The Boy Scouts and Homosexuality
July 2013

by John Herring

 
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Last Edited 2013-07-24

Let's start by being clear about a few things. (1) The Boy Scouts of America is a private organization, and they're therefore entitled to complete freedom of association. They can make any membership rules they want (as long as those rules are legal), and they're free to discriminate against any kind of minority they want to. This freedom of association is implied by the Constitution and was recently reaffirmed by the Supreme Court. No one is forced to join the Scouts or to remain a Scout. I have no problems with this. (2) I am a white, middle-aged, straight man, brought up in a conservative, Southern, traditional-values, nominally Christian home. (3) I earned Scouting's highest honor, the rank of Eagle Scout, when I was 15, joining my two older brothers, also Eagle Scouts. I even went on to earn three “palms” — minor steps beyond the rank of Eagle Scout. All three of us were also Brotherhood members of the Order of the Arrow (a service order within the Boy Scouts; membership is an honor conferred by one's fellow Scouts), and all three of us served in various youth leadership capacities within the Scouts (you can't advance to the rank of Eagle Scout without having held some kind of leadership position within a troop). All three of us earned every required merit badge, and many more, and did all the expected things — knot tying, camping, outdoor cooking, woodcraft, Indian lore, canoeing, swimming, and many other healthy activities. Had you tried, you wouldn't have found many families more thoroughly involved in Scouting than ours.

Throughout my entire association with the Boy Scouts, from Cub Scouts all the way through to Eagle Scout, I never once encountered any kind of sexual behavior, either heterosexual or homosexual (looking back on this now, this seems a little odd, but it’s the truth). One time, just once, I remember an older scout (he was in high school) showing the rest of us a picture of his girlfriend. It was an ordinary school yearbook picture, entirely chaste. That was it. No Scout ever discussed anything sexual with me, we never sneaked away to the Girl Scouts’ camp on the other side of the lake, and no Scout or leader ever touched me inappropriately or leered at me or suggested anything sexual. I was never uncomfortable in my many close contacts with the boys around me, including sleeping in tents with one or two or three other boys. Not once.

While today the Scout Handbook does at least mention the barest facts of health and family (including things like STDs and pregnancy), sexuality itself is given only the briefest mention. The Scout Handbook of my youth only hinted at sexual matters, advising any Scout troubled by such things to consult a member of the clergy. This Handbook has never contained statements of the Boy Scouts of America's policies regarding one's sexuality.

My family moved several times during my boyhood, so I was enrolled in several different Boy Scout troops, in different states, some sponsored by one kind of Protestant church, some by a different kind, some by no church at all. We often met in church basements or function rooms, or in the local civic center, but we were never — not once — led in prayer by a member of the clergy, or even had any contact with the clergy at all, unless we wanted to pursue “God and Country” (an optional religious program). All of my extensive contact with the Scouts was entirely religion-free. No Scoutmaster ever led a prayer, no minister ever exhorted us to join the church.

So it was something of a surprise to me, some years ago, to learn that there was a controversy concerning the Scouts and homosexuality. My first thought, on hearing about it, was “Who cares? There’s nothing sexual about the Boy Scouts.” When I learned that some people were concerned because homosexuals were secretly members of the Scouts, I thought “Who cares? There’s nothing about being a Boy Scout that requires a boy to be either straight or gay.” And at that time, there wasn’t — there was no officially stated, public document (and there was certainly nothing ever presented to the boys in Scouting) that stated that the Scouts were opposed to having gay members.

Then I learned that some Eagle Scouts had returned their medals to the Boy Scouts to protest the Scouts’ policy of excluding gay members. I read in the papers about boys who had been in the Scouts for years, and had fulfilled all the requirements to become Eagle Scouts, but were then denied the honor solely because they were gay — even though they had never been told anywhere along the line that being gay would result in disqualification. This seemed obviously unjust to me, but I held my peace at first. I watched for additional developments, and tried to be sure of my feelings. I noticed, over a few years, that not just a few former Eagle Scouts, but hundreds, had returned their medals, and that the Boy Scouts seemed adamant in defending their policy excluding gay members.

I thought about all this, and I remembered the gay Scoutmaster I was once associated with, a man who was universally liked and admired. Handsome, rugged, accomplished, alert, a natural leader. I couldn’t see anything wrong, then or now, with the fact that he was both gay and a Scout leader. There was no hint of scandal or even anything remotely sexual about his leadership. I remembered, too, that there were a few gay guys in my college dorm, a few gay professors teaching my classes, and some gay students in my circle of friends. Not one of these people “corrupted” me in any way, despite the (rare) pass. Somehow, mysteriously, it didn’t rub off. All I can believe, today, is that I was born straight, that it was natural for me to be straight — and that they were born gay, and that it was natural for them to be gay. No one ever tried to persuade me to be gay, and I never tried to persuade any gay person to be straight. Live and let live.

