National Commentary

Scouts’ Decision Has Ugly Echoes Of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell

The Boy Scout’s of America (BSA) has voted to allow openly gay Scouts. However, it continues its prohibition on adult scout leaders. We hear that this is a good “first step,” however, I’m not so sure, because we’ve heard this argument before.

In 1993, Bill Clinton’s fought to allow openly gay service members in the military. But, thanks to vociferous opposition led by Sen. Sam Nunn (D-GA), the “compromise” known as “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell was reached. Like those cheering the BSA decision, wrongly said that this was a step in the right direction.

Here is a specific example of such thinking from a May 13, 1993 Los Angles Times story:

In fact, one gay activist predicted that Nunn’s advocacy of the “don’t ask/don’t tell” proposal may ultimately hasten the demise of the Pentagon policy that Clinton has vowed to dismantle.

“This is a real sign that the arguments on the other side are crumbling,” said Eric Rosenthal, political director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund.

Rosenthal was correct that the arguments were crumbling — it just took decades and thousands of ruined lives for the purge to end. While the compromise was ostensibly an improvement on a blanket ban on honorable gay service members, it came with a steep price because it portrayed gay people as inferior and a threat to the cohesion of the armed forces. Sam Nunn’s despicable “tour” of tight submarine barracks depicted gay service members as cunning sexual predators who wanted to change the law so they could corrupt vulnerable young sailors at sea.

Similarly, the updated BSA policy is an improvement — but one that comes with a heavy price in terms of messaging. Instead of “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, the new policy could be called “Do Tell/Don’t Age” — because the moment BSA leaders turn eighteen, they unceremoniously booted out of the program and portrayed as moral failures.

This decision sends three distinct messages:

1) Gay adults recruit

2) Gay adults are potential molesters

3) Gay adults can’t be trusted with children, lest they morally corrupt them

Though it has no validity, perpetuating this myth is particularly devastating because it is one of the few remaining arguments that still resonates. We saw, for example, in various battles our foes were able to scare parents with ads claiming that marriage equality would lead to schools teaching homosexuality. As a result we lost many of referendums.

Of course, being gay or lesbian is nothing that can be learned or taught. It is a phenomenon that occurs in nature and there is no scientific data that shows it can be influenced by socialization — such as upbringing or contact with an adult gay scout leader.

The lie that gay adult Scout leaders might have a deleterious affect on children goes far beyond the policies of this institution. It will likely make good people take pause and wonder if it is safe to allow gay school teachers, counselors, or permit LGBT relatives to babysit nieces and nephews. It is a blood-libel smear that cuts right to the very heart of anti-gay bigotry and leads directly to discrimination.

The BSA “victory” comes with cruel strings and a malignant message that reverberates in a far greater way than the policy itself. For ANY minority, as long as falsehoods are allowed to flourish and fallacies to flower the underlying danger remains — because unspoken fear is nourished. This is why I am not excited about the BSA victory — even though I am extremely pleased for the young Scouts who will not be singled out and humiliated (they will have to wait for graduation to experience such degradation).

Now, there are those who say that a steady stream of 18 year old Scouts getting thrown out will be a public relations disaster and turn public opinion against the program. This is true — just as countless service members with ruined lives turned public opinion against Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell. However, BSA had kept a policy in place for many years where children much younger than 18 were kicked out — so it’s not like our side’s PR capacity has markedly increased.

Of course, historical parallels only go so far, and are only partially relevant to the current situation. Public opinion is rapidly changing and the continued loss of corporate money and organizational prestige will lead to the fall of this incoherent and untenable policy. Still, it is my view that the promotion of the stereotype of gay men as threatening may override any progress that was made by the change in BSA policy.

Philosophically, LGBT people are either equal or inferior. If we are truly equal we should never be satisfied with policies that separate and segregate us from the rules that govern rest of the population. BSA’s decision fails on this most basic test of equality and human dignity and we should not sugarcoat this basic truth and pretend otherwise.


Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”