“Be prepared” is the motto of the Boy Scouts of America. Surely its national leaders remembered those words as they prepped for backlash from a recent decision to admit openly gay Scouts while maintaining a ban on gay adults.
As a result of the policy change, some conservative churches severed ties with the organization. Then, Caterpillar Inc. confirmed it had stopped supporting the Scouts. While the company didn’t explicitly reference the organization’s continued prohibition against gay adults, it did cite the organization’s discriminatory practices when it opted not to renew a $25,000 request from a local group in Illinois.
The Scouts, it seems, just can’t win.
If the organization had maintained its policy against all homosexuals, it would have pleased many fundamentalists and conservatives while invoking the ire of social activists, including adult Eagle Scouts who have returned badges in protest of past discrimination. Had it dropped the ban against homosexuals in leadership roles, it would have risked alienating a substantial part of its base while potentially winning over other people or organizations.
Instead, it chose a middle road. This one rankles as much as it pleases.
In recent years, America has experienced a seismic shift in attitudes toward homosexuality. Nowhere is that more apparent than an annual poll by the National Opinion Research Center. In 1973, more than 7 out of 10 Americans felt homosexual relationships were “always wrong,” a number that dropped to a little more than 4 in 10 in 2010. Even before last month’s Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, more than half of Americans responding to a Gallup poll said gay marriages should be recognized as valid, up from 27 percent in 1996.
Clearly, organizations like the Scouts — who try to balance conservative values with relevance in today’s world — are struggling with this shift. Many Americans are at the same point with sexual orientation today as they were with interracial relationships a few decades ago. The last refuge of the bigot on the interracial issue was to play the “child card.” Interracial relationships might be OK, this line of reasoning went, but what about the children of such relationships? They will have such a hard time fitting in.
Critics play a modified version of the “child card” with LGBT Scouts: It will be too hard to integrate them with straight Scouts, they will be singled out, they will be teased.
Doubtful. Most kids these days are very accepting of homosexuality. In the youngest age group measured by Gallup, the 18-34 range, 70 percent support gay marriage. Sexual-orientation may be a big deal to adults, but it isn’t to their kids.
The Boy Scouts’ decision reminds me of a scene from the movie The Great Debaters. In the film, Denzel Washington’s character tells his all-black team that they have been invited to debate Oklahoma City University. One team member questions why the debate will be off-campus, to which Washington responds, “Because sometimes…you have to take things one step at a time.”
The Boy Scouts of America are doing just that.
Its decision to allow gay Scouts opens doors that were formerly closed, eliminating a noxious version of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. It gives the group an opportunity to educate the public and paves the way for the day when these young Scouts will become adults and want to continue their association. At that point, the organization will have no choice but to modify policy again and remove the last of its discriminatory practices.
Delaying that policy change keeps many qualified, compassionate adults from sharing their time and talents with Scouts, and that’s a shameful waste of human capital. But, sometimes, you have to take things one step at a time.