Scout’s Dishonor

The Boy Scouts’ strange new policy on homosexuality is a spineless half-step that is doomed to fail.

Members of Scouts for Equality hold a rally to call for equality and inclusion for gays in the Boy Scouts of America as part of the Scouts for Equality Day of Action, May 22, 2013, in Washington, D.C.
Members of Scouts for Equality hold a rally to call for equality and inclusion for gays in the Boy Scouts of America as part of the Scouts for Equality Day of Action, May 22, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

In a clear effort to appease a divided membership, the Boy Scouts of America has voted to change its national policy on homosexuality: It will now allow gay youth to become and remain scouts, but it will still ban adult leaders “who are open or avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA.” A spokesman told me the focus is on youth so as to ensure that the Scouts can “provide kids a place to belong while they learn and grow.”

Some will view the policy change as progress, which it certainly is for the estimated tens of thousands of gay boy scouts who will finally feel a sense of belonging that was needlessly denied them before. But this modicum of progress virtually dries up when you consider what those same boys will face as they age out of the Boy Scouts: a giant slap-down for anyone wishing to become a Scout leader, with the attendant message that, while being a gay kid is now sort-of OK, being a gay man is still shameful. How is that a place for gay kids to “belong while they learn and grow”?

But the real problem with the Boy Scouts’ new policy is the same problem the military suffered with its “don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise: It leaves the organization with a discriminatory policy that literally has no rationale besides the whim of opinion surveys and the vague sense that even talking about gay things is somehow untoward. To officially allow gay scouts while explicitly banning “open or avowed” gay adults sets up a climate of dishonesty and deception, a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” for the post-DADT era. It’s a badge of dishonor that will cling to the Boy Scouts for quite some time.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” was formulated 20 years ago, which raises an obvious question: Why would any organization implement an outdated and spineless policy two full decades after the military tried the same, faced ridicule, found it a failure, and killed it as the 21st century began to leave it behind? As was said then about “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a policy that takes baby-steps forward while reinforcing groundless and increasingly unpopular discrimination is in many ways worse than a policy that just lingers on the books through inertia. It tars the organization as out of step and just plain mean-spirited.

I asked the Boy Scouts of America repeatedly for an explanation for why it would remove the ban on gay scouts but continue the ban on openly gay adults. But there isn’t one. Like “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the Boy Scouts’ policy is a compromise measure—devoid of all principle—that bows to opinion polls, fears, and the yelps of religious conservatives.

Boy Scouts spokesman Deron Smith took strong exception to any inference (such as my own) that the focus on banning adult leaders implied a belief that gay men are prone to molesting boys, and he cited academic experts refuting that notion. His only explanation for the distinction was this wholly empty assertion: “By reinforcing that Scouting is a youth program … this resolution rightly recognizes there is a difference between kids and adults while remaining true to the long-standing virtues of Scouting.”

Like the debate over gay troops, the debate over gay scouts has involved breathless assertions that ending discrimination could prompt a mass exodus of members who would bolt in protest. According to a voting member information packet designed to help members decide how to vote, “Many religious chartered organizations stated their concern is with homosexual adult leaders and not with youth.” The groups, according to the packet, estimated that a policy welcoming both gay youth and adults “could cause the BSA to incur membership losses in a range from 100,000 to 350,000.”

This argument perfectly echoes claims in the lead-up to ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” that 500,000 U.S. troops could resign in protest, decimating nearly a quarter of the force. As I’ve explained elsewhere, research shows that opinion polls surveying anticipated reactions to minority rights are terrible at predicting actual behavior, serving instead primarily as an outlet for expressing protest. And if that predictive research wasn’t persuasive enough, recent research I conducted and wrote about in Slate showed that despite predictions that half a million troops would leave if the ban ended, only two service members actually quit.

Of course, it’s no coincidence that it’s religious groups that are sounding this alarm the loudest, as their real objection to gay Boy Scouts is that it violates their beliefs, not that it will have a quantifiable impact on the organization. And this points to the real problem with the Boy Scout’s new “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy: No one has been able to provide an actual reason, beyond a vague allusion to personal beliefs, for discriminating against gay people. That is, no one has been able to answer the spot-on question of a recent book: What’s wrong with homosexuality?

Virtually every instance of anti-gay discrimination—access to marriage, military service, government employment, religious practice, the psychiatric profession—has justified itself by pointing to some alleged secondary effect of homosexuality, from national security risks to threats to the family to angering God. Not so discrimination by the Boy Scouts, who—almost admirably if you’re going to discriminate—simply stated their belief that homosexuality is inconsistent with the Scout duty “to be morally straight and clean in thought, word, and deed.”

But now that equation has been removed, with a new policy reflecting a belief that gay youth can be “morally straight.” Where does that leave gay adults, who most gay youth become? The Boy Scouts’ strange new policy makes an untenable distinction between the morality of gay boys and gay men, which reflects a defining feature of homosexuality in 21st-century America: that it’s virtually the only thing people seem content to call immoral without ever explaining why.

The Boy Scouts’ half-step forward is certain to keep the debate alive, with increasingly negative attention likely focused on the organization. If that debate does anything positive for our culture, perhaps it will be putting a renewed focus on this important but neglected question: What, in the 21st century, does it mean to be “morally straight”? The Boy Scouts owe America an answer.