Yesterday, the Boy Scouts of America’s National Council, by a 61% margin, voted to accept boys who self-identify as gay into their ranks, i.e., “approved a resolution to remove the restriction denying membership to youth on the basis of sexual orientation alone”. Here is the official statement. Immediate reaction is mixed and pointed, even by the supporters of gay scouts.
Scouters who self-identify as gay are still banned from serving in the BSA. It doesn’t take much to see that this is two (albeit, important) steps forward and one step back along the Scouting Trail. What this means is that gay adults are still demonized and that, technically, a scout, upon the age of eighteen, who wishes to continue to serve scouts and give back to Scouting, is unable to do so. So, all those qualities inculcated within the boy somehow are suddenly to the BSA invalid within the man, all because of a birthday. The boy who trusted and was brought up to be trusted is no longer to be trusted.
The final point of the Scout Law is that “a scout is reverent.” Before anyone says that this is an indication of the religious foundations, goals, and framework of scouting, let’s parse this a bit. It doesn’t say to whom or to what a scout is reverent. To be reverent is to embody the quality of revering. Merriam-Webster defines “to revere” as “to show devoted deferential honor to: regard as worthy of great honor.” To be reverent does not mean to be religious. It means to show honor and respect.
The Boy Scouts is 103 years old and has a storied history as an American institution. But it is an American institution that has a special relationship with Congress, chartered as a “Title 36” corporation. It has exclusive use of the term “boy scout” and a number of other exclusivities. The BSA, like any storied institution, risks idolization and hegemony. And yesterday the hegemony was challenged from within its own leadership. And some of those who adhere and rely on those structures provided by the hegemony have vowed to abandon the institution.
It’s telling how devoted these people are to the institution. They aren’t. Gay scouts have participated within the institution for over a century. Now, that they are explicitly recognized as participants, somehow this makes the institution tainted. Opponents to the explicit inclusion say that scouting shouldn’t be about sexuality and that lifting the ban somehow threatens heterosexual scouts. But if this were the case, then there would never have been a split between the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. There would just have been Scouts, as there are in a number of countries. Gender and sexuality, according to traditionalist arguments, are joined at the hip, if not share the same hip.
A number of religious organizations have already threatened to abandon the BSA, such as the Pentecostal denomination, the Assemblies of God, and the Southern Baptists have expressed dismay at the ban’s end. The Mormons genuinely surprised me and have vowed to continue their relationship with the BSA. But it is important to note that while the Scout Oath promises “to do my duty to God and my country,” that “God” is not identified. And this exemplified in the wide variety of religious emblems available for scouts to earn. While there are a variety of Christian denominations (including the gay-affirming Episcopalians and Lutherans), there are also emblems for Buddhism, Islam, Baha’i, Jewish, and many other religions. Some of these religions are gay-affirming, as well.
The point is that the BSA is not a Christian (conservative or otherwise) institution, though some Americans would like to think it and want it to be. And how many conservative Christian families with scouts would treat suspiciously scouts who happen to be Islamic? Are they fearful of troops made up of primarily Islamic boys harboring terrorists, of teaching Shari’a? Would they say Islam is incompatible with the tenets of Scouting? The strength of the Scout Oath is that God is undefined. God is who the scout believes God is, even if God is not. That’s where the reverence, the deferential honor kicks in. At least, that’s one place where deferential honor kicks in.
It’s only one example, but it points to the problem of a notion of pure Scouting. To demonize gay scouts and scouters goes beyond inequality. Scouts has never been about being equal. Scouts is about serving one another, to raise the other person higher than themselves, to put the other person in a better position so they can thrive. There’s another place where deferential honor kicks in. Scouts is about serving all boys and equipping them to be leaders – leaders who serve.
And raising others above oneself is always a threat to an institution. To serve another disrupts power, which what this is ultimately about. Call it what you will, but it is about keeping a certain kind of power, institutional power, in place.
And those who are unhappy with the BSA’s decision, as convoluted as it is, and choose to leave the organization are making a choice with their feet and their hearts to not serve their fellow scout, the scout who was gay before the ban was lifted. There is power to serve. Scouting is about the power to serve others to empower them and ourselves. There are religious groups and members who will not stand to serve their fellow scouts.
But who else will they not serve, who else will they not revere? The poor? The political other? Women? Non-Christians? Other races? The list goes on and on until somehow these people create such an exclusive organization that is so homogeneous to achieve a kind of institutional purity that it risks parody of itself and eventual extinction.
Scouting isn’t about that. A scout isn’t about that. A scout is…