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Topics In the News
Boy Scouts of America's Don't Ask, Don't Tell Policy
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 07/26/12
Last updated on: 07/26/12
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Jennifer Tyrell speaks about her family and their exclusion from the Cub Scouts.

Despite its recent well-publicized reaffirmation of its ban on gay scouts and leaders, the Boy Scouts of America seems to have adopted a de facto Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. A secret 11-member committee that allegedly studied the issue for two years supposedly concluded on July 17, 2012 that the current ban on gay scouts and leaders "is absolutely the best policy for the organization." However, it is clear that the ban is enforced haphazardly and functions in a way similar to the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy that the military recently repealed.

As Justin Snow of MetroWeekly observes, the reaffirmation of the current policy has by no means settled the issue. Indeed, questions have been raised as to whether the secret committee, which supposedly consisted of "volunteers and professional leaders" who represented "a diversity of perspectives and opinions," ever existed, much less spent two years studying the policy. And in the wake of the decision, pressure to rescind the ugly policy has increased rather than receded.

BSA leaders have repeatedly refused to identify the members of the committee or to release the report.

However, the BSA website now contains a statement that while they 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," they do not "proactively inquire about the sexual orientation of employees, volunteers, or members." In other words, they seem to have evolved toward a Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy.

The Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy may be intended to be a liberalization of their categorical ban on gay scouts and leaders, but, ironically, it only serves to marginalize the organization even further.

As Aaron Belkin observed in a New York Times "Room for Debate" contribution on July 20, 2012, the repeal of the U.S. military Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy actually underlines the "backwardness of the Boy Scouts of America's decision to affirm its gay exclusion policy." He says, "It would be interesting to hear the Boy Scouts of America's chief, Robert Mazzuca, try to explain to gay Marines, Rangers and SEALs, some of whom were Boy Scouts, why they cannot be scout leaders and why they should not have been allowed to remain scouts after they acknowledged that they were gay. Gay troops can fight for the country and be maimed or killed, but they can't be scouts?"

In the same "Room for Debate" feature, Jay Mechling, Professor Emeritus of American Studies at the University of California, Davis, says that "What is wrong with the Boy Scouts of America's 'don't ask, don't tell' policy is precisely what was wrong with the military's policy. Both organizations highly value honesty and integrity, the very values that this policy scuttles."

Compounding the organization's difficulties in reaffirming the ban on gay scouts and leaders is the fact that numerous local and regional Boy Scout troops and Councils openly flout the policy and declare that they do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

For example, in response to the announcement that the national BSA organization had affirmed its discriminatory policy, sixteen local leaders, including Patrick Crowley of Boy Scout Troop 500 of Amherst, Massachusetts, condemned the BSA policy as discriminatory and "at odds with our interpretation of the Boy Scout oath."

In a letter to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Crowley and his colleagues wrote, "We want to reassure you, our friends, neighbors and colleagues, that local Boy Scouts Troop 500 in Amherst does not support BSA's policy. Troop 500 invites the participation of all interested 11-to-17-year-old boys and their parents or guardians without regard to sexual orientation."

The consequences of the policy include a loss of funding from many civic and community organizations and a steady decline in membership. Some politicians and celebrities now decline invitations and awards from the Boy Scouts lest they be implicated in its discriminatory practices. The organization is in danger of becoming a regional group, located primarily in the "red states" of the South and West.

Ironically, however, the decline in membership has strengthened the hand of conservatives within the organization. Most Boy Scout troops are supported by outside organizations, including many Catholic and Mormon churches. Mormons are especially over-represented in the BSA. Of the organization's 2.7 million members, about 400,000 are Mormons.

Still, pressure to change the policy comes not only from without, but also from within. Eagle Scout Zach Wahls, who is the son of lesbian parents, has founded an organization called Scouts for Equality. He delivered almost 300,000 signatures to the BSA's annual convention earlier this year urging an end to the ban. In response to the secret committee's decision, Wahls has drafted a new petition calling on the BSA board, whose names are public, to vote on the matter instead of the secret committee. As of July 24, he has gathered more than 135,000 signatures.

Jennifer Tyrrell's ouster as den leader of her son's Cub Scout troop three months ago because she is a lesbian brought new attention to the ban. Last week, she brought three boxes filled with more than 300,000 signatures supporting her reinstatement to the BSA's Dallas headquarters.

In addition, many Eagle Scouts have returned their badges to the organization in protest of the ban. Others have confessed that they hide their association with the Boy Scouts because the organization has become emblematic not of good citizenship and healthy values, but of discrimination and intolerance.

In a recent incident in California, Eagle Scout Tim Griffin was fired from his seasonal job as counselor at Camp Winton, a job he has held for three years. Although the BSA says that he was not fired for being gay, he and others insist that was the reason, as reported by Ed Fletcher in the Sacramento Bee. In solidarity with him, a dozen other counselors resigned their positions.

Days before the organization's reaffirmation of the ban, Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T and vice president of the Boy Scouts, and Jim Turley, CEO of Ernst & Young and a BSA board member, expressed opposition to the discriminatory policy.

Stephenson is expected to take the reins as president of the board for the Boy Scouts in 2014. The expectation is that he will attempt to repeal the ban.

Although the current leaders of the Boy Scouts of America claim that the organization is not intolerant and does not want to enter the culture wars over gay rights, the ban, even as it has devolved into a Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, is inescapably prima facie evidence of intolerance.

As former assistant scoutmaster and Eagle Scout James Dale, who was expelled from the organization in 1990 and was at the center of the 2000 Supreme Court case that upheld the ban, has observed, the Boy Scouts "define themselves by their discrimination and by excluding gay people as immoral and unclean."

"Teaching a young kid that they're immoral is immoral. [BSA leaders] are living in a time that doesn't exist anymore, when people didn't talk about sexuality," said Dale. ''They're going against the grain of history."

Zach Wahls is optimistic that the organization will be forced to change its policy. "Today the question isn't whether the policy will change. Today the question is when."

In the video below Jennifer Tyrell and Zach Wahls speak at the GLAAD media awards gala in June 2012.

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