The Boy Scouts Dilemma: when the troop is good, but the organization is very bad

written by Michelle on September 18, 2012 in family and parenting with 9 comments

Ryan Anderson’s troop leader in Moraga, CA, kicked him out right before he was to become an Eagle Scout. Why? Ryan is gay. Click the photo to sign the petition on

My son is at the age when several of his friends are joining the Cub Scouts. The local scout leader is a friend of ours, a terrific person, and a great dad. Many of the skills the Scouts teach–using a compass, building fires, camping–are good, old-fashioned skills. But when you join the Cub Scouts, you are joining Boy Scouts of America, and supporting BSA with your dues. And therein lies the problem.

(Update, October 6: Moraga, CA, Scout leader denies 12-year Boy Scout Eagle rank because he is gay).

 Unless you were hiding underground for the past couple of years, you know that BSA is vocally anti-gay. Not only has the organization ousted beloved lesbian and gay Scout leaders, despite letters of support for the leaders from thousands of parents and kids. (Scroll down to read about religious discrimination in the Boy Scouts.) The BSA has even gone so far as to say it will not allow gay kids to be members. This is a stance that goes far beyond being out of touch; it is openly cruel.

In recent years, there has been a bold effort on behalf of individuals and organizations all over the country to put an end to bullying against a very vulnerable group: gay teens. The “It’ Gets Better” campaign assures gay kids that it will, one day, get better.

But if you happen to be a Boy Scout or an Eagle Scout, it won’t get better until you get older, or choose to quit the Scouts. Because the Boy Scouts and the Eagle Scouts won’t have you. This is organizational bullying on a massive scale–the powers-that-be of a longstanding institution telling gay kids, “We don’t like you, we won’t have you, there is something fundamentally wrong with you.” The message it sends to gay kids is that they are immoral, and that they are deserving of all of the bullying they may receive. It tells them that when they grow up, they can look forward to more of the same; they won’t be allowed to be Scout leaders, simply because they’re gay.

Eagle Scouts return medals to protest Boy Scouts anti gay policies (photo Maggie Koerth-Baker)

The BSA’s public declaration of disdain for gays is all the more offensive in light of the fact that the organization has a record of protecting paedophiles. As yesterday’s LA Times article reports

A Los Angeles Times review of 1,600 confidential files dating from 1970 to 1991 has found that Scouting officials frequently urged admitted offenders to quietly resign — and helped many cover their tracks.

Through silence, the organization for decades allowed paedophiles to continue hurting children. In 2005, Douglas Sovereign Smith, the national program director for BSA and chairman of the Scouts’ Youth Protection League, was convicted of receiving and distributing explicit child pornography. Meanwhile, the BSA deems gay parents to be a bad influence on children. It’s a twisted logic that allows persons who are known sex offenders to have close contact with children while waging a public campaign against individuals who have done nothing but serve their Scout troops honorobly.

In July, the BSA made a point of reaffirming its ban on gay leaders and members. The USA Today editorial, Boy Scouts’ Anti-Gay Policy Teaches Wrong Lesson, makes a salient point:

…as the U.S. military figured out, an organization dedicated to integrity, teamwork and leadership benefits by being inclusive. Instead, the Boy Scouts of America has thrown its lot with a dwindling band of groups that place a higher premium on discrimination.

We all know how important it is to teach our children to be kind, to respect people who are different from them, people who are of a different religion or race, or of a different opinion. Most of us, in this day and age, would not dream of belonging to a country club–or any other club–that does not allow members of a certain race or religion. But the Boy Scouts, which is so ingrained in our schools and communities as a trusted social and cultural institution, gets away with practicing the same tactics that most of us would find utterly offensive elsewhere.

For people who are already involved in the scouts, changing it from the inside by summarily rejecting scoutmasters who practice bigotry, and by fighting hard to change the bylaws and to oust the higher-ups who impose this rule–may be a good tactic and is certainly a very worthy goal. But joining just for the purpose of changing it from the inside would be like joining the baptist church to get the powers-that-be to stop preaching hatred against gays and liberals. There are many ways for boys to learn good citizenship–being a boy scout certainly isn’t necessary to achieve this end.

A few months ago, my son asked me what “gay” meant, when he heard the word on the radio, and, in the interests of simplicity, I told him it means “when a girl like-likes a girl as a girlfriend, or a boy like-likes a boy, as a boyfriend.” Because, being 7, he may not know anything about sex, but he does know the difference between “like” and “like-like.” He said, “What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing,” I said.

“But why are they talking about it?” he asked. In his innocence, in his natural childish tendency to be accepting, he couldn’t fathom why anyone would be bothered by someone else “like-liking” whomever they chose.

