Last October, the Boy Scouts of America announced that it would soon allow girls to join its ranks—mixed-gender Cub Scout packs in 2018 and a women-inclusive teenage Scouting program to follow in 2019. Of the decision, Boy Scouts national board chairman Randall Stephenson stated that “It is time to make these outstanding leadership development programs available to girls”—as though there has not been an amazing organization providing Scouting and leadership skills to young girls for more than 100 years: The Girl Scouts of America. As news of the many girls taking advantage of this policy change has come out early this year, I’ve found myself dismayed—but not out of any commitment to gender segregation. I worry because it might mean fewer young girls join the Girl Scouts, an organization that raised me and, due to its focus on leadership skills, adventure, and especially inclusion, made me the man I am today.
I first joined the Girl Scouts as a Daisy, in kindergarten, where I found myself surrounded by artistic girls who loved camping (which quickly became my favorite activity) and going to museums. We would have competitions to see who could get the fire lit fastest. (Tip: Steel wool and a 9-volt battery will go up faster than you can imagine. And it is beautiful while it does it.) Every month, we were introduced to amazing women who worked as teachers and arborists and sound technicians. I learned from first-person experience that women come in all shapes and kinds, and that they can do anything.
I also learned about the dangers of being a woman. We took self-defense classes. We discussed methods to deal with sexual harassment, discrimination, the ways in which proper manners could be used as a weapon. We met older women who taught us about navigating the world and helped us understand just how far we had come and how far we had to go.
The special thing about the Girl Scouts is that with all its rightful focus on womanhood, it’s actually not all that hung up on gender. In fact, there is no explicit rule on the books that prohibits anyone of any gender joining a troop. Policy varies from council to council (as demonstrated by the controversy around transgender girls joining troops), but, so long as interested parties are comfortable being in a space where women will be the assumed intended audience, anyone is welcome to join a troop that’ll have them.
This openness meant the world to me when I came out as transgender at 16. I wasn’t particularly loud and splashy about it, but my whole troop knew and it changed nothing. We were still the kids who had known each other for years. I was slow to ask for pronoun changes, but most of the troop switched anyway or stopped using pronouns all together. I started to see a difference in the future we were all headed for. I knew that I would not be a woman in the workplace, that my struggles would be different from the girls in my troop. But my troop changed with me, too. As a group, we became more focused on advocacy and education around all sorts of issues, bundling LGBTQ equality into many other topics we wanted to fight for.
In my last year in the Girl Scouts, my troop went on a spa weekend camping trip organized by our larger Girl Scout council. It was there that I met Samantha, a young girl with short, white-blond hair and thick glasses with pink rims. Samantha saw something in me that I didn’t speak on in these spaces. We became friends that weekend, almost like I’d picked up a lost puppy. She followed me around like she had questions she was afraid to ask.
On the final night of the weekend, the two of us stood by the fire, watching it burn.
She finally plucked up the courage to ask the question: “Do you often get mistaken for a boy?”
I froze. This wasn’t exactly the question I was expecting. The easy answer was yes. Or, no, not mistaken: I am a boy. But I also didn’t want to take from her this image she had built in her head, of a woman who looked like me and was happy and loved. But what if Samantha was also transgender? What if what she needed in this moment was to be given the words I didn’t have at her age.
“Yes,” I responded slowly, deciding to focus on what she was truly asking me about. “But if it bothered me, I would dress differently.” She thought about this for a minute. We looked around the camp and saw every kind of woman we could possibly imagine and more. I wanted Samantha to know that she could be masculine and wouldn’t have to leave the label woman behind to do so. Girl Scouts had given me the gift of learning that girls deserve complete freedom of self-determination, and I wanted to offer the same to her.
And herein lies my problem with having girls come in to the Boy Scouts. The Girl Scouts was the only space in my life that put girls first, that offered them this freedom of exploration. In the Boy Scouts, girls will once again have to fight for themselves in a male-dominated space, just like the rest of the world. They will be reduced to being the “girls in the boys’ troop,” rather than allowed the liberty of being whatever kind of girl—or boy, or gender-diverse person—they want.
Had the option to join the Boy Scouts existed when I was a kid, I might well have joined—but that would have been a mistake. Without my Girl Scouting experience, I simply would not be me. I learned to see the world from many perspectives. I was taught methods of standing up for myself and others, and I saw the ways that political actions can change the world. (I also learned how to sew a button on a shirt, which puts me miles ahead of many of my peers.) The Girl Scouts taught me to see the world with empathy, to look for problems that I had the power to do something about and to empower those around me to use their resources too. I learned to listen and value the ways that each of us navigate the world. I discovered that diversity can provide strength.
These are lessons that the Boy Scouts are only just beginning to learn. While the attempt is admirable, it’s an effort that misses the mark. Young girls should not bear the burden of fixing a struggling system—not when there’s already a place for them that earned its inclusion badge long ago.