Challenging the Boy Scouts of America's Anti-Gay Policy

November 29, 2012

Student readings examine the Boy Scouts of America’s policy of excluding gays, as well as efforts by scouts themselves to challenge discrimination from both inside and outside the organization. 


To The Teacher:

The position of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) on homosexuality has drawn criticism for more than two decades. Most recently, in the summer of 2012, the group - one of the country's largest youth organizations - voted to reaffirm its current policy of excluding openly gay individuals from membership.
The decision has sparked controversy among current and former Boy Scouts as well as with the general public. In response, a variety of Eagle Scouts (the organization's highest-ranking members) are protesting the policy. Some are pushing for change from within the organization. Other Eagle Scouts have decided to return their badges and submit letters of resignation, cutting their ties with the BSA.
This exercise is divided into two readings. The first reading takes a general look at the Boy Scouts of America's policy on homosexuality and their recent decision to reaffirm that discriminatory policy. The second reading discusses efforts to challenge homophobia within the BSA. This reading considers the different strategies for challenging discrimination, from fighting to change policies from within the group to withdrawing from the organization altogether.


Student Reading 1:

The Boy Scouts of America's Controversial Position on Gay Rights

While acceptance and support for the rights of gays and lesbians in the United States has steadily grown over the past few decades, some individuals and organizations have nevertheless been slow to adapt their views to a changing society. One such organization is the Boy Scouts of America (BSA).
Founded in 1910 , BSA is one of America's oldest youth organizations - and one of the largest, with nearly four million members. BSA says that it "provides a program for young people that builds character, trains them in the responsibilities of participating citizenship, and develops personal fitness. For over a century, the BSA has helped build the future leaders of this country by combining educational activities and lifelong values with fun."
Despite a membership that encompasses a diverse range of demographics and opinions, the organization's leadership has historically been conservative, and the organization's official positions have tended to reflect this conservatism.
In particular, the BSA has attracted controversy for its stance on homosexuality in the organization. The group's official policy states:

While the BSA does not proactively inquire about the sexual orientation of employees, volunteers, or members, we do not grant membership to individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA. 

The BSA has publicly maintained such a policy, with only minor changes to the official wording, since the early 1980s.
In more recent years, however, the organization has come under fire from gay rights groups for practicing discrimination. As Erik Eckholm reported for the New York Times on June 17, 2012:

Gay rights groups, who for years have pressed the Boy Scouts for change, said the organization was out of step with society.
"The Boy Scouts of America is one of the last cultural institutions to have discrimination as part of their policy," said Richard Ferraro, vice president for communications with the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, noting that the Girl Scouts, the Boys and Girls Clubs, the 4-H Clubs and now even the military forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Prohibiting or ejecting gay children or leaders sends a dangerous message to all children, Mr. Ferraro said, adding, "It's policies like this that contribute to bullying in schools." 

As a private organization, the BSA retains the right to make and enforce its own rules for its membership. In 2000, the US Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 in favor of the BSA's right to expel a gay assistant scoutmaster. In a more recent incident that has drawn widespread attention, an openly gay 17-year-old Boy Scout named Ryan Andresen from California was denied the rank of Eagle Scout - the organization's highest honor - because of his sexuality.
In July 2012, after what the organization described as a "wide-ranging internal review" that took two years, the BSA reached a "unanimous consensus" in favor of keeping the current policy on homosexuality. With change unlikely to come through the courts, the results of the review have prompted a new wave of protests from Boy Scouts who disagree with the organization's leadership and are looking for other avenues to promote change within the BSA.

For Discussion: 

1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered? 

2. How does the BSA describe its position on homosexuality?

3. One of the commentators on the BSA's policy argues that "Prohibiting or ejecting gay children or leaders sends a dangerous message to all children... It's policies like this that contribute to bullying in schools." Do you agree with this view? How might a policy from an organization like the BSA contribute to bullying?

4. Courts have upheld BSA's right to discriminate because it is a private organization. Do you believe that private organizations should be able to have discriminatory policies for their membership? Do you think the same standards should apply for race as for sexual orientation?

5. If change doesn't come through the courts in this instance, what other ways might gay rights advocates get the organization to change its policy?




