We see a ray of light in the midst of a foggy, congested thoroughfare. When Scouting began in this country in 1910, discrimination was rampant — against African Americans, against newly arrived immigrants, against women, and against homosexuals.
As our society has progressed, it has become more inclusive.
The Boy Scouts of America has refused to see the light and has lost its way. At the start of the millennium, the national organization defended its decision to remove an openly gay scoutmaster all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and won. Afterwards, the BSA issued a statement that “an avowed homosexual is not a role model for the values espoused in the Scout Oath and Law.”
The Boy Scouts’ mission statement says it is “to prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Law.”
Furthering prejudice is neither ethical nor moral. It serves as a poor model for young people.
The Scout Law is to be “Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, Reverent.”
When a Boy Scout takes the oath, he promises, “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”
A boy is born with a particular sexual orientation, just as he is born with a predisposition to be right-handed, or left-handed, or ambidextrous. The era is long gone when teachers slapped the hands of left-handed students to force them to use their right hands.
Forcing someone to hide or deny his sexual orientation is not helpful, not friendly, not courteous, and not kind.
Excluding someone based on his sexual orientation is also a violation of the Scout Oath; discrimination is the opposite of helping other people. It is hurting them, sometimes badly, sometimes irreparably. There is nothing immoral about a man’s sexual orientation; again, it is simply the way he was born.
We’d like to think the governing board of the BSA had a moral awakening last week when it announced the ban on gays may be eliminated. Yesterday, it postponed the decision. We suspect that, rather than a moral awakening, backlash to the policy was causing problems.
A longtime Guilderland Boy Scout leader, Larry Vincent, told us, if the ban were lifted, it would be a huge relief. “We’d be happy for it,” he said. “It’s a source of contention. We lost a lot of use of buildings, even one of the oldest meeting places for Scouts, in Philadelphia.” And, many state and federal lands where jamborees and other gatherings had been held are now off limits because of the discrimination. There has been pressure from corporate sponsors as well.
“Currently, the BSA is discussing potentially removing the national membership restriction regarding sexual orientation,” said Deron Smith, the BSA’s director of public relations, in a statement last Monday.
However, the Boy Scouts — again, we assume for practical reasons — hedged their bets. They made no sweeping statements of equality for all. Rather, if the new policy were adopted, it would mean, said Smith, “the chartered organizations that oversee and deliver Scouting would accept membership and select leaders consistent with each organization’s mission, principles, or religious beliefs.” He went on, “BSA members and parents would be able to choose a local unit that best meets the needs of their families.”
This allows the BSA to keep funding from groups that chose to discriminate, so it is not a “morally straight” solution. But it will at least allow some relief for those brave enough to grasp it.
For Vincent, it’s a no-brainer. We commend him for his straightforward approach. He leads one of four Boy Scout troops in Guilderland; his is backed by Saint Madeleine Sophie Church. “I can’t speak for the church,” he stressed. “The next time we charter, we’ll have to make sure they’re OK with it.”
We urge the backers of Vincent’s troop and those of other local Scout troops to do what is brave, helpful, friendly, courteous, and kind.
Vincent said that a half-dozen years ago, when a Cub Scout pack in Florida passed a resolution it would allow gay Scouts and gay leaders, it was cut from the national program, sending a shock wave through troops across the country.
Local leaders discussed it, he said. “There was a quiet, mutual agreement not to ask kids if they were gay. They could have cancelled our charter,” he said, likening the local approach to the former military policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“We never came out with anything publicly,” said Vincent who has led Scouts for 15 years. “I’m sure several of the boys I’ve been a leader of are probably gay. For the kids, it’s never been an issue.”
Vincent described, though, “a boy out of Albany, an Eagle Scout who was a very respected leader at Camp Rotary,” a camp Guilderland Scouts attend. “He came out after his 18th birthday and was stripped of his leadership. He was a nice kid…” Vincent said, his voice trailing off.
Vincent also said he doesn’t believe allowing gays is “an issue with any of our parents; they’ve never expressed displeasure.” He went on, “New York is a liberal state.”
How strange to be a gay New Yorker who is allowed to marry but not allowed to lead a son in Scouts. Vincent, in his job at the Capital District Physicians Health Plan, said he works with gay couples. “When we prohibit parents from participating, what chance do we have of getting their kids involved?” he asked.
Vincent goes on to list some of the aspects of Scouts that he finds most worthwhile. Boys learn by doing as they earn merit badges, they become leaders, they contribute to their community with service projects, and they get back in touch with nature.
“So many kids today get on an Xbox or PlayStation and don’t know about nature,” he said.
Scouting, just as when it was founded a century ago as families were leaving their farms for the cities, can teach boys self-reliance.
But all this goodness can occur only if all boys are welcomed. Similar organizations saw the light long ago. Camp Fire Boys and Girls issued this statement after the 2000 Supreme Court decision: “Camp Fire is inclusive and is open to every person in the United States…Camp Fire Boys and Girls works to realize the dignity and worth of each individual and to eliminate human barriers based on all assumptions which prejudge individuals.”
Similarly, the 4-H Council submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the Supreme Court in support of the dismissed gay scoutmaster.
And, long before, in 1991, Girl Scouts of the USA stated, “As a private organization, Girl Scouts of the USA respects the values and beliefs of each of its members and does not intrude into personal matters. Therefore, there are not membership policies on sexual preference….These are private matters for girls and their families to address.”
Scouts like to tell a story about how Boy Scouting came to America. The story is set on a foggy street in London where a well-known Chicago publisher, W.D. Boyce, is lost. A boy who came to be called the Unknown Scout leads him to where he needs to go but, refusing Boyce’s tip, tells him that he is a Boy Scout doing his daily good turn. Boyce is so impressed that he meets with Chief Scout Robert Baden-Powell, founder of England’s Scouts, and returns home to launch the program in America, now three million strong.
The BSA itself is now in need of a guide to lead it out of the fog, and into the light. That would be a good turn of events for all of us. But, in the meantime, we need to rely on local leaders like Larry Vincent to see that all boys who want to be Scouts, and all men who want to lead them, can — with pride and dignity, without hiding who they are. That is the way to stay morally straight and leave the fog behind.