The Boy Scouts of America is at the center of a controversy once again. This time it's for denying a 17-year-old Boy Scout, Ryan Andresen, his Eagle pin (which he earned) because he came out as gay. My nephew Matt received his Eagle pin about 10 years ago, and his father Jeff, my brother-in-law, was a troop leader. I was curious about where Matt and Jeff stood on the issue, so I took them out to lunch yesterday. After reading through hundreds of readers' comments on blogs and articles on the latest BSA controversy, I came up with questions that I thought were most relevant to people's concerns. Jeff is a great dad, and Matt, now 29 years old, is also a father of a boy and a girl, with another one on the way. Time after time, he has made me proud to be his uncle. Matt's troop was sponsored by their church; both Matt and Jeff are Christian, straight and fair-minded and have had vast experiences in the Boy Scouts. Here's what they had to say.
Randy: The courts have ruled on numerous cases that the Boy Scouts of America has a right to exclude gay scouts and gay adults as leaders, and that their policy does not constitute illegal discrimination; as a private organization it has a right to freedom of association. Some readers' comments about the Ryan Andresen controversy said, "If you don't like the policy, don't join. Go start your own club." What are your thoughts on that?
Matt: We are talking about the Boy Scouts of America, not some private book club in someone's home. It's huge. They need to be held to certain standards. So it's not as simple as who you include and who you exclude. How are they going to address the fact that tax payers are paying for land that they're using, and facilities? They have to be held accountable for the decisions they're making.
Jeff: I believe the BSA or any private organization has a right to include or exclude anyone they want. But I think culturally, over the years, the Scouts have changed. Society has made them make those changes. The organization has become more inclusive on issues of race and religion. The social conflicts that were attached to a lot of those issues are now gone. Being gay doesn't have the same stigma it did 15 years ago. I think, in time, they will change their position on that.
Randy: Do you see this as being more about Christian beliefs and principles, or do you think it's really about concerns over sexual encounters that might happen inside the tent? Or both?
Matt: I think people will hide behind the religion side of it and say they can't condone homosexuality. But the underlying issue, I think, is that people are afraid it will influence their sons. And I also think that some people think being a homosexual is somehow being morally corrupt. Like being some sort of a pedophile. I think they're scared that their boys will be taken advantage of.
Randy: It's well documented that most child molestation and abuse is perpetrated by men like Jerry Sandusky, who you'd never suspect would be a pedophile, but do you think there's a feeling within the BSA, or with many parents, for that matter, that "gay" equals "pedophile"?
Jeff: It's an education process about perceptions. Here's this straight, macho guy, and everybody thought he was wonderful. But 30 years in prison will never atone for all the lives that guy has screwed up.
Randy: Another reader responded to an article about Ryan Andresen with this post:
Openly gay boys are not welcome in the Boy Scouts not because of homophobia, but because they would change the dynamic of the troop. A straight boy might be uncomfortable if he becomes the object of another boy's affection. A gay boy might be distracted by other gay boys in the troop, and might focus on pursuing intimate relationships rather than on troop activities. In any case, the scouts would be forced to confront all sorts of sexual issues. Is that really appropriate?
What's your response to that?
Matt: What I get from that person's comment is that boys are going on these camping trips and they're going to be in tents, and there's going to be sexual activity. So their answer to that is just don't have any gay boys in the organization and we'll just avoid the whole problem. Well, there shouldn't be any sexual activity happening at these functions; there shouldn't be alcohol; there shouldn't be drugs taken. There are rules, so just treat it like a rule. You can't ban being gay or being attracted to another boy, but you can ban having sexual activity at an event. To be honest, I think people are associating being gay with having sex.
Randy: Do you think there's a concern among parents that a gay scout might influence or somehow change their son into also being gay?
Matt: I feel that if you're gay, you're gay. If, by chance, there would be some situation where a boy would hit on my son, he'd either just walk away or, if he was born gay and he feels that way, he might possibly act upon it. And I can't control that. He's going to be who he is. Trying to isolate him from the real world is not going to stop him from being the person he is.
