THE BLOG
03/04/2013 07:41 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Boy Scouts, Dump Your 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Policy (Part 2): The Exclusion of Gays

When I was in the Scouts in the '60s, the civil rights movement was causing great turmoil throughout the country, particularly in the South. I was an Army brat, and our Boy Scout troops were completely integrated, yet we were well aware of the segregated troops just outside our fort. In contrast to integration, sexual orientation was not a topic we ever discussed. Sexuality was nowhere to be found in our Boy Scout Handbook. I knew some of my fellow scouts were gay, but they remained deeply closeted.

With the emergence of the modern gay rights movement during the '70s, the first written record of any policy regarding gay scouts and leaders was a 1978 internal memorandum to the National Executive Board. It stated that the Boy Scouts was a private membership organization, and that participation was therefore a privilege and not a right. An individual who openly declared himself to be gay could not be a member or a scout leader.

In 1991 the policy was further refined in another internal memorandum, which declared in part, "We believe that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the requirements in the Scout Oath that a Scout be morally straight and in the Scout Law that a Scout be clean in word and deed, and that homosexuals do not provide a desirable role model for Scouts."

In 1993, around the time that Congress and the military were deciding whether to lift the ban on open LGB military service, the Boy Scouts coincidentally establish its own "don't ask, don't tell" policy: "The Boy Scouts of America does not ask prospective members about their sexual preference, nor do we check on the sexual orientation of boys who are already Scouts." This policy is still in effect today.

The Boy Scouts' policy of discrimination was upheld by the United States Supreme Court in 2000. The military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, conversely, was successfully challenged in federal court in 2010 and was repealed by Congress in December of that same year.

In a very close 5-to-4 decision in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, the Supreme Court found that as a private organization, the Boy Scouts' constitutional right of freedom of association allowed it to deny membership to any person whose presence might affect "in a significant way the group's ability to advocate public or private viewpoints." It went on to say that opposition to homosexuality is part of the Boy Scouts' "expressive message" and that allowing gays as adult leaders would interfere with that message.

With this Supreme Court decision, it would seem that the issue of gays in the Boy Scouts was finally settled. So why did the National Executive Board revisit the policy in 2012 and float a trial balloon in 2013? Perhaps they were finally recognizing tat the tide had shifted on the issue of equality and that they needed to get on board or be relegated to the dustbin of history.

Discrimination Comes at a Price

The Dale decision may prove a pyrrhic victory for the Boy Scouts. Membership has dropped by approximately 19 percent in the 12 years since the decision. Major corporate sponsors such as Intel, Merck Foundation, UPS Foundation, Chase Manhattan Bank, Levi Strauss, Fleet Bank, CVS Pharmacy and Pew Charitable Trusts have ceased making donations to the Boy Scouts because of its policy of discrimination.

Local United Ways, including those in Seattle, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Miami, Orlando and San Francisco, have withdrawn all funding. Some cities, counties and states have declined preferential access to government resources such as facilities and land.

Of all the major youth organizations in the country, including the Girl Scouts, Camp Fire USA, 4-H and Boys and Girls Clubs of America, only the Boy Scouts has a policy of discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Like the United States military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy before it, the Boy Scouts of America's policy of discrimination stands alone among those international scouting organizations most culturally similar to the United States. Sexual orientation is not a disqualifier in the scouting programs of Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany or Sweden.

The Same Opponents to Equality Are Back

During the last presidential campaign, in a rare moment of agreement, President Barack Obama and his opponent, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a Mormon, both supported changing the Boy Scouts' policy to permit gays to be members and leaders. So what is the problem with bringing the Boy Scouts into the 21st century?

The answer is simple. Almost 70 percent of the organizations sponsoring Boy Scouts are faith-based. Just look at the lineup: Mormons have 12 percent of the members and sponsor 23 percent of Boy Scout troops, followed by the United Methodist Church, Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Baptists.

In 2000, many of these same faith-based sponsors, in an amicus brief filed in the Dale case, strongly opposed gay Boy Scout leaders. The Mormons specifically threatened to withdraw over 400,000 of their members if the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mr. Dale.

It is no wonder that the trial balloon floated by the National Executive Board, the idea of permitting gay members and leaders, was not airborne for long. On Monday, Feb. 4, 2013, within days of the announcement that the board was considering changing the policy, Mormon Scout Councils contacted the board asking it to delay the vote. That same day Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention announced:

This is a catastrophic decision for the Boy Scouts of America. In order to placate their East and West Coast appendages, they are tearing out the heart of their Midwest and Southern support. This decision will lead to a mass exodus of traditional, orthodox Christianity from the Boy Scouts, including thousands of Catholic, Baptist and other traditional faith congregations.

Not to be outdone by the faith groups, other conservative right-wing organizations piled on. Focus on the Family issued a statement that urged its members to petition the Boy Scouts not to change the policy because "lifting the ban would put impressionable young boys in the care of people whose lifestyles are out of line with God, potentially endangering them." Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council warned the Boy Scouts "about the grave consequences that would result if they were to compromise their moral standards in the face of threats from corporate elites and homosexual activists."

The Family Research Council and 41 other similar groups ran a newspaper ad in USA Today asking the Boy Scouts not to change the policy. Among the sponsors of this ad were the Center for Military Readiness, Concerned Women for America, American Family Association, Liberty Counsel and Chaplains Alliance for Religious Liberty. These are the very same groups that, along with like-minded right-wing activists, warned about the dire consequences to military readiness if "don't ask, don't tell" were repealed. History has proved them dead wrong on the military, and they are just as wrong on the Boy Scouts.

To be continued...

Subscribe to the Queer Voices email.
Get all of the queer news that matters to you.