Not once in my years in private industry did working with both gay and straight co-workers cause any problems in the office, for anyone. Gay and straight “tolerated” each other with absolutely no problems, and we even got good, solid, productive work done. Sexual orientation simply made no difference whatsoever to getting the job done.

Years later, I became a public school teacher. I met and associated with many other teachers, some gay and some straight. One, in particular, was a highly accomplished and educated foreign language teacher, universally liked and admired by students and faculty. He was also gay. Yet there was never the slightest hint of any improper behavior in his work and extracurricular club sponsorship. I enjoyed every minute spent in conversation with him, and strove to emulate his example when it came to dealing with students. (ALL of the improper behavior by faculty toward students, eventually brought to light, was heterosexual. ALL of it.)

The only thing I could conclude, after all these years of contact with straight and gay people, in all sorts of environments, was that there simply WAS no “gay agenda.” No attempt was ever made, in the Scouts, in the public schools, in college, at work, or among my teacher colleagues, to force homosexuality on me or on anyone I ever observed. No one, gay or straight, ever wronged me or anyone I knew, when it came to sex. So I was baffled when, in recent years, the Scouting controversy rose anew. Was it really a problem? Well, when I saw that those hundreds — not just a few, but hundreds — of former Eagle Scouts had returned their medals, I had to ask myself again what I believed. Was I still proud of being an Eagle Scout? Did it still mean what I thought it did?

When the Boy Scouts refused to change their policy, and continued to exclude people whose only “sin” was that they were gay — despite the fact that sexual orientation was operationally irrelevant within the sphere of Scouting activities — I began to wonder if I too should mail my Eagle Scout medal back to the Boy Scouts. (I never did, but that was only because I had lost track of its whereabouts years ago. I don’t know what became of it, so I have no medal to send back.) In the last couple of years, however, it seemed as if change might come. So I waited to speak out. And, indeed, in 2013, the Boy Scouts finally did vote to allow gay members — for as long as they remained youth members. This was a positive step forward, and I was delighted to see the Boy Scouts arrive in the twenty-first century, however reluctantly.

But they left intact the ban on gay leaders, which will have the (possibly unintended) effect of tossing aside boys who participate in Scouting for years, learn all the lessons, earn all the awards, and fulfill all the requirements, when they turn 18 and want to give back to the organization that has taught them so much. Suddenly, under this policy, a boy who was welcome from Cub Scouts all the way through to Eagle Scout, won’t be welcome to contribute to the Scouts any longer, simply because he’s gay and 18. When he was gay and 17, and participating in those mandatory leadership activities, there's no problem, but let him turn 18, and he's no longer welcome. This is something that makes no sense. When the Boy Scouts change this policy too, as it seems they must someday, then I’ll consider admitting — that’s right, “admitting” — to my friends that I too was a Boy Scout. An Eagle Scout. A man who could, conceivably, be able to give back to the organization that taught me so much as a youth.

Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, may or may not have wanted to include gay boys in the Scouts. It’s likely that the issue never came up way back then, given the general climate of denial regarding homosexuality. But I do know, from first-hand experience, that there’s no Scout skill or precept that gay boys can’t participate in and excel at. Let’s see . . . . knot-tying? Nope. Pretty sure gay boys can do this as well as straight boys. Camping? Not really. I feel sure that gay boys can learn how to pitch tents, cook, and camp just like straight boys. Canoeing? Swimming? Hiking? No, I can’t say that straight boys would have an edge here, either. First Aid? Wilderness Survival? Indian Lore? Music? Astronomy? Public Service? Citizenship? Nothing so far. Coin Collecting? Law? Golf? Safety? Electronics? Fly Fishing? Lifesaving? Forestry? Archery? Wow. This is getting harder and harder. No merit badge I can find, no Scout skill I can point to, would be something that would be more appropriate for straight boys than for gay boys. I feel sure that gay Scouts can study Oceanography, Photography, Space Exploration, Public Speaking, and Soil and Water Conservation just as well as straight Scouts can. So it can’t be the merit badges.

What about other Scouting skills? Let's see. We went to “jamborees” — meetings of many Scout troops over a week or weekend, camping and getting together for competitions and demonstrations of Scouting skills. We built rope bridges, studied Indian Lore, swam whole miles, learned First Aid, earned merit badges in two days, and generally had a good time pursuing healthy outdoor activities with other boys. Nothing that ever happened at a campout or a jamboree would have been easier for straight boys than gay boys, or more appropriate for gay boys rather than straight boys. There would simply have been no difference at all. Which is why, I hope, the Boy Scouts have finally recognized that gay members simply won’t hurt anything. Scouting will remain Scouting. It won’t collapse in moral turpitude when gay members join, or “come out” after joining.

