By MERRICK GARB
Lifting the national ban on gay Boy Scouts is a no-brainer. After all, there are many Cub Scout Packs and Boy Scout Troops that are sponsored by secular or progressive religious institutions. The Girl Scouts ended all discrimination in 1991, and intolerant groups that were offended left to start their own organization. To me, as an Eagle Scout, a far more interesting question is whether individual troops or Boy Scout Councils should still be allowed to discriminate against scouts or parents who acknowledge being gay or atheist.
The Boy Scouts is a large and complicated organization. There are currently 2.6 million youth, another 1 million adult volunteers, and nearly 109,000 units across the country. There is a proud history for the organization, 181 astronauts and four U.S. presidents were at one point scouts. There are three main divisions within the organization: Cub Scouts for youth ages seven to 11; Boy Scouts for teens until age 18, and a parallel co-ed Venturing program for men and women age 14-21. The Boy Scouts occupies a unique place in American culture, as every U.S. president since the organization’s founding in 1910 has also served as honorary president of the BSA.
There is no reason to believe that allowing gay Boy Scouts to rise through the ranks or allowing parents in same-sex relationships to serve as volunteer leaders will somehow endanger the safety of other youth. But beyond this irrational fear of predators, there is resistance to changing the policy for fear that religious groups that sponsor troops will retaliate. Seventy percent of troops are sponsored by a house of worship such as the Catholic and Mormon churches. However, thoughts on this issue run both ways. I have talked to a school principal of a Jewish day school who won’t allow troops to use their meeting space because they don’t want to associate with an organization that discriminates.
So what happens if individual troops or regional councils choose not to lift the ban, even if given that opportunity by the National Council? A Boy Scout who at the age of 12 is not yet sure they are gay could face a more difficult coming out process later. A Council in Alabama may decide that changing the policy is not for them, sending a message to the broader community that gays and parents in same-sex relationships are not accepted. And if a gay scout in rural North Dakota only has one troop nearby that is not tolerant of gays, where will he go?
My fear is that the organization that taught me leadership skills, that gave me the confidence to lead a large-scale Eagle Scout project on my own, and tested me through 44 merit badges won’t evolve. If the national organization lifts the ban but still allows discrimination in some parts of the organization, will corporations and the United Way that have withdrawn millions in charitable funding start giving again? Will the City of Philadelphia, which has been involved in a 10-year legal battle with the local council, now allow a city-owned building to be used as the Scout headquarters for just $1 in rent? Will government entities be allowed to sponsor troops again or will the ACLU file another round of lawsuits? More than continued financial or legal headaches, what kind of society will we have when a teenager says to their friend, “Why would you want to join that troop? Isn’t that the one that accepts gay people?”
The Boy Scouts is a great organization to teach leadership. I have no doubt that the national ban will be lifted, the pressure brought by organizations such as Scouts for Equality or Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) is now too great. But for an organization that did not racially integrate all troops until 10 years after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, is just some progress really enough?
Merrick Garb, who earned the top rank of Eagle Scout, is a graduate student at the D.C. campus of Johns Hopkins University.