Outward

Trans Kids Can Now Join the Boy Scouts—but Should They Want To?

A Boy Scout salutes the American flag at camp Maple Dell, in Utah on July 31, 2015.

George Frey/Getty Images

On Monday evening, the Boy Scouts of America announced that the organization, best known for campouts and character education, would begin allowing transgender boys to participate. The move—which broke with a century-old policy of relying on birth certificates to adjudicate the gender of members—followed on similar changes in the past few years, including allowing openly gay scouts in 2013 and, after outside legal pressure, gay adult leaders in 2015.

In a statement, the BSA characterized the shift as helping to “bring the benefits of Scouting to the greatest number of youth possible” and as being a response to larger changes in the country’s understanding of gender identity. Read the statement: “[The old approach] is no longer sufficient as communities and state laws are interpreting gender identity differently, and these laws vary widely from state to state.”

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The BSA’s decision is a rare bit of good news—and somewhat surprising given that you wouldn’t exactly expect a fundamentally conservative organization to feel super driven toward such action given who’s in the White House. (To that point, side-eye credit to the Washington Post for noting in its report on the news that this may have something to do with a discrimination complaint filed in New Jersey against the Scouts on behalf of a barred trans boy just last week.) In any case, trans folks—who are likely to see their nascent progress halted under Trump by a government trending hostile-to-uninterested and a center-left freshly phobic of “identity politics”—deserve every shimmer of joy they can come by right now.

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Of course, it’s fair to ask how many trans youths this will actually impact. Joe Maldonado, the 8-year-old New Jersey boy who made headlines when he was kicked out of his Cub Scout troop in 2016, is the most high-profile trans (former) scout, and his case suggested that—unlike the trans-inclusive Girl Scouts—the BSA had not thought through its approach to transgender boys. Now that they are theoretically welcome (I’m curious to see how much autonomy local units will exercise in this matter), will a phalanx of trans kids suddenly show up to meetings?

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Perhaps. But speaking as an Eagle Scout, I’m not so sure they should want to. Undoubtedly, there will be some trans boys who find the explicit masculinity of the scouting experience to be affirming of their gender identity, and that’s wonderful. But honestly, if one of the LGBTQ movement’s goals is to loosen the intense strictures that surround gender identity and expression in our society, I’m not sure investing a great deal in an organization whose foundation is built in traditional masculinity and the gender binary is the most useful enterprise. The life skills and general ethical principles that scouting imparts are absolutely worthwhile—I’ve defended them before. But civic leadership can be learned from plenty of sources and knot-tying need not be connected to the religion-inflected gender conservatism that defines most (church-based) troops.

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Sorry to throw sand on the campfire, but at this point in queer history, I just can’t get too excited about gaining access to yet another conservative institution—even one that, begrudgingly, I kind of like! That said, if there’s one uncomplicated good to come out of this, it’s yet one more step for trans visibility. Many kids and parents around the country are today, perhaps for the first time, having to discuss the existence of trans people—and while those discussions are surely not all positive, presence tends to have a way of fomenting progress. For that, if nothing else, I salute the BSA.

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