Boy Scouts survey on homosexuality offers nuanced look at reality

Posted Saturday, Mar. 16, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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WASHINGTON -- The Boy Scouts of America has launched a survey asking its members about homosexuality. The survey's purpose is to help the organization decide whether to drop its ban on openly gay Scouts or leaders. Media reports depict the questionnaire as neutral. It isn't. It's biased toward dropping the ban, and for good reason.

The best place to read the questionnaire is on the website that first posted it for public viewing: the Dallas Voice. There, you can see how it's laid out. First you're asked about various scenarios in which homosexuality might come up during typical Scouting activities. Then you're asked whether to keep the ban on homosexuality or to defer to local troops, families and chartering organizations.

The scenarios answer that question for you. They make the ban look overbroad and clumsy, because it is.

The section that deals with homosexuality starts with a list of "possible scenarios that could happen if the Boy Scouts keeps or changes its policy." Here's one scenario:

"Johnny, a first-grade boy, has joined Tiger Cubs with his friends. Johnny's friends and their parents unanimously nominate Johnny's mom, who is known by them to be lesbian, to be the den leader. Johnny's pack is chartered to a church where the doctrine of that faith does not teach that homosexuality is wrong. Is it acceptable or unacceptable for his mother to serve as a den leader for his Cub Scout den?"

Everything in the scenario tugs at you to say it's acceptable. The person in question is the mom of one of the kids. Everyone in the troop, kids as well as parents, knows she's gay. And all of them, knowing this, want her to be the den leader. The church that sponsors and manages the troop has no problem with it. To conclude that their decision is unacceptable, you'd have to override everybody involved.

Here's another scenario: "Tom started in the program as a Tiger Cub, and finished every requirement for the Eagle Scout Award at 16 years of age. At his board of review Tom reveals that he is gay. Is it acceptable or unacceptable for the review board to deny his Eagle Scout award based on that admission?"

Again, the scenario tugs at you. The kid has "finished every requirement" to be an Eagle Scout. Now, at the last minute, you're asked whether to void all of that accomplishment just because he's gay. It's not even because he's gay. It's because of his "admission" that he's gay. Are you willing to ignore years of dedication and work because, at his final review, he told the truth?

Here's another scenario: "A gay male troop leader, along with another adult leader, is taking a group of boys on a camping trip following the youth protection guidelines of two-deep leadership. Is it acceptable or unacceptable for the gay adult leader to take adolescent boys on an overnight camping trip?"

Now we're getting a whiff of child protection. But we're also reminded of the youth protection guidelines, which put a second adult leader on the trip. The wording seems to imply that the other adult is straight. So even if you're uneasy about the gay guy (which, statistically, you shouldn't be), you have to ask yourself whether you're so worried about him, even with a second adult on hand, that he can't be allowed on the trip.

The structure of the questionnaire clearly challenges the organization's members, leaders, sponsors and alumni to rethink the ban on gays and to consider more nuanced alternatives. That bias isn't the product of an agenda. It's the product of moving beyond dogma and facing plausible scenarios in all their complexity. It's the product of reality.

William Saletan covers science, technology and politics for Slate.

Twitter: @saletan

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