Or maybe it’s not those Scout skills. Maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s the OTHER lessons Scouting teaches. Maybe it’s the VALUES Scouting instills. That must be it. Who cares about the merely “mechanical” skills? After all, there are plenty of disabled Scouts who can't participate in some of the more physically oriented activities, but they're still Scouts in word and thought and deed. So, let’s talk about the VALUES of Scouting. Let’s see, what VALUES did the Scouts teach me? Teamwork, honesty, fair play, kindliness, helpfulness, and many other things, including trying to have the courage of my convictions. Are these things more appropriate to straight boys than they are to gay boys? Can’t gay boys understand and demonstrate teamwork, honesty, fair play, kindliness, and helpfulness? I’m pretty sure they can. In my experience, both in and out of Scouting, gay people have been no more and no less interested in teamwork, honesty, fair play, kindliness, and helpfulness than their straight counterparts. So what else is taught by the Scouts? What other values might they instill? Supposedly, a Scout is . . . . “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” I don’t see a single thing on that list that straight boys can be but gay boys cannot be, not even the “reverent” part. (I've known any number of gay, devout Christians. And even if being gay, or engaging in homosexual sex, were a sin, it's still true, according to Christian doctrine, that being a sinner doesn't prevent you from being reverent — according to Christian belief, we're all sinners, but some of us manage to be reverent anyway.)

So I’m left wondering, after years in the Boy Scouts, after having been brought up in a Boy Scouts home (my mother was a Den Leader of the Cub Scouts, and patiently sewed every badge and patch onto our uniforms, over many years), what qualities a Boy Scout is expected to have that a gay Boy Scout wouldn’t or couldn’t have. Maybe this is the reason the Scouts have finally changed their policy to include openly gay members. Maybe they just couldn’t justify the century-long exclusion of gay members, something that has no foundation in Scouting’s stated principles. In fact, one could take the view that being kind and friendly and courteous sort of IMPLIES this kind of inclusion. That being otherwise — being exclusionary and narrow and bigoted — is the OPPOSITE of the values that Scouting seeks to instill in its members.

If so, why continue to exclude gay adult leaders? The only answer I can think of is that some people fear that gay leaders will have some kind of unwholesome influence on the boys. Well, it never happened to me, or to any of the other Scouts who were exposed to the gay Scoutmaster I remember. In fact, the Scouts involved with him were not even aware that he WAS gay, so negligible was the alleged effect. No gay teacher ever behaved inappropriately toward any student or peer in my presence. No gay professor, even the one who made a pass at me, ever influenced me sexually. So what is it we should fear from gay adults who might otherwise make good Scout leaders?

The many churches who are, or are considering, withdrawing their support from the Boy Scouts because they will now allow openly gay members, are of course free to do so. They, like the Scouts, are private organizations and free to exclude people who don’t agree with their agendas. (Please note that the Boy Scouts don’t exclude boys for having different RELIGIOUS views. No troop I belonged to, even when sponsored by the local Methodist Church or Baptist Church or Presbyterian Church, ever cared what kind of church, if any, I and my family attended.) Seems odd that religious organizations want to withdraw themselves from an organization like the Scouts, now that the Scouts willl accept openly gay members, when the Scouts don’t withdraw themselves from religious organizations even when they’re not of the same religious persuasion as the church sponsoring the troop. This is, though, because the Scouts are not affiliated with ANY religion in particular. Boy Scout troops sponsored by Methodist churches are not made up exclusively of Methodist boys and leaders, and Boy Scout troops sponsored by Roman Catholic churches are not made up exclusively of Roman Catholic boys and leaders. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, in my experience there was never any tangible tie to a sponsoring church that I could discern, other than the fact that we were meeting on a church’s property. It simply wasn’t a factor in our meetings, whether those meetings took place on church property or at a local civic center. There was never even a tenuous connection between a church sponsoring a Boy Scout troop and the beliefs, if any, of the members of that troop. (But there are many adults, including many who themselves have never spent ANY time in the Boy Scouts, who believe that ALL Boy Scout troops should meet in churches, and be closely tied to faith-based organizations.) And this was true in different states, in different troops, over several years.