Fortunately, my son hasn’t expressed any desire to be in the Cub Scouts. It also helps that he spends loads of one-on-one time with his dad, so it’s not like he’s missing out on any father-son time by not being in the  Scouts.  It would be much more difficult if he really wanted to join. But there are some things worth saying no to. My husband, for his part, isn’t budging on this one. To him, the issue is too important, the message to kids too huge: you don’t join a club that won’t have your friends as a member.

We don’t actually think this is the time to tell our son that some people hate gays. Why introduce a concept that is morally unfathomable to him at this age? We also don’t need to tell him just yet that there are some people, including the leadership of the BSA, who despise his dad for his religious beliefs (see below). For now, we’ve just explained to our son that the Boy Scouts is a club that “doesn’t let kids in that they don’t like.” We’ve also explained that “if they think a parent is different from them, they won’t let that parent be a Scout Leader.” Our son didn’t think that wasn’t very nice. We left it at that.

Boy Scouts and religious discrimination: There happens to be another group that is unwelcome in the Boy Scouts of America: atheists. The bylaws contain a Declaration of Religious Principal: “The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God,” and clearly states that “atheists and agnostics” cannot participate. Which would preclude my husband, a devoted dad and an upstanding citizen who has served his country for 17 years, from being a Scout leader. So the obvious question for our son, should it ever come up, would be: do you want to join a club that wouldn’t have your dad as a member?

In addition to excluding atheists, the Boy Scout denies “Religion and Life” badges to kids whose religion does not square with the BSA’s anti-gay policies. The badges are given to “designate proficiency in the tenets of a Scout’s faith.” This editorial notes that BSA has banned Unitarian Universalists from awarding these badges and questions whether the the BSA will allow the award of Religion and Life Badges to Reform Jews, who have “adopted formal resolutions endorsing civil rights for gays and lesbians.” What message does this send to a child, to the devoted Scout who is told by his troop leader–sorry, no badge for you, the Boy Scouts don’t like your religion.

In defending itself, the BSA has stated repeatedly that the reason their anti-gay policy stands is that most Boy Scout families approve of it. I can’t imagine anyone in our community kicking a kid out of the Boy Scouts or Eagle Scouts for being gay, and I certainly hope that no one in our community would oust a troop leader for being gay (or atheist, for that matter).  

But I also believe that institutionalized policies of discrimination can only hold sway so long as individuals support the institutions that practice those policies. As long as the BSA enjoys a healthy membership, as long as it collects dues, the leadership will continue to believe that discrimination is the proper course.

What are your thoughts? Would you let your son join the Cub Scouts or Boy Scouts? And, if so, how would you talk to him about the BSA’s anti-gay policies, anti-atheist policies? If you are a Scouting family, are you trying to change the Boy Scouts from the inside out? Do you think the good outweighs the bad?

postscript: Interestingly, it was once the locals, not the nationals, who came down on the side of discrimination. Back in 1915, when racial discrimination was the norm at every level of society and government, the Boy Scouts took the official position that the organization should not discriminate on the basis of race. But the BSA allowed local troops to follow whatever rules governed their local school systems, which meant that Boy Scout troops in the South and elsewhere were segregated into white troops and “colored troops” until the late 1940s. Just as it would be hard to find someone to publicly defend racial segregation of Boy Scout troops today, in a few years, it will be difficult to find someone who will publicly defend exclusion of gays. The 11-member board that created the policy won’t be in power forever. Because decisions such as this are not made democratically, a few men on high with old-school opinions about hatred and discrimination are making policy for a diverse organization whose membership encompasses many more reasonable and inclusive views.

Update, Sept. 26: A commenter noted that her local troop leaders were unaware of the anti-gay, anti-atheist policies of the Boy Scouts. While this may be true, the policy is made very clear in the Boy Scouts bylaws:

With respect to positions limited to professional Scouters or, because of their close relationship to the mission of Scouting, positions limited to registered members of the Boy Scouts of America, acceptance of the Declaration of Religious Principle, the Scout Oath, and the Scout Law is required. Accordingly, in the exercise of their constitutional right to bring the values of Scouting to youth members, the Boy Scouts of America will not employ atheists, agnostics, known or avowed homosexuals, or others as professional Scouters or in other capacities in which such employment would tend to interfere with the mission of reinforcing the values of the Scout Oath and the Scout Law in young people.

A note on the Boy Scouts’ position against atheists, from Wikipedia:

The Bylaws of the BSA contain a non-sectarian Declaration of Religious Principle. This was adopted in the first decade of the organization to assuage the Catholic Church that the work of the YMCA in getting Scouting established in this country did not mean that it was a Protestant proselytizing organization:

“The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God…The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members.”


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