The Boy Scouts Delicate Balancing Act

I was an enthusiastic Cub Scout but at best a indifferent Boy Scout.  I lost interest in scouting after a campout that was a well-intentioned mismanaged fiasco from beginning to end.

BSA have been living in a difficult place for years.  They clearly sees themselves as a mainstream organization, modernizing and responding to contemporary society while transmitting time honored values and experiences.  They strive to achieve racial and ethnic diversity.  The organization updates and adds to its list of possible merit badges to represent changing societal awareness and standards, as for example badges in environmental science, disabilities awareness and game design.  At the same time, many of the most fervent supporters of scouting are religious conservatives who perceive the organization as a bulwark of traditional values defending against a rising tide of valueless modernity.  The organization’s struggle exemplifies the struggle in American culture.

Facing pressure from the American mainstream, including losing corporate sponsors, the scouts had a difficult choice – become another right wing institution regarded by most Americans as a throwback to the 1950s, or adapt with the times.  In voting to permit gay scouts but not gay scout leaders, the scouts are trying to make a pragmatic, incremental move to remain a mainstream organization in American life.  The general reaction among gay folk seems to be mixed – yes, this is a step in the right direction but it continues to support prejudice against gay persons.  John Aravosis at Americablog summed it up in the title of a post:”Boy Scouts lift ban on gay scouts, still consider us pedophiles when we hit 18″.

Michaelangelo Signorile is honest and harsh:

The ugliest lie about gay men is that we are likely to be predators and pedophiles, preying upon children. This twisted belief, backed by no facts but exploiting deep-seated myths and powerful fears about homosexuality, is still firmly embedded in our culture, as are lies about blacks, Jews and other groups demonized within our culture. It’s the lie that has kept many gay men from even interacting with teens and young children, fearful of being in the position of being wrongly accused of making sexual advances. It’s a lie that often inhibits organizing, depriving us of the intergenerational mentoring and self-esteem-building that is so important for any minority group that is discriminated against.

And it’s a lie that empowers bashers and draws blood on our streets.

The predator lie tells young boys, gay and straight, to be suspect and fearful of adult gay men. And the BSA, adopting a new policy allowing gay scouts but not gay scoutmasters, is now furthering the lie in more powerful way.

Yes, BSA’s policy is incoherent.  It’s also another step in their delicate balancing act in being a mainstream organization with lots of right wing supporters.

The Scouts have been performing a delicate balancing act between those competing views of the organization for years now.  Conservatives regarded the Dale lawsuit and decision as a sure sign that the scouts were on their side in the culture wars.

The announcement that the organization would revisit its membership rules concerning gay scouts came as a shock to religious conservatives.  Thursday’s vote  to permit openly gay scouts but not openly gay scout leaders was equally shocking.  The good folks at Think Progress identified the ten right wing freakouts about the policy.  My personal favorite is from John Stemberger who founded On My Honor – an organization dedicated to keep the gays out of the scouts:

This organization that has stood the test of time will probably be destroyed now that they have decided to admit openly gay boys as Scouts.[snip]

Most important, the new policy robs parents of Boy Scouts, like me, of the sole authority to raise issues of sex and sexuality with their kids.

Parents should have the exclusive right to raise issues about sex and sexuality with their children in their own time and in their own way, in the privacy of their homes, not brought up by other older boys around a campfire. Allowing open homosexuality injects a sensitive and highly charged political issue into the heart of the BSA, against the wishes of the vast majority of parents.

Stemberger’s statement exemplifies the attitude of so many of the Scouts conservative supporters, however, which has been one of the chief reasons the Scouts are in their delicate balancing act.  What leaps out at me from Stemberger’s post is the statement that parents have “sole authority to raise issues of sex and sexuality with their kids.”  Second of course is this phrase “in their own time and in their own way, in the privacy of their homes, not brought up by other older boys around a campfire.”  Which of course makes me wonder what the hell kind of campfire talks Stemberger has had in his life.

Buried in Stemberger’s comments however are deep seated notions about gay people that are deeply bigoted – first that gay teens are going to talk about sex incessantly, connected to the oft repeated idea that gay men do nothing but think about sex, talk about sex and have sex.  It’s the bland, bigoted “gay lifestyle” assumption that says being gay is about nothing but sex.

Stemberger’s claim of “sole authority” and “exclusive right” over children learning about sexuality exemplifies the toxic notion that children are nothing more than property of their parents who should have absolute power over them.  This notion is expressed in so many ways in our culture it gets difficult to track – everything from demands that children not be exposed to any ideas with which parents disagree, to demands for laws requiring parental approval for teens accessing birth control, to opposition to comprehensive sexuality education.  This attitude lies behind efforts to teach abstinence only education, to require parental approval for a vast array of classroom discussions.  Stemberger would have children remain ignorant in the mistaken belief that means they are also innocent.    Any decision other than one reaffirming the absolute ban on gay scouts and gay scout leaders would meet with disapproval by the scouts conservative members.

At the end of the day, the BSA’s decision really pleases no one, doesn’t solve the BSA’s problem and forces them to keep working on the difficult balancing act.  Like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, this compromise is nothing more than delaying action that will ultimately force the BSA to revisit the issue.


  1. #1 by Larry Bergan on May 25, 2013 - 10:51 pm

    Even if you gave gay men the right to lead a scout troop, there is no way you could change the homophobia of some Christians. The biggest problem with large groups of people like that is the fact that they know they’re right.

    Thank goodness religious fervor seems to be winding down in this country, even to the extent that some of the crazier Christians are looking to Uganda to practice their patriarchy.

    Sorry Uganda, I had nothing to do with this.

    • #2 by Glenden Brown on May 26, 2013 - 8:04 am

      So many people on the religious right are having fits about the boy scouts right now. They’re writing all sorts of apocalyptic things predicting that almost all the boy scouts will leave, that the national organization will cease to exist, that Christians will found a “moral” alternative. It’s depressing.

      But it also shows that many American religious conservatives have absolutely no concept of sexual orientation.

  2. #3 by obama's jack booted truncheon wielding goons on May 26, 2013 - 12:04 pm

    I wasn’t allowed to join the Boy Scouts, reminded my Dad of the Hitler Youth…in drag.

    Christians can make their own Scouts, so much the better, they can include priest child molestation as a merit badge.

    Or a “supplicating” merit badge for little christians don’t wanna go all in…

  3. #4 by Larry Bergan on May 26, 2013 - 7:29 pm

    So now we can have the Leviticus chapter of the Boy Scouts or the tolerant chapter of the Boy Scouts. We seem to be moving towards the tolerant side, but the media will highlight the angry Christians and turn it into a battle for ratings.

    What are ya gonna do?

    Hope nobody gets hurt, but you KNOW what side that’s going to be. There is much precedence here.

  4. #5 by obama's jack booted truncheon wielding goons on May 27, 2013 - 11:37 am

    There’s going to be no more Boy Scouts, the homosexuals have made their play and killed it.

    With the utter politicization of the affair, I’d say good riddance, won’t be the last thing homosexuals ruin in their pride.

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