30 December 2013

Why Did The Boy Scouts Decide To Admit Gay Youth?

As you may have heard by now, the Boy Scouts of America will allow openly gay boys to join as the new year begins.

What I find interesting is that a number of news reports have likened this policy to the abolition of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in the military.  Such a comparison is, on one hand, nearly fatuous, but on the other, relevant.

The repeal of DADT meant that openly homosexual people could serve, as enlisted members or officers, in any branch of the Armed Forces.  On the other hand, the new Scout policy does not allow openly gay adults to serve as Scoutmasters:  It only allows gay youngsters to become Scouts.  Moreover, it does not prevent churches and other organizations from withdrawing their sponsorship of troops.  More than one report indicates that the main ecumenical organizations, such as the Mormon Church (which is the largest sponsor) or the Catholic Church, are unlikely to do so although individual parishes or churches may.  And, most parents who don't like the idea of gay kids becoming scouts have already enrolled their own sons in conservative alternatives like Trail Life.

But the comparison with the repeal of DADT is interesting and relevant because Lord Baden-Powell started Scouting over a century ago for the purpose of preparing boys for the military.  Some would argue that it has always been a sort of paramilitary organization.  I would agree, at least in the sense that it is organized and in the titles it uses.  Also, some of the skills taught are among those required of soldiers, sailors and the like.  Then again, I would guess that the vast majority of Scouts do not join the Armed Forces when they come of age.

Another interesting parallel with the repeal of DADT is this:  Just as transgender people still can't serve in the military, they can't become Scoutmasters or Scouts.

The most interesting question, I think, is:  What motivated the BSA to change their policy?  Some might say it's the increased acceptance of LGBT people:  After all, Utah--of all states--just struck down its ban on gay marriage.  I wouldn't doubt that's a factor, but the cynic in me thinks that something else is at work.

An in-law of mine spent a number of years in the administrative offices of the Boy Scouts.  This in-law's job and the jobs of others in those office were rendered obsolete by the rapidly-declining numbers of boys (and girls) who were becoming (and remaining) Scouts. A number of factors conspired to shrink the rolls:  declining birth rates, the increased number of activities available to young people and, perhaps, the image of scouting.  As to the latter:  Among the many colleagues, acquaintances and friends I count in the worlds of academia and the arts, not one has a child who is or was a Scout.  In those circles, even the kids who like camping, hiking and such don't join.  It seems that in the worlds I inhabit--and in large coastal cities like the one in which I live--nearly all kids who are interested in scouting come from low- or lower middle-income backgrounds and from families and communities that include few people with advanced educations.  But those young people don't join because the cost, while low compared to other activities, is still prohibitive.

The part of me that asks "Cui bono?" believes that the Boy Scouts of America finally decided to accept gay boys because, frankly, they're trying to enroll any new members they can find.  My in-law said that some in the organization have even questioned whether or not the BSA would survive, at least in its current form, unless it could find new members.

Whatever its motivations, I'm glad the BSA decided to enter the 21st Century.  There will be some issues to iron out, such as that of shared facilities.  There will also be some reports of harassment, but I have little doubt that such things go on now unless things have changed drastically since I was a Scout more years ago than I care to admit.  But I think those issues will be resolved.  Still, I have to wonder--as I did when DADT was repealed--whether the new policy would actually leave gay members more vulnerable to harassment because they were "out" and no one could pretend otherwise.  After all, we all know how cruel young people, particularly adolescents, can be to each other, especially if one doesn't fit the sometimes-unarticulated expectations about gender and sexuality.  I don't think boys have stopped picking on "sissies" or simply those who are quiet and sensitive since I received such treatment about four decades ago. 

Then again, the new policy could present a new learning opportunity for such boys, especially if they have a scoutmaster who is a strong leader and doesn't tolerate bullying--or, perhaps, might have been one of those boys who might have been bullied.