05/24/2013 03:35 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Boy Scouts of America's Decision Has Ugly Echos of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

Truth Wins Out is unique among LGBT organizations in that we take a much dimmer view of the Boy Scouts of America's (BSA) decision to allow openly gay members but continue its prohibition on gay adult leaders. The community's reaction to Truth Wins Out's view was mixed, with a solid majority favoring our position but a minority in disagreement because they believe that the decision is a good first step that will lead to future changes.

However, we've heard this "good first step" argument before.

In 1993 Bill Clinton fought to allow openly gay service members in the military, but thanks to vociferous opposition led by then-Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), the "compromise" known as "don't ask, don't tell" was reached. When I came out strongly against this monstrosity, the same "glass half-full" crowd said that I was pessimistic and that the decision would pave the way for full inclusion in the military. Here is a specific example of such thinking from a May 13, 1993, Los Angles Times story:

In fact, one gay activist predicted that Nunn's advocacy of the "don't ask/don't tell" proposal may ultimately hasten the demise of the Pentagon policy that Clinton has vowed to dismantle.

"This is a real sign that the arguments on the other side are crumbling," said Eric Rosenthal, political director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund.

Rosenthal was correct that the arguments were crumbling; it just took decades and thousands of ruined lives for them to be completely dismantled. Although "don't ask, don't tell" was ostensibly an improvement on a blanket ban on honorable gay service members, it came with a steep price, because it portrayed gay people as inferior and a threat to the cohesion of the Armed Forces. Sam Nunn's despicable "tour" of tight submarine barracks depicted gay service members as cunning sexual predators who wanted to change the law so that they could corrupt vulnerable young sailors at sea.

Similarly, the updated BSA policy is an improvement, but one that comes with a heavy price in terms of messaging. Instead of "don't ask, don't tell," the new policy could be called "do tell, don't age," because the moment a Boy Scout turns 18, he is unceremoniously booted out of the program and portrayed as a moral failure. This decision sends three distinct messages:
  1. Gay adults recruit children.
  2. Gay adults are likely child molesters.
  3. Gay adults can't be trusted with children, lest they morally corrupt them.

Though it has no validity, perpetuating this myth is particularly devastating because it is one of the few remaining arguments that still resonate. For example, in various battles we saw that our foes were able to scare parents with ads claiming that marriage equality would lead to schools teaching homosexuality. As a result, we lost many of these marriage equality referenda. Of course, being gay or lesbian is nothing that can be learned or taught. It is a phenomenon that occurs in nature, and there is no scientific data that shows that it can be influenced by socialization, such as upbringing or contact with an adult gay scout leader.

The lie that gay adult scout leaders might have a deleterious affect on children goes far beyond the policies of the BSA. It will likely make good people take pause and wonder whether it is safe to allow gay schoolteachers or counselors or permit LGBT relatives to babysit nieces and nephews. It is a slanderous smear that cuts right to the very heart of anti-gay bigotry and leads directly to discrimination. The effects are felt not only in major ways, such as losing a job, but in minor ways, such as the way average LGBT people are perceived and treated in society.

To be honest, I'm baffled by those who are giddy over this decision. If a group or nation created a policy that allowed Jewish high school students to attend math classes but forbade them from becoming bankers, would Jews be applauding? If an institution allowed women to take a central role but did not allow them to take official leadership positions, would women be applauding (the Catholic Church notwithstanding)?

The BSA "victory" comes with cruel strings and a malignant message that reverberates in a far greater way than the policy itself. For any minority, as long as falsehoods are allowed to flourish and fallacies are permitted to flower, the underlying danger remains, because unspoken fear is nourished. This is why I am not excited about the BSA "victory," even though I am extremely pleased for the young Boy Scouts who will not be singled out and humiliated. (They will have to wait until they turn 18 to experience such degradation.)

Now, there are those who say that a steady stream of 18-year-old Boy Scouts getting thrown out will be a PR disaster and turn public opinion against the program. This is probably true, just as the steady stream of countless service members with ruined lives turned public opinion against "don't ask, don't tell." However, let's not forget that under the old BSA policy, children much younger than 18 were kicked out, so it's not like our side's PR capacity has markedly increased.

Of course, historical parallels only go so far and are only partially relevant to the current situation. Public opinion is rapidly changing, and the continued loss of corporate money and organizational prestige will lead to the fall of this incoherent and untenable policy.

Still, every American woke up this morning and heard two contradictory messages:
  1. Times are changing, and gay Boy Scouts can now serve. (Yay!)
  2. There is something sinister and predatory about gay adults. (Awful!)

While the first message is somewhat positive, let's not be naïve and wear rose-colored glasses by pretending that the second message, which will be endlessly repeated (although indirectly) in every media outlet in the world today, is not incredibly harmful. It is my view that the promotion of the stereotype of gay men as threatening may supersede and override any progress that was made by the change in BSA policy.

Philosophically, LGBT people are either equal or inferior. If we are truly equal, then we should never be satisfied with policies that separate and segregate us from the rules that govern the rest of the population. The BSA's decision fails this most basic test of equality and human dignity, and we should not sugarcoat this basic truth and pretend otherwise.