Merit Badge for Silence

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

Jennifer Tyrrell delivers a petition with 300,000 signatures to the Boy Scouts of America headquarters urging the organization to abandon its policy of excluding gays. Tyrrell was ousted as a den mother because she is a lesbian.

On Tuesday, after a two-year review, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) "emphatically reaffirmed" its current ban on "open or avowed homosexuals"—a restriction that applies not only to Scout leaders, but to Scouts as well.

I have a soft spot for the Scouts, having been a member until I reached high school (the uniforms, if you haven't noticed, are radically uncool, and as soon as I hit adolescence, my interest in earning merit badges evaporated). But I still remember how to tie a square, bowline, and sheet knot—and how to hang a bear bag. I learned the importance of the latter the hard way, at Boy Scout camp. Too tired to be bothered with finding a tree tall enough to hoist my bag of food, I swung it onto the roof of the Scoutmaster’s lean-to. Later that night, everyone was awakened by the sounds of a bear rustling through my food. The fond memories I have of the Scouts make it all the more sad to think, had I stuck with it long enough to come to terms with my sexual orientation, I wouldn't have been allowed to stay.

The Boy Scouts' position on gays is patently out of line with its goal of mentoring young men and raising strong citizens. The organization rightly prides itself on serving at-risk youth, but it is missing a valuable opportunity to support vulnerable LGBT kids, who disproportionately suffer from depression, commit suicide, abuse drugs, and face harassment from peers at school. Instead of providing guidance and strong role models for those most in need, the BSA has chosen to further ostracize gay youth.

The question is: For what? From the BSA's press release:

Scouting believes same-sex attraction should be introduced and discussed outside of its program with parents, caregivers, or spiritual advisers, at the appropriate time and in the right setting. ...

While the B.S.A. does not proactively inquire about the sexual orientation of employees, volunteers or members, we 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 B.S.A.

From the sound of it, you'd think reformers were considering a resolution to turn every Scout meeting into a pow-wow on homosexuality. It seems having gay Scout leaders isn’t even the problem—you can be gay as long as you’re not “avowed”—it’s just not the right forum to discuss, or even acknowledge, such things.

This brings me to the central hypocrisy of the Boy Scouts’ policy. Far from shying away from discussing homosexuality, the BSA has handed down no fewer than five edicts on the topic since 1990—the most recent one after two years of discussion. And the ban has been nothing if not a huge distraction from the purported goals of the organization. You only have to type “Boy Scouts” in Google to see that the organization has become synonymous with its position on gays. This is the paradox—as Berkeley theorist Judith Butler observed with “don’t ask, don’t tell”—of making homosexuality unspeakable: It doesn’t stop people from talking about it; it just changes where the conversations take place. The Boy Scouts’ national leaders, the media, gay-rights advocates, and right-wingers can talk about it all they want. The only people barred from talking about homosexuality are gay Scouts. The price they pay for membership is losing the ability to define themselves.

The BSA’s announcement Tuesday was certainly a disappointment, but it’s important to recognize that things are trending in the right direction. The Scouts have stopped arguing, as they did in the early 1990s, that homosexuality is immoral and that gays are a danger to children. Now they are attempting to do with language what they can’t do in reality. Instead of ensuring that the Scouts are gay-free by actively rooting out gays, which would inspire a backlash that makes the current controversy look quaint, they've opted to create an illusion to that effect. As with the military, one can expect—as homosexuality becomes more and more speakable in the culture—that the increasing effort of keeping up the charade will become more trouble than it’s worth, and the Scouts will decide that their policy has indeed become a distraction from their core mission.

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