Monday, May 27, 2013

Some thoughts about the Boy Scouts

After decades of pressure the Boy Scouts have modified their position on the involvement of gays in scouting.  This could hardly be called unexpected, any more than the polarized reactions were unexpected.  Former Scouts who have since come out of the closet are overjoyed and conservatives are decrying this as the end of the BSA.  The reactions are so predictable and stereotypical as to seem almost scripted. Conservatives and Liberals know their lines.

I haven't got a stake in the matter, myself.  Although I was a cub scout, I simply fell away from scouting early on due to moving across the country and never finding a new troop I liked; it was a good but very brief part of my childhood. On the other hand, I can see why people for whom it was a formative and important part of growing up would care deeply about this decision. My own interest in the matter is fairly abstracted, but I think it is worth commenting on.

I can't say I totally side with either camp in terms of reaction, but overall I think the decision of the BSA in this case was the right one. I can see how this could mark a shift in the culture of scouting, toward a more permissive attitude toward sexual morals in general. This would be a sad thing. Of course, many conservatives regard this whole revision of the standards of membership as itself a loosening of morals.

For example at the Roman Catholic publication Crisis Magazine, Robert P. Reilly says this
By now accepting openly homosexual members, the Boy Scouts are... implicitly accepting the rationalization for homosexual sexual behavior as part of its moral formation It is avoiding doing this explicitly by continuing to insist on chastity from its Scouts in its policy that that “any sexual conduct, whether heterosexual or homosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting.”...  if it [the BSA] is accepting the homosexual inclination as legitimate, what then could be wrong with the thing toward which it is inclined, meaning homosexual behavior?
I don't want to pick on this article, and only present it as fairly exemplary.  I can even see the point that Mr. Reilly is making, but I don't agree.

The boy scouts have not set about to endorse homosexual inclinations as 'legitimate.'  The new policy states simply that "No youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone."  The membership standards before revision said "we do not grant membership to individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA."  In other words, the only thing that has actually changed in terms of the written policy is that Boy Scouts may be open about their sexual inclinations.  And inclinations, as conservatives regularly have to point out when discussing this issue, are not the same as actions. The distinction between orientation and action is also one that the Roman Catholic Church itself has also made quite clearly and consistently since the document Persona Humana published in 1975.  

The ban on"open homosexuals" (whatever that means) from membership may have sent a message that the BSA stands for traditional morality. It also sent a message to young same sex attracted men that they should be ashamed and hide an incredibly painful struggle from what is probably their closest group of friends.
It needs to be said that not everyone who is "an open homosexual" is an active homosexual.  What about Gregg Webb, a contributor to the blog Spiritual Friendship and is a self described celibate gay Christian and an Eagle Scout.  Mr. Webb, as he notes in a recent article, did not come out or discuss his struggles until after he had become an Eagle Scout - but when he did discuss it, it was with friends from his Scouting days.
While I didn't know about the policy [against openly homosexual scouts] at the time, if I had shared my struggle with homosexuality just a few years sooner, I could have been kicked out before I completed my Eagle Scout rank... It saddens me that the current policy denies boys the opportunities and experiences I had as part of the Boy Scouts, simply because of unchosen sexual attractions. It also sets up a culture of fear and dishonesty, and encourages boys to remain silent or to lie about their sexuality. The average age of a boy coming out about his homosexuality is in the mid teens. This is the most crucially formative time of involvement in scouts and the current policy forces any questioning youth to choose between being honest or being a scout.  (Emphasis added)
Under the old BSA membership standards, Gregg Webb and any other young men like him (of whom I feel certain there are many) would have been removed simply on the basis of being honest about his desires. Not for acting on his desires, not for promoting gay rights, just for being honest.  This is unjust, and as he says it "sets up a culture of fear and dishonesty."  I can't imagine that's what the Scouts want to be.  After all "A Scout is trustworthy..."

Although it will prove problematic in some ways, what the BSA has done with its policy change is not to endorse homosexual inclinations, far less homosexual actions.  It has simply decided not to demand that members stay in the closet.  Should this really be cause for outrage among conservative Christians?  Is our message to gay people really nothing more than: "you might have these desires, but for God's sake have the decency not to tell anybody about it!"  Is that really the good news that Christ offers to gays, lesbians and bisexuals? Surely we ought to be seeking to create spaces where people can be open and honest, and free to speak in the light of Christ's grace - not places where people are kept strictly in line by shame.

Further Reading:  
New York Times Article on the BSA policy change. 
BSA Membership Standards
Scouts Honor: Ron Belgau at Spiritual Friendship on this story.