The Boys Scouts of America confirmed the rumors on Monday that its national board was approaching a decision that might allow local chapters to override a longstanding ban on openly gay scouts and leaders. The acknowledgment came after decades of controversy, culminating in a 2000 Supreme Court decision that gave the Boy Scouts the authority to discriminate against gay people. But the real story is how the policy affected local troops, often in states far removed from the group's headquarters in Irving, Texas.
It's true that a handful of flush corporations — including UPS, Intel, and Merck — have recently refused to donate money to the Scouts on account of their ban. It's the scout-by-scout tales both large and small, however, that appear to have captured the national spotlight and the hearts of Scout leaders from the inside of the organization all the way to the top. Most recently, a highly-ranked Scout in California, Brian Andresen, was denied the rank of Eagle Scout because he was openly gay. And before that, local troops in Houston, Virginia, and elsewhere routinely ejected Scout leaders who were discovered to be gay. The sentiment these incidents aroused — that the Scouts' monolithic national policy was harming the lives of Scouts and their leaders at a local level — was especially acute on Facebook, where yesterday's announcement was discussed on the Boy Scouts' official page.
Welcoming the change, one troop leader from New Hampshire wrote that simply conducting troop activities was difficult given the national policy:
I am so happy the Boy Scouts of America is finally doing this. For those of us who live in the Northeast, our biggest recruiting problem has been this issue. People didn't want their kids to join an organization that wasn't equal. I had a hard time even getting guest speakers in for things like textiles or metal work because they didn't want to help an organization that discriminated.
Another leader from Houston, endorsing the new announcement, referred to a Maryland-based troop that, under pressure from national leaders, retracted a more inclusive non-discrimination policy it had written:
This [new policy] allows troops and their chartering organization the freedom to make the choice that is best for THEIR troop, and in no way should an individual troop be forced to adopt this policy if it violates the beliefs and preferences of that specific troop.
And the idea of local troop autonomy heartened at least one former Eagle Scout:
This is a decision that SHOULD be made at a local level. Even within our community I can see some troops allowing gays and some banning them. ... To those challenging that this is not a "morally straight" decision- I find that discrimination is NOT morally straight!
The reactions highlight the dual nature of the proposed policy, which delegates decisions about who to include (and exclude) to local troop leaders. On one hand, the policy doesn't actually force Boy Scout troops to include gay scouts and leaders, or anyone else they hadn't before; it just gives the go-ahead to troops who do want to open up membership. On the other hand, the policy is essentially conservative: it rejects the central planning of a national organization in much the same way American conservatives reject the idea that D.C. "bureaucrats" know better than they do.
It's strange, then, that the same conservative community, when confronted with ending the Boy Scouts' ban on gays, reverts to endorsing the most top-heavy kind of policy despite its long-documented effect on local troops.