The backdrop to BSA’s newfound sensitivity to inclusion is the solvency – both cultural and financial – of the organization itself. CNN reported that Boy Scouts membership, currently at 2.7 million, has dropped by nearly one-third since 1999. And since the 2012 affirmation of the policy, Scouts for Equality, a civil rights group dedicated to opening the doors of the BSA, launched a campaign urging the corporate sponsors of BSA to drop their support as anathema to corporate anti-discrimination policies. Intel, Merck and UPS, three of the Scouts largest corporate funders, have pulled their money since the campaign began (just six months ago).
Some advocates believe the local option is sorely inadequate, as it will allow local prejudice to dictate the policy for small-town Scouts. In a recent editorial, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, states that this move would effectively undermine the BSA’s position against openly gay Scouts and leaders without recognizing the continued harm it would inflict on those individuals excluded by the policy: “Don’t pass the buck and watch passively while young people in progressive big cities are free to be Scouts while those in conservative small towns are turned away.”
The New York Times, too, framed the concept of local control as one likely to fracture along rural/urban lines: “The debate, according to scout leaders and parents, was shaped by two great forces that have defined scouting for decades: The huge role played by churches in sponsoring Scout troops, and the tradition of local control, which can differ greatly from urban downtowns to rural farm country.”
In moments like these, ‘rural’ and ‘small-town’ become synonymous with religious. The basis for decision-making regarding institutional acceptance or exclusion of gay community members often turns on religious affiliation. And indeed, the Boy Scouts have a deep historical connection to churches, whose support accounts for 70% of the troop affiliations and funding. The Mormon Church has the leading stronghold on the Scouts, with 421,000 Mormon boys enrolled in the Scouts and the Church sponsoring 15% of troops nationwide. In this light, the troops located in small-towns in conservative areas are likely to continue to disallow openly gay members, while troops in larger areas or small towns with a progressive bent will open the gates.
Dan Savage, a nationally syndicated sex advice columnist, who is gay and the parent of a young son, wrote an article about BSA’s national policy back in 2000. He noted the harm rended by the exclusion as one primarily affecting young gay teens, not adults:
[T]he Scouts' ban on gays is cruel [not to gay adults, but] to gay adolescents--boys who are already involved in scouting. What's worse is that it's cruel to them at a particularly vulnerable time in their lives. A gay teenager who got involved in scouting before he had any inkling that he might be gay can now add the fear of being tossed out of the Boy Scouts to a long list of other fears, like being rejected by his family, ostracized by his friends, and condemned by his church.For small-town proponents of the national policy against admitting openly gay members to the Scouts, local control threatens to undermine their own vision for the Scouts. In a recent Times article, the mother of a Boy Scout in Broussard, Louisiana (population 8,302) predicts:
“It will be the small troops that decide they don’t want to have a homosexual leader, and then where do they go for help? If they get sued by the A.C.L.U. or whatever organization decides to come after them, they won’t have the resources or the backing of the Boy Scouts of America because of this policy. It will be the destruction of the Boy Scouts.”In this formulation, the national policy serves as a safety net for those in small towns, whose beliefs are buttressed by the overarching structure of the BSA; severing that connection would leave these Troops untethered and isolated. Leaving to the side the fact that isolation and lack of support are exactly the threats faced by those excluded under the current policy, it appears that the prospect of local control threatens both sides' positions. And for both sides, it is those troops in remote areas who would experience the brunt of the resulting harm. In small towns, there are fewer outlets for everyone – fewer people translates into fewer community groups, fewer options for connecting, and fewer resources for self-support (with an attendant increase in reliance on outside structures).
But it’s hard to see these potential harms as equal to one another. When reading about the BSA controversy, I immediately thought of ACLU’s anti-bullying campaign - focused on making “public schools safe and bias-free for LGBT students” - and the It Gets Better Project, which culls testimonial videos attesting to the fact that it gets better for LGBT individuals after high school, so to “inspire hope for young people facing harassment.”
It Gets Better was launched by the above-mentioned Dan Savage in 2010, in response to a rash of teen suicides whose roots were found in severe harassment inflicted by their classmates on account of their sexual orientation. The teens saw little to no intervention from school officials or authority figures. The youngest among the victims were from small towns. (Another modern phenomenon of violence which takes place disproportionately in rural areas is mass shootings).
Rural places thrive on, and suffer from, their isolation: rural geography and population foster an insulation that can create tight-knit communities which at times embody an idyllic vision of American life (see the recent coverage of the Alabama kidnapping). But these tightly bounded worlds can also be pressure-cookers for those who don’t conform to the mold. By backing down on the national policy of discrimination, but failing to step far enough in the opposite direction (towards positive inclusion), the BSA’s local option will simply reinforce the more rigid of local norms, narrowing the realm of the acceptable and thinning to a sliver any light from alternative choices for gay youth. The recent strides we’ve made in gay rights obscures this reality for many young people living in areas where conservative ideals rule, and few alternatives are in view. BSA’s national policy brings these persistent issues to light.