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BSA: Big Tent Politics

By Drew Grande

I had been involved with the Boy Scouts of America since I was 7 years old in 2nd grade and joined the Cub Scouts.  I was following in the footsteps of my father and my older brother.  I earned my Arrow of Light crossed over to Boy Scouts, worked at scout camps for 7 summers, and earned my Eagle Scout rank (the only pre college acknowledgement still on my resume), and finally worked professionally for the organization for 8 years until leaving to be a environmental organizer in fall of 2010.

I was asked to sign a statement that I was “not an avowed homosexual.”

If you look at the official BSA youth or adult leader application there is not a box or question about sexuality; several people in the organization are very proud of that.  The question did come up for me when I was applying to work professionally for the organization in the spring of 2002.  It was on a bright orange sheet paper I was asked to sign a statement that I was “not an avowed homosexual.”  All of this is based on the last two words “Morally straight” from the Scout Oath.

To understand how knowing the difference between right and wrong is interpreted as an organization for heterosexuals only you need to know the structure of the BSA.  It is a volunteer run organization from a national board to the 300 local operating councils, and thousands of units (packs, troops, crews, ships, and posts) that have the 2.6 million members.  Each unit is owned and operated by a local chartering organization like an Elks Lodge, Catholic Church, Mormon temple, synagogue, mosque, Rotary Club, Knights of Columbus, VFW Posts, American Legions, etc.  This means that tents and money from popcorn sales, and approving adult leaders is actually done by the charter sponsor.

When the BSA was first being organized in 1910 it was largely associated with the YMCA, which was a Protestant organization.  So when it expanded to Catholic Churches the churches wanted to make sure only Catholics were in those units.  The BSA agreed and had a similar agreement with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon) and become their official youth group in 1913.  This means that every male member of the LDS faith has also been a member of the BSA.  Although the BSA was always integrated the LDS Church was not and there were issues along the way for them as well.

It is this arrangement of local chartering institutions approving adult leaders that allows the BSA to discriminate against non-heterosexuals.  In many areas of the country LDS membership makes up close to 100% of local council membership and it also means that LDS families are giving a lot of money to find local scouting programs and providing adult leadership to local units and serving on the boards of local councils.  This is mainly in the west where as in the Northeast it is predominantly Catholic Churches sponsoring units and filling that role.

Under threat of pulling sponsorship and dollars the LDS and Catholic churches have influenced the BSA to read morally straight as a membership standard.  Since the 1970’s the BSA has been interpreting the scout oath this way and removing youth members, adult leaders, and alumni from the organization.  With the conservative leanings of it’s leaders, both volunteer and professional, everyone went along for the ride.

Under threat of pulling sponsorship and dollars the LDS and Catholic churches have influenced the BSA to read morally straight as a membership standard.

There were challenges to the BSA and their membership standards, notably James Dale v. Boy Scouts of America in 2000.  A New Jersey court had sided with James Dale that the BSA could not discriminate based on sexual orientation but this was quickly overturned by the Supreme Court that also gave us George W. Bush.  This was the first time a lot of people learned that the BSA held discriminatory membership standards and many people left the organization like Stephen Speilberg and Ralph Lauren, who designed the uniform.  For many others in the organization this was a rallying cry for them that they had prevailed.

In reality it was the beginning of the end and the worst thing that could have happened to the BSA in it’s history.  Instead of being able to go back to the LDS and Catholic church and say that the highest court in the land had made a decision and the membership standards are changing they were left defending their policy.  The other result was public organizations like police and fire stations and the military could no longer sponsor scout units.  This was felt most notably in Europe on American military bases and at Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia where the quadrennial National Jamboree had been held since 1981.  For the first time this summer the Boy Scouts will be holding the event at The Summit: Bechtel Family Scout Reservation in Mount Hope, West Virginia on a reclaimed mountaintop removal coal mine.

The court decision has made longtime scouters and traditional conservatives happy for upholding long held values.  The problem is those people are no longer the target demographic for the BSA; their target is the mothers of boys between the ages of 6 and 9 who are making the decision of what activities their sons will participate in.  This is also the group that has had the biggest change in views on marriage equality over the last 10 years.

When a scout in California works years to earn his Eagle Rank and puts hours back into his community to make it better and is denied, moms notice.

While the BSA continues to take hard stands against gay youth moms around the country are noticing.  When a scout in California works years to earn his Eagle Rank and puts hours back into his community to make it better and is denied, moms notice. When the national board publicly votes to uphold a discriminatory policy after the United Stated military removes Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, moms notice. They are asking if that is an environment they want to put their son into.

In January the national board of the BSA was expected to vote again for a second time in six months on their membership standards.  The result was going to be that the policy on non-heterosexuals in the BSA would be left to chartering sponsors instead of a blanket national policy.  This would allow progressive areas of the country to move forward and would still allow the LDS and Catholic churches to set their own standards.  This seemed like a good idea at first but it had many problems with it.

If the Catholic Church in town does not allow gay scouts or leaders they would be forced to join another troop in town regardless if it met the needs of that family.  It would also set up a scenario for bullying after that troop is labeled as the gay troop.  Another problem is what happens when the LDS troop refuses to go to summer camp with the gay troop in the next site over.  Finally the issue is when there is not another troop in town for that young man to go to.  Trying to make everyone happy still leaves this as a discriminatory policy.

Council boards that still look remarkably similar what you would expect to find from a 1950’s board; old and white.

Next month at the national meeting the BSA will have another vote on their membership standards.  Every local council will be able to cast votes in an Electoral College style of voting with larger councils getting more votes than smaller ones.  Unfortunately it will not be local moms voting it will be members of local council boards.  Council boards that still look remarkably similar what you would expect to find from a 1950’s board; old and white.

The Boy Scouts has taught a lot of Americans many new skills from pioneering and plumbing to cinematography and cooking.   They have given us many leaders (every man to walk on the moon is an Eagle Scout) but it is time for the BSA to put those leadership skills into use for themselves and show America why it is still a relevant organization.  If next month they vote to uphold a discriminatory membership standard for the second time in a year there will be a lot of moms at the bus stop in the morning asking each other if the Boy Scouts is the right place for their son.

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1 Comment

  1. Jen Lee says:

    Excellent article !

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