Boy Scouts of America needs to be an institution willing to accept all kids, families and leaders.
On Easter Monday I went to a funeral for my mother’s cousin. In my family you show up for these things. We gather for the individual, and also for the institution of the family.
In my family, institutions matter, giving context and meaning to our lives. Institutions should be a force for good. If they are not, we work to change them.
The funeral felt like many I’ve attended in Minnesota Lutheran churches. We sang “How Great Thou Art,” shared memories, laughed through tears, and ate ham sandwiches and bars afterward.
This funeral was also a bit different for me. It was the first I attended for a man being grieved for by his life partner, another man. No one mentioned this. It did not affect how the church did its work. The institution of the church facilitated a wonderful celebration of this man’s life; it honored this family’s loss, regardless of sexual orientation. The church was a force for good in its members’ lives.
That night, I went online to read news. I came across a story about a church-sponsored scout troop in Seattle losing its charter from the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) for refusing to force out a gay leader. The church stood beside its longtime leader and stood up to the BSA. This church demonstrated the love and grace I had experienced earlier that day at a church in Minnesota. The BSA did not. I found myself again questioning the BSA. For me, this questioning is deeply felt and long-lasting.
I love scouting. I grew up in a scouting family. At 14 my friends and I started a Venturing Crew, the coed BSA program for older youth. I worked at Boy Scouts camp. During my first year of college I became the National Venturing President, representing 250,000 youth members. That same year, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Dale vs. the Boy Scouts of America, holding the BSA is a private organization and could set its own membership standards. The BSA chose to exclude, in their language, “avowed homosexuals.” And so began a more than decadelong frustration with an institution whose mission of youth development I benefited from and believe in.
Despite my frustration, I’ve not left the BSA. I feel a duty to change it, working from the inside. My home council has led on moving the BSA toward non-exclusionary policies, and this has motivated me to stay involved.
Last spring, the BSA voted at its annual meeting in Texas on whether youth, up to 18, regardless of sexual orientation, should be allowed in the BSA. I went to watch the vote.
I was frustrated that the vote was only about including youth, and not adults, regardless of sexual orientation. I also felt I’d seen an important equal rights moment. The BSA is a cautious organization. It should be. You need to be careful with other people’s kids. And like our country as a whole, the BSA was clearly divided along regional lines. But during the vote, the BSA came together around this big idea: every kid is better off in scouting.
The church in Seattle is the first test of the current BSA policy, and it shows the policy does not include every kid. If every kid is better off in scouting, then the BSA should include every kid. Every kid who has gay parents, or a gay minister, or a gay scout leader, or a gay cousin. Every kid. The BSA is wrong to make the adults in these kids’ lives choose between the good of scouting and letting their kids get mixed messages about equality. The BSA is wrong to force kids in scouting to question the goodness of people they love or, worse, their own goodness simply because of sexual orientation.
Thinking of the BSA in three parts helps clarify what should happen. Scouting is an idea, a set of institutions, and a movement. There are over 40 million scouts in 162 countries.
The BSA as an institution does not own the idea of scouting, and it is not the entire scouting movement. The longer the BSA clings to its exclusionary policy, the less it represents the wider scouting movement, and the more it undermines our country’s belief in the idea of scouting.
I hope the BSA soon recognizes its membership policy clings to a past that is not our future. Our future is one of equality and inclusion. Other institutions in our country recognize this — the U.S. military, an ever-increasing number of states, many religious organizations (including the church I visited on Easter Monday) and millions of families. People who believe in equality and inclusion did not abandon these institutions along the way; people changed the institutions.
The institution of the BSA has over a century-long history, deeply intertwined in our country, history valued by myself and millions of others. We who value the BSA and who also believe in equality and inclusion should not abandon this history or give up on the institution of the BSA. The BSA should not force us to do so. We need to change the BSA to ensure it is an institution for good for all kids who want to be scouts and the families and leaders who support them.
Kate Knuth, a former BSA National Venturing president, lives in Minneapolis.
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