Student Reading 2:

Eagle Scouts Protest Discrimination

Since the BSA's decision to reaffirm its anti-gay membership policy, some concerned scouts (both homosexual and heterosexual) have registered protest at the organization. These protests have taken different forms: Some scouts have chosen to leave the organization; others are trying to promote change from within.
In a powerful symbolic gesture, a growing number of the Boy Scouts' highest-ranking members - Eagle Scouts - are sending back their badges and resigning from the organization. One group of former Eagles Scouts has created a Tumblr site to publicly share letters of resignation. By the fall of 2012, nearly 200 Eagle Scouts had shared resignation letters on the site.
For many former Eagle Scouts who decided to return their awards, the decision was a very difficult one. Many of these scouts have devoted large portions of their lives to the organization and treasure their association with the BSA. At the same time, they have decided that they can no longer be a part of an organization that endorses discrimination.
One former scout, Matthew Munley, wrote of his personal experience:

I was one of six friends who reached Eagle at the same time in Mundelein, Illinois. It was such a significant occurrence in our small suburban town that we made it into the newspaper. We grew up together, starting as Cub Scouts, where my mother was the den leader and the other five boys' parents were all leaders in some fashion.
The six of us followed each other throughout scouting. Though one of us drifted apart from the others, the connections forged in scouting has kept us close... To this day, the five of us are close friends, attending each other's weddings...
Unfortunately, it's now with a heavy heart that I must do what time and the strain of the world tried so hard to do: I must break from my brothers; my lifelong friends. I can no longer stand with them as a proud Eagle Scout... That honor has been corrupted by the BSA's blatant discrimination and bigotry. The BSA's policy of "not granting membership to open or avowed homosexuals" is not a practice in line with the teachings of the Boy Scouts. Instead, this is the practice of bigots.

Some of the Eagle Scouts who are leaving the BSA are promoting new, non-discriminatory youth scouting organizations. One such former scout, David Atchley of St. Louis, was excluded from the Scouts not because of his sexuality, but because of his atheism.  Atchley was quoted in the St. Louis Beacon in August 2012:

I told them my background, what I did, that I was an Eagle and a scoutmaster and that I was also an atheist," Atchley said. The council representative "ended the conversation by telling me, ‘Well, you're just not the kind of leader the BSA is looking for. You should go to some other organization.'"
So he did. In 2008, Atchley mailed his Eagle badge back to the BSA.
But he soon found he had no "other organization" to go to - certainly not in Washington, Mo., his hometown. Even nationally, the few other options available didn't offer the scouting experience Atchley was looking for.
Atchley decided to create an alternative. Drawing on the name and vision of Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the Briton who founded the scouting movement in 1907, Atchley created the youth arm of the Baden-Powell Service Association (BPSA), which at the time only had adult members.
Besides the BPSA's non-discrimination policy - it accepts everyone, including girls - Atchley says the main difference between it and the BSA is its focus on "traditional" scouting skills.

While some former scouts are leaving the BSA and promoting new organizations, others are pushing for change from within. One group, called Scouts for Equality, has created a website as a central hub for scouts from around the country to share resources and circulate petitions challenging the organization's policy. Their mission statement reads: 

Since 1991, the Boy Scouts of America has barred openly gay individuals from participating in its program at any level. Scouts for Equality will lead a respectful, honest dialogue with current and former Scouts and Scout Leaders about ending this outdated policy. By embodying the values of the Scout Oath and Law, we believe we can restore the social relevancy of one of this country's great cultural institutions: the Boy Scouts of America...
In our first public campaign, we are inviting current and former members of the scouting community to share their stories about how the BSA's discriminatory policy regarding homosexual scouts and scout leaders has affected them in order to assess support for changing this policy from within the scouting community. By gathering these stories and evaluating support, we hope to provide those working from within the Boy Scouts of America with the resources they need to end this policy.

As mainstream acceptance of gays in the United States continues to grow, it is unlikely that the BSA can forever cling to its discriminatory membership policy. Whether a new, more inclusive organization comes to replace the Boy Scouts of America, or whether it is transformed from within, will ultimately be decided by the efforts of activists - including scouts themselves - in the coming years.

For Discussion: 

1.  Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
2.  Why have some Eagle Scouts decided to return their badges? According to the reading, why has this been a difficult personal decision for many?
3.   While some Eagle Scouts are resigning in protest, others are pushing for changes from within the BSA. Which do you think is the better approach? Why?
4.   Have you ever debated over whether to leave a group or organization because it had beliefs or policies you didn't like? Did you decide to leave, or did you stick with the group and try to change it from within? What was the outcome of your experience?
5.   Some former scouts are trying to create new, inclusive organizations that allow all young people to experience the benefits of scouting. Do you think these organizations will be a success? Why or why not?
Research assistance provided by Eric Augenbraun.