A good friend of mine recently wrote about the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to allow openly gay and bisexual youth into their movement, and he affirmed the decision from a Catholic perspective. Joe is an Eagle Scout (whereas I quit in 2000 when the Supreme Court upheld the BSA’s discriminatory policies, never extending beyond Cub Scout) so his thoughts come from a place of deep appreciation for Catholic faith and scouting. I offer my responses here, and while I acknowledge the other half of why Joe endorses the BSA’s decision is matters of unity (which I agree with), I cannot support his first reasons based on Catholic morality.
Two major areas within Joe’s thinking seem problematic to me: his support for a continued ban against gay adults and, following from that, the reasons behind allowing gay youth he endorses.
Excluding Gay Leaders
Joe’s support for the decision, a compromise between competing interests in his view, considers the distinction between the scouts and the leaders to be “vital.” If this distinction is necessarily involved in making the compromise valid, and not just an exercise in kicking the gay leaders ‘problem’ down the road, then it seems fair to ask why. Joe offers that allowing gay youth while banning gay leaders:
“…helps promote a heterosexual lifestyle in the most respectful and compassionate way. The Boy Scouts (and this should be to no one’s surprise) still probably seeks to uphold its inculcation of values that include what it believes to be a proper sexual union between a man and a woman, and this is why gay adults are still not permitted…
“I believe such a choice [to exclude gay leaders] is because the sole basis of their moral choice to have a definitively active homosexual relationship rather than anything else…The character of homosexual adults can be, in many cases, exemplary. I think it is because the BSA would feel that allowing them as leaders would be seen as an endorsement.”
I deeply respect Joe, but in this line of thinking he assumes far too much. Breaking his argument down we see something like this for his logic:
(1) The Boy Scouts of America promote heteronormative standards, i.e. sex is properly enacted between only a man and a woman;
(2) To be in a sexual relationship that is not one man, one woman contradicts the Boy Scouts values, and all actions from Boy Scout leaders should be in accordance with the movement’s values;
(3) All gay leaders have made the “moral choice” to be in “definitively active homosexual” relationships, thus every gay leader fails to uphold scouting values in their lives;
(4) Therefore, there cannot be gay leaders in the Boy Scouts.
Obviously, the third premise is the objectively false one (even if I disagree with the first two) that invalidates the conclusion. It’s unfair to make claims about how anyone expresses their sexuality, including gay men, unless we are to have an Inquisition in scouting. Suddenly, every scout leaders’ sex life becomes open game – Did they engage in premarital sex? Are they using contraception? Is one partner having an affair?** If their use of sexuality is not an example of scouting values, then by the logic provided above even many straight leaders must go.
And herein lies the overall problem with Joe’s reasoning for allowing gay youth to participate in the Boy Scouts: conflating sexual expression as sexual orientation, which in the current articulation by the Catholic hierarchy are two different matters. Identifying as LGBT, even for Catholics, presumes nothing about how one dates or expresses their sexuality physically just as we never assume about straight people.
Endorsing Gay Youth
This matter of orientation is behind why I oppose Joe’s reasons for allowing gay youth, at least as far as his endorsement of Catholic reasons. He writes:
“By allowing gay youths into the organization, and not allowing adults, the policy change posits that any youth who considers himself gay is not set in that view and should not be sexually active (Catholic teaching on chastity), and rather can grow and change as a sexual being:
“So then what is sexual orientation for youth in the Boy Scouts?…if a Boy Scout were to claim he is gay, as many of our youths do today, the response should not be one of alienation or affirmation, but one of expectation for their future sexual growth in holistically, healthy moral lifestyles…”
“That ‘future sexual growth,’ for me, is the heterosexual relationship or abstinence.”
In my reading, Joe comes perilously close to endorsing what can be referred to as a “cure” or “therapy” for LGBT youth. I agree that chastity, the responsible use of one’s divinely gifted sexuality, is a positive value to inculcate through scouting. However, he makes the claim that gay identified scouts are not “set in that view” and quotes extensively that welcoming gay youth is an opportunity for “future sexual growth” into either celibacy or a straight relationship. It is positive to bring in gay youth for more than teaching every scout to use sexuality in a just, healthy, and appropriate way. It is positive because scouting could change them.
Efforts to change gay youth do not, and can not, mesh with Catholic teachings that sexual orientation is an innate and unwavering state for nearly everyone. Straight and LGBT people alike are attracted to whom they are attracted, and I quote the US bishops in their 1996 document, Always Our Children:
“…It seems appropriate to understand sexual orientation (heterosexual or homosexual) as a deep-seated dimension of one’s personality and to recognize its relative stability in a person…Having a homosexual orientation does not necessarily mean a person will engage in homosexual activity.
“There seems to be no single cause of a homosexual orientation. A common opinion of experts is that there are multiple factors…that may give rise to it. Generally, homosexual orientation is experienced as a given, not as something freely chosen. By itself, therefore, a homosexual orientation cannot be considered sinful, for morality presumes the freedom to choose.”
Clearly, any attempts to alter gay scouts would contradict the notion of sexual orientation from the Catholic hierarchy’s perspective that Joe espouses. Healthy development of one’s sexuality is an essential part of raising children, but this healthy development should never aim to force LGBT youth into heterosexual relationships or repression through celibacy.
If openly gay scouts are merely being welcomed into the movement to “help” them, then this decision means nothing. If however, openly gay scouts are welcomed, affirmed for who they are, and grow in understanding the responsible and just use of their sexuality like every other scout – then that is a step forward. As for gay leaders, discrimination remains in place and LGBT advocates like myself will continue educating and advocating for a better approach to sexuality in conservative cultures.
**I should note, I do not make any claims about the morality of same-gender relationships or any of the actions described thereafter. I’m merely working from the conservative Catholic articulation of sexual morays that Joe is working within. I personally see the true goodness in same-gender couples, as I do with mixed-gender ones.