Questioning the Scouts’ Honor

Gender politics are rarely a focal point of Super Bowl coverage, but this year President Barack Obama made headlines when he criticized the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) for their refusal to admit on gay members. In a pre-game interview on Super Bowl Sunday, he told CBS’ Scott Kelley that, “Gays and lesbians should have access and opportunity the same way everybody else does, in every institution and walk of life.”

Tufts Senior Ned Coltman had the same principle in mind when he sent his hard-earned Eagle Scout badge back to the BSA after the organization reaffirmed its policy of banning homosexual members in August. He voluntarily decided to return his badge even though the BSA chapter he belongs to, The Boston Minuteman Council, unofficially accepts members of all sexual orientations. “It’s a national issue and a small world,” said Coltman. “I decided that having that kind of attachment to an institution that shuts out people for stupid reasons was no good.”

For the rest of the country, the Boy Scouts’ policy remains divisive. In 2000, the Supreme Court in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale ruled that the BSA’s exclusion of gay members constitutes free speech by a private organization. In response to protests like Coltman’s, however, the organization signaled this month that it might lift the national ban and instead allow local chapters to make their own policies. Then, facing pressure from church sponsors and conservative groups like the Family Research Council, the BSA announced on Wednesday, February 6th that it would defer a vote on the new policy until its national meeting in May.

This whole conflict might seem like déjà vu for anyone who followed last year’s controversy, set off when an Indiana lawmaker called the Girl Scouts of America (GSUSA) a “tactical arm” of Planned Parenthood. Republican state representative Bob Morris also accused the organization of promoting “homosexual lifestyles.” Morris’ comments, and the Internet hubbub that followed, were much ado about nothing. They hardly spawned the national debate we are witnessing today. On the other hand, the U.S Catholic Bishops did launch a formal investigation into the GSUSA later that year, looking at the organization’s ties to groups like Planned Parenthood, which might be at odds with Catholic teachings.

Thus the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, organizations ostensibly devoted to youth education and leadership, have become lightning rods in today’s debate over gender politics and gay rights. Lost in the clamor of these debates is the fact that the Girl Scouts officially began accepting openly gay girls in 1992. Last year a troupe in Colorado even accepted a seven-year-old transgender girl, a fact that horrified a small group of right-wing parents but did not make national headlines.

So why didn’t the Girl Scouts inspire the same national furor with their policy on gay admission? Both organizations were founded over 100 years ago, and both include the promise to serve God and country in their scout oaths. Nonetheless, the GSUSA has actually always been a progressive institution and has managed to maintain a culture of secularism at the national level. The GSUSA was founded in 1912 as an extension of the Boy Scouts. Though couched in gendered rhetoric about well-rounded mothers and homemakers, the GSUSA put an emphasis on outdoor physical activity and even taught some vocational skills traditionally unavailable to young girls. In subtle ways, the GSUSA has been pushing gender boundaries since its inception.

This is even truer today, as the Girl Scouts develop new programs like the ToGetHerThere initiative aimed at increasing the number of girls in professional leadership roles, especially in Science and Technology. Tufts junior Rose Barrett was a Girl Scout from lower school through high school and credits the institution for all her most empowering experiences. “At Girl Scout camp I learned skills I never would have [learned] otherwise,” Barrett said. “I can splint a broken leg, flip a capsized boat, and build a fire in the rain.”

Barrett also emphasizes the significance of “girl-led” programming in the organization. “Starting in mid-elementary school, the activities I did as a Girl Scout were almost entirely self-directed,” she said. This is significant not only because it further empowers the scouts but also because each troupe has a large measure of autonomy. Like the Boy Scouts, a tremendous number of Girl Scout troops are organized and sponsored by local churches. Perhaps it is the local autonomy afforded by the national organization of GSUSA that keeps conflict over sexuality and gender politics from escalating.

Still, conservative families don’t exactly welcome the possible autonomy that might come with a change in national Boy Scout policy in May. Many fear that the organization may splinter as troops around the country make their own choices surrounding gay admission. Coltman points out, however, that there is already a large ideological divide between conservative and liberal troops. “I don’t draw any similarities between myself and those in Kansas,” he said. “I never shot a gun with the Scouts—it was hikes, it was learning different types of trees, how to manage my finances, what was going on in the world.”

Coltman is particularly frustrated by the remarkable power religious groups like the Church of Latter Day Saints now wield in the BSA. “Other institutions might cut their funding because of this, but it wouldn’t really make a difference compared to the funding from the Mormon Church,” he said. Indeed, in 2011, Mormon-sponsored troops made up one third of the country’s total scout units. It follows that the church also provides a third of the $51 million in dues the BSA collects each year..

Even with strong ties to the Mormon Church, Boy Scout enrollment is down 21% since 2000, a fact some attribute to the organization’s overly traditional values. The Quinnipiac University Polling Institute found that 55% of respondents believe the BSA should drop its ban on gay members, compared with only 33% who support the continued ban.

High-profile sponsors like United Way and UPS have cut their funding for the organization in protest of its discriminatory policy. Coltman’s protest has certainly resonated in his hometown of Reading, MA. “There were two young families who came up to me and thanked me for doing it,” he said. These parents were trying to convince their kids not to join the Boy Scouts.

This wasn’t necessarily Coltman’s intention. “I probably learned much more from the Boy Scouts than I did from high school,” he said. “I don’t think I can say that one thing has taught me to want to learn more than the Scouts.” He doesn’t want families in his town to pull their kids from the group. He just believes that every boy should have the same opportunity he had.

Coltman believes this debate within the BSA mirrors the national debate over gay marriage. “It would be great if we had a national law that allows gays to marry,” he said. “The fact that we’re allowing different states to do so, it’s a step in the right direction. The Boy Scouts should at least catch up with the rest of the country.”

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