What Is a Boy Scout?

The board of the Boy Scouts of America was supposed to decide today whether to change its policy of excluding gay members. I hoped they would do the right thing. Instead they kicked the can down the road. (UPDATED)
Wed February 6, 2013 8:15 am
Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

ORIGINAL STORY: The Boy Scouts motto is “Be Prepared,” but last week’s announcement caught everyone off guard: “Currently, the BSA is discussing potentially removing the national membership restriction regarding sexual orientation,” said the press release. As an Eagle Scout with deep family roots in the organization, I was among those who were surprised, even shocked, by the turnaround. Just last July Scouting had doubled-down on its long-standing policy, announcing that a special committee had spent two years reviewing its membership standards only to decide to uphold its ban on gay members.

As a result of that decision, I’d written an essay for the December 2012 Texas Monthly in which I explained a difficult decision: despite my love for Scouting and all of its benefits, I realized I wouldn’t be able sign up my son (who is still in diapers) for an organization that had formally embraced discrimination as part of its culture. If he joined, I’d be giving my tacit approval to a policy I can’t support. As it turned out, that essay, entitled “Scout’s Dishonor,” generated a greater response than nearly any other piece I have written in more than fifteen years as a journalist. Not surprisingly, most of it was critical. One reader called me a traitor (I don’t think I am), an Oregon mom invited my son to join her son’s troop to learn what being a Scout is all about (I politely declined), and a man asked if I had failed to pay attention during Sunday school when I was learning about morality (on that point, I may have been guilty from time to time).

Much to my disappointment, the Boy Scouts, for so long the epitome of non-controversial wholesomeness, have now become a major character in the culture wars. And after last week’s announcement, of course, players on both sides have been happy to play their own supporting roles. A contingent of gay rights activists delivered a petition of 1.4 million signatures to the national headquarters, in Irving, encouraging the board to change its policy. However, support for maintaining the ban remains just as passionate. A group of more than forty Republican lawmakers from Texas signed an open letter urging BSA to “stick with their decades of support for family values and moral principles” and writing that “Capitulating to the liberal social agenda not only undermines the very principles of scouting, but sets the stage for the erosion of an organization that has defined the American experience for generations of young men.” Governor Rick Perry, himself an Eagle Scout, made national headlines by supporting the ban, saying over the weekend, “I think most people see absolutely no reason to change the position and neither do I.”

Perry went on to say, “Scouting is about teaching a substantial amount of life lessons; sexuality is not one of them, never has been and doesn't need to be.” And that happens to be one area where the governor and I agree. When I was a Scout, sexuality was never once discussed—not in a meeting, not on a campout, not in a small group—and I suspect that both the boys and the leaders were relieved by that mutually beneficial arrangement. (The same went for differing views of religion. A Methodist church had chartered my old troop, but none of our members attended that congregation. I grew up in the Church of Christ, and my two best friends were Catholic and Baptist. Our private views of religion were never discussed as part of being a Scout.) The Boy Scouts can fulfill its mission of helping boys reach their full potential as young men without getting sidetracked by private issues that are best left to the family. That’s a much better option, in my opinion, than having to explain to the boys why certain people can join and others can’t.

In the end, I think it’s a positive sign that BSA is moving toward inclusion, though the specific proposal strikes me as timid. Yes, the board is debating whether to remove the membership standard at the national level, but it is also considering allowing local troops to make the final decision about their membership requirements. I would imagine that this is a nod to the more-conservative organizations that charter troops—particularly among churches—that continue to be uncomfortable with homosexuality. But I think it sends the wrong message. In an age when public opinion is moving solidly toward greater acceptance of gay rights, when both major candidates in the most recent presidential election supported ending Scouting’s policy, when former board president Ed Whitacre Jr. (and onetime CEO of AT&T) says its time to rethink the ban, the best thing the national board can do is to completely shake off the discrimination of the past and look to a new, more vital era of Scouting.

And if board does decide to change its policy, I’ll tell you exactly what will happen: nothing. The sky won’t fall, in the same way nothing changed when the military admitted black soldiers to serve and universities began admitting women in large numbers and country clubs and other private groups admitted minorities because it was the right thing to do. BSA will not collapse because it admits gay members, because we know they have already served with distinction. In the end, after all the hue and cry and heated speeches about family values, Scouting will thrive or fail because of how well it serves the needs of its communities and how relevant it stays in the life of young boys. May it succeed in that mission for this generation—and for all the generations to follow.

UPDATE: The Dallas Morning News is reporting that the  Boy Scouts are going to delay the vote  on the organization's membership standards until the national meeting in May, which allow the full organization to weigh in. In a statement, BSA has said it needs more time "for a deliberate review." Of course, this will only generate more heat over the coming months. BSA, after all,

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