The Boy Scouts of America announced this week that they will continue their longstanding policy banning gay and bisexual individuals from being Boy Scouts or serving in leadership positions. As a person who studies LGB mental health, the fact that the Boy Scouts would choose to continue this practice leaves me deeply concerned. The policy can be summed up in two words: overt discrimination. But it is far more than that: it is a policy that teaches boys -- some of whom will one day realize that they are gay -- to be homophobic, and also puts scouts who discover they are gay in a disheartening don't ask don't tell dilemma.
Homophobia, including the Scouts' anti-gay culture, harms gay and bisexual youth. Study after study about the effects of anti-gay stigma on LGB individuals has suggested that experiencing high levels of stigma (such as being excluded or teased for being gay) is associated with negative outcomes such as depression, suicidality, guilt and low self-esteem. Also consider that boys taught that being gay is a reason to exclude someone may be more likely than others to crack homophobic jokes, express disgust toward LGB classmates and colleagues, and not be friends with someone because they are gay. It is one thing to stigmatize a behavioral choice, as the Scouts may ignorantly think they are doing, but it is another and far more harmful thing to stigmatize an innate part of who a person is. (For the unenlightened, sexual orientation is influenced by hormonal, genetic and environmental factors, and the scientific and medical communities do not consider being gay a choice or illness.)
The fact that scouts are immersed into a homophobic organization from a young age leaves me especially concerned for gay and bisexual scouts. Boys generally join Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts in elementary school, and thus are of an age when they are unlikely to be fully aware of their sexual orientation (even if they feel a little different). As they become adolescents and some of them question their sexual orientation or discover that they are gay, bisexual or queer, they are already longtime members of an institution that says that they are somehow wrong for being themselves. Gay scouts are left with the undesirable option of either staying in the closet -- hiding themselves and putting themselves in uncomfortable situations when topics such as crushes on girls come up -- or leaving the Scouts altogether. Given the great activities, community service and friendships that scouting fosters, forcing a kid to leave -- or tormenting him by not allowing him to be open about who he is if he stays -- is a travesty. Exclusion and isolation from scouting friends, or the threat of exclusion for being honest about oneself, may contribute to current and former scouts becoming depressed or suicidal, feeling shame, or seeking harmful interventions such as reparative therapy.
As a private organization, the Boy Scouts of America has a legal right to discriminate based upon sexual orientation (see Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 2000), but there are steps that political leaders and individuals can take to stop encouraging their prejudiced policies. The first is to cut off government support for the Boy Scouts, as they are currently allowed to recruit in public schools, receive sweetheart deals at some public campgrounds and are guaranteed taxpayer support for their every-four-years Jamboree through the Support our Scouts Act of 2005. Other than that, parents can make the decision to not sign up their boys for Boy Scouts or to pull them from the program. There are a plethora of other activities kids can participate in, including Camp Fire USA, a scouting organization that does not discriminate.
The matter of fact is that if one replaced "gay" with "black," "Jewish," or "poor," the Boy Scouts would claim to have zero tolerance for discrimination (though they do also ban atheists). Treating a person negatively because of who he is is always harmful, and is especially so for a gay kid who may not have support at home in the same way kids from other oppressed groups do. In reexamining their policy about gay scouts, the Boy Scouts had an opportunity to affirm the Scouts as a place where boys can be valued for being themselves, and where their morality is not judged based upon who they may one day love. Instead, they reaffirmed a position already rampant in homes, churches and the hallways of many schools that some people should be ashamed and excluded for being who they are.