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The Boy Scouts’ gay ban is practically irrelevant

Recently I was driving a couple of Boy Scouts home after a weekend outing at Camp Pigott near Monroe, WA. I was going to drop one of them at the parking lot, then drop Charlie off at his house since he lives only six blocks from our place.

But I couldn’t because doing so violates a clear scout standard against being alone with a scout who isn’t your son — even momentarily. Both boys were dropped off at the parking lot.

Last week one of our Life Scouts wanted to meet with me to discuss his Eagle public service project (a requirement for Eagle rank). Since I’m the troop’s “Life-to-Eagle” counselor, I agreed to meet him, but only in a public place within plain view of others. I signed off on his project at a nearby Starbucks.

What does this have to do with the Boy Scouts upcoming May decision of whether to drop the national ban on gay scouts and scout leaders? Everything. When it comes to protecting scouts from abuse, a comprehensive code of conduct applies to everything everyone does at all times. The Scouts’ Youth Protection policies are behavior based. They apply to everyone, scout and adult, gay or straight.

The national board had considered dropping the ban at their February 6th meeting, but postponed the vote for a few months to accept more public comment and debate. A prudent decision. Contentious issues are less likely to boil over when you first let them simmer.

These rules didn’t exist when I was a Cub Scout in the late 60’s and a Boy Scout for a couple years thereafter. Back then, parents and scout volunteers were trusted with few safeguards in place. When I needed a merit badge to be signed off, I would phone a merit badge counselor, then ride my bike to his house.

Not anymore. Last year, when one of our scouts nearing his 18th birthday was racing the clock for Eagle, he begged me to drive to his house to sign off on a merit badge. I made sure his mom was there before I swung by to evaluate his work.

The release last year of the so-called “perversion files” shows how much more trusting the scouts were of adults 30 and 40 years ago. One Seattle Times story tells of a scout who was fondled by a scoutmaster sleeping in the same tent. A scoutmaster, or any other adult, sleeping in the same tent with any scout other than his son is unthinkable today. It simply isn’t allowed, regardless of the parent’s sexual orientation.

At summer camps, not only are scouts and adults not permitted to use the same showers, they also have separate restrooms. A culture of Youth Protection has grown around scouting in the last dozen years, designed to protect scouts not only from predatory sexual behavior, be it from adults or other boys, but also from other forms of physical abuse, bullying and hazing.  The days of shoulder-shrugging at hazing and “letting the boys sort it out” when someone’s being bullied are history.

Adult leaders today are trained and expected to spot it and stop it. You cannot be a credentialed volunteer in Boy Scouts without taking a Youth Protection course; a course you have to re-take every two years (try it yourself). Every new scout is required to sit down with his parents and read through the Youth Protection booklet in the front of his Scout Handbook before he begins working toward Tenderfoot. And of course, all volunteers are subject to a criminal background check. Inappropriate behavior, physical or verbal, by any adult or youth leader isn’t permitted. Period.

Supporters of the ban point out that gay men would be attracted to scouts in a way that straight men are not. Those are valid concerns, but consider: Thousands of straight men of all ages coach middle and high school girls sports teams. They are expected, by strength of character, to ignore the physical attractiveness of their players. But just in case, rules and standards are in place to keep distance between coach and player. If the coach lets down his guard by, say, having private conversations with a player, he can be sanctioned or fired. If he pursues her romantically, he faces criminal charges. Similar standards and rules are already in place in scouting. They are applied evenly and are enforceable, not “advisory”.

Some church-based scout troops support the ban because homosexual conduct is incompatible with the Bible. Tread carefully here. St. Paul does indeed criticize gay behavior. But in the Gospel of St. Matthew (Chapter 5), Jesus himself condemns divorce and specifically criticizes remarriage afterwards. Yet there are probably thousands of single parents, divorced dads and remarried parents who help out in scouting. The Bible sets a higher bar on moral living than many people realize. And who among us is perfect? Another reason for scouting’’s Youth Protection program.

My wife Lisa and I would be reluctant to let my sons join any youth program today that had the lax protection standards that the scouts — and for that matter the schools, sports leagues, churches and other youth programs — had when I grew up in the 60s and 70s. Today my son Drew is safer in scouting than he would be just about anywhere else. Which is a good thing because now, more than ever, our kids should spend less time looking at TV, computer and iPod screens and much more time hiking, swimming, climbing, camping and chasing adventure in the great outdoors.

The writer is Assistant Scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 600 in Bellevue.

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