts were sacrificing their masculine soul in a mistaken attempt to save themselves in a metrosexual era.
“The skills I most enjoyed learning in the Scouts — building fires, camping in winter, shooting white water rapids in a canoe — involved getting your hands dirty and surviving bumps and bruises,” Bovard wrote. “The Scouts are ill-advised to shift away from their rough-and-tumble heritage. The people who hate the Scouts will not be mollified by the latest STEM gambit, and some kids who might have joined will be put off by expectations of another dreary science class.
“Scout leadership [is] turning Boy Scouts into kale — nutritious, but blech,” he concluded.
Critics were equally enraged about a recent Boy Scouts Magazine blog titled, “Water guns OK for target shooting, not for firing at other Scouts.” The blog, which also cited Scout regulations limiting water balloons to the size of a ping pong ball, came under immediate attack. (The policy changes actually dated to 2013.)
“What a load of politically correct crap,” wrote a commenter. “What’s the point of super-soakers if you don’t shoot them at others to get wet and cool off on a hot day?”
“This is total bs,” wrote another commenter, who identified himself as a former Cub Scouts den chief. “I have always supported boys & girls scouts. No more.”
But the biggest issue pulling the Boy Scouts apart in recent years has been gay Scout leaders. Earlier this year a council in New York hired its first openly gay camp counselor, 18-year-old Eagle Scout Pascal Tessier.
“From our perspective, it’s really direct. This is a young man, who is also an Eagle Scout, very well qualified, applied for a job with one of the summer camps that the Greater New York Councils runs,” Eagle Scout Richard Mason, who sits on the board of the New York Council, told Buzzfeed when Tessier was hired. “On the merits, his applications clearly passes our standards … and we don’t discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.”
To prevent Tessier from taking the job, Gates would have to revoke the New York chapter’s membership — something he said in his speech he didn’t want to do. If he did, the Boy Scouts could probably find themselves facing a lawsuit, because discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is illegal in New York.
“The country is changing and we are increasingly at odds with the legal landscape. And, as a movement, we find ourselves with a policy more than a few of our church sponsors reject — thus placing Scouting between a boy and his church,” Gates said Thursday. “The one thing we cannot do is put our heads in the sand and pretend this challenge will go away or abate. Quite the opposite is happening.”
Critics say that this is yet another stage of a worrisome trend away from the Boy Scouts’ core values.
“The Boy Scouts have planted the seed of their eventual destruction,” Southern Baptist Convention spokesman Roger “Sing” Oldham told the Los Angeles Times.
But more concerning to Gates are the other trends. The steady decline in membership (7.4 percent in the last year, according to Reuters). The loss of support from Disney, which announced last year that it would no longer donate to the Boy Scouts of America because of its ban on gay leaders.
Gates is convinced that changing scouting is the only way save it.
“I assure you that I have no hidden agenda,” he said in his speech. “I only want to apprise you of the new reality I see. That both internal and external events and pressures of the past year and looking to the future will require action at some point.”
He reminded his audience of “the recent debates we have seen in places like Indiana and Arkansas,” states threatened with boycotts when they considered legislation that critics said allowed discrimination against same-sex couples. He alluded as well to the strong possibility that the Supreme Court will soon strike down laws banning gay marriage.
“We can act on our own or we can be forced to act,” he continued. “But, either way, I suspect we don’t have a lot of time.”