Randy: BSA feels that same-sex attraction should be discussed outside its program, with parents, clergy, etc. They feel that the vast majority of parents who want their boys in the BSA do not want these topics introduced or discussed. Is the subject of sex of any kind ever discussed in the BSA, and what are the guidelines as a Scout Leader if two boys are heard discussing matters of sex?
Jeff: I don't recall there were any guidelines at all, and I don't remember boys talking about sexual issues. But as a man, and as a Christian, I would take it upon myself to interrupt anything I thought was inappropriate on any issue. But that would be my own conscience guiding me to do that.
Matt: The only guideline I can remember is that any adult man is not allowed to sleep in the same tent with the boys. Even my dad couldn't sleep in a tent with me on an outing. I spent my whole childhood in the Boy Scouts, and I don't recall the topic of sex, heterosexual or homosexual, ever coming up.
Randy: If Ryan had just not said anything, he would have received his Eagle pin. But part of the oath is to be "loyal" and "brave." "Honest" isn't mentioned, which I find really interesting; still, I assume it is expected of all good scouts. So, if Ryan had continued to hide his homosexuality, some people think that would have been in conflict with the oath. Others feel that he should have dropped out of scouting when he realized that he was gay, and that that would have been the honest thing to do. What do you think?
Matt: I think, if anything, Ryan should be commended for being honest about who he is. You have to hold your head high and fight for what you believe in. The sexual-orientation issue should have no bearing on him being able to get that rank.
Randy: How do you think the BSA can align their policies with the "modern family" of today and tomorrow? I'm thinking about the straight boy who has been raised by two gay fathers. Would his fathers be welcome to participate in father/son events?
Matt: I am certain my leaders would have shown respect and made that dad feel welcome. They would have modeled the way we boys should treat every person we come in contact with.
Randy: The BSA has belonged to the World Organization of the Scout Movement since 1922, when WOSM was founded. They use more inclusive terms than the BSA; for example, instead of "Duty to God," the WOSM uses the phrases such as "adherence to spiritual principles," so that it also recognizes other beliefs, including Hinduism and Buddhism. There is nothing officially said about homosexuals, and in contrast to the BSA policy, gay scouts and leaders are not restricted in Canadian and most European associations, including in the UK, Germany and Sweden. It seems to be working fine for them. Why do you think it is such an issue for the Boy Scouts of America?
Jeff: Because our society doesn't want to change. I think the European society has been more willing to accept different groups. Our society has often been about hatred against blacks, hatred against Jews, hatred against the Irish. I think, slowly our society is changing in the way we feel about the gay people, and eventually the Boy Scouts of America is going to have to adapt to it.
Randy: Response to the BSA's policy of excluding gay scouts and leaders has cost the organization in both financial support and public support. Steven Spielberg resigned from the board several years ago, membership is down, and they just lost their largest corporate donor, Intel, because the BSA's policy conflicts with the nondiscrimination policies of Intel. Do you think this will result in the board of the BSA "evolving" in their position?
Jeff: If it's anything like our counsel, it was controlled by 10 or 12 guys, and every one of them had to be 80 years old if they were a day. They're stuck in their ways. They're going to have that kind of mentality, and they're not going to change. I think corporations have to look at it differently. They have to look at their image and how this is hurting their business.
Matt: I think it will destroy the organization if they aren't adapting to the times. I feel putting pressure on them is effective, and it brings awareness. These businesses and people have power with the stances they take, and their viewpoints. They make change in our country. It plays a big part. There are a lot of people who have zero exposure or don't know anything about the Boy Scouts of America. I guarantee this has hit some people, and they know a lot about it now.
Randy: You're a father now, of at least one boy, and maybe two in a few months, so let's suppose your son turns out to be gay and wants to be in the Boy Scouts like his dad. What would you say to him, and what would you say to the Boy Scouts of America if they rejected him?
Matt: I feel the pride I have of reaching the Eagle rank would be lost for me in that situation. If my son was discriminated against, I would do everything in my power to seek justice for him. I'd be supporting my son 100-percent in any organization, and in any situation. I honestly feel that if my son were to tell me he was gay, I'm going to stand behind him, and I'm going to support him.