But now, some of these churches are withdrawing their support from their sponsored Boy Scout troops, forcing those Scout troops to look elsewhere for a meeting place. This is their right, and I wouldn’t have it otherwise, but I do have a few questions I'd like to ask them. (1) Why are you withdrawing your support now, over this, when you never questioned the beliefs of the Boy Scouts before? You never investigated the Scouts or concerned yourselves before with the beliefs of any individual Scout or group of Scouts. Why now? (2) Does withdrawing your support make sense, given that this organization you once supported will now allow gay youth members, but not gay adult leaders? Surely if they’re going to be consistent, they should either allow both or prohibit both. Do you fear gay adults advancing the “gay agenda”?

News flash: THERE IS NO GAY AGENDA. As I've said above, not one of the gay people I’ve ever known has attempted to influence me sexually. Not when I was a child, not when I was an adolescent, not when I was an adult. Not once. I’ve also observed these people operating in positions of authority — Scout leader, priest, public school teacher, college professor, boss — and I’ve never once seen any such person try to use his position of authority to influence a student, parishioner, employee, or Scout under him to do anything sexually improper, gay or otherwise — except for the HETEROSEXUAL male teachers who were fired for improper relationships with underage female students. Does this mean that it never happens? No, of course not. But it's exceedingly rare, despite the headlines we've all seen about priests and altar boys. I’ve seen far more instances of heterosexual MISCONDUCT in colleges and on the job, in different states and in different organizations, than I’ve seen homosexual CONDUCT of ANY kind, proper or otherwise.

So what is it the religious organizations are objecting to? It must be, as many of them have stated, that they believe homosexuality is a sin, and they can’t be affiliated with organizations that tolerate homosexuality. Well, we’ll ignore, for now, the fact that every church in existence has homosexual members, whether they’re “out” or not. And we’ll ignore, for now, the fact that nowhere in the “reference manual” for these churches — the Bible — does Jesus have anything to say about homosexuality. True, there are proscriptions in the Old and New Testaments against homosexual practices. But in the Old Testament, the most often cited verse condemning homosexuality, Leviticus 20:13, reads as follows: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” This verse CLEARLY calls for the death penalty for homosexual acts, yet no Christian or Christian church I know of advocates the execution of homosexuals, even while they condemn them for committing acts of homosexuality. How can you have one without the other?

As just one other example of Old Testament teachings routinely ignored by many who call themselves Christians, Deuteronomy 22:20-21 CLEARLY requires that any woman found not to be a virgin on her wedding night must be stoned to death. I don’t see any Christian or Christian church calling for the execution of women who aren’t virgins but who marry anyway. Why is that? Oh, that’s right, Christians are “exempt” from Mosaic Law, since (many of them say) the sacrifice of Jesus supersedes and replaces the old covenant with the new.

OK, let’s confine ourselves to the New Testament for now (this approach is taken by many who call themselves Christians, while at the same time passionately defending the ENTIRE Bible as inerrant and perfect and divinely inspired). What does the New Testament have to say about homosexuality? Well, if we look at the words of Jesus, we find NOTHING AT ALL. So we must look elsewhere. Paul says, in Romans 1: “26 For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature. 27 And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.”

Seems pretty clear. But Paul also says, in 1 Timothy 2:9, that women must not wear gold or pearls. “In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array.” How many self-described Christian women, intent on following the rules set down in the New Testament, are wearing gold right now — if only a gold wedding band? But Paul is clear that women must not do this. Or even speak in church! (See 1 Corinthians 14: “34 Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. 35 And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”)

So, while self-described Christians justify their resistance to all things homosexual by quoting Paul, they routinely ignore what Paul requires regarding women’s dress and speech. Yes, I’m aware that there are some Christian churches that DO subscribe to such beliefs, forbidding women to wear gold and pearls, and requiring them to remain silent in church. But these are the minority. If instead, like most Christians and most Christian churches, you’re a “cafeteria Christian” — if you pick and choose which verses you’ll follow and which you won’t — you don’t get to call yourself a Christian. You don’t get to claim that you “believe in the Bible” when you only follow the PARTS of the Bible that you choose to observe.

Further, and more importantly, you don’t get to impose your beliefs on others. Preventing this is exactly what the Framers of the Constitution had in mind when they prohibited the establishment of a state church, in the First Amendment. People, including children, can CHOOSE to join your ranks, no problem. And you can have whatever private organization you want, even one founded on a “cafeteria Christian” approach. It wouldn’t be legal to restrain you from the free exercise of your religion, including the belief that you must not associate with homosexuals, and you’re free to believe this and act on that belief. Just don’t be surprised when people shun you, and your organization, in droves. Don’t be surprised when your narrow, parochial views turn people off. Don’t be surprised when many more Eagle Scouts return their medals in sorrow and disgust.