Earlier this year, Kristie Maldonado filed a civil-rights suit against her local Boy Scouts council; the following week, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) changed its policies and made national headlines. What’s remarkable here isn’t that Maldonado and her transgender son, Joe, changed the hundred-year-old youth organization’s enrollment policies, but the ease and speed with which the Maldonados made it happen.
To get an idea of how wild it is that the Boy Scouts, who charter more than 70 percent of their troops through religious institutions, changed their policies on gender identity, it’s worth revisiting the history of struggle for LGBT+ inclusion in the Boy Scouts. Until 2013, boys who did not identify as heterosexual could be thrown out of any troop in America, and until 2015, any adult leader who was gay, bisexual, pansexual, etc. risked expulsion as well. Before any of these changes could happen, a Supreme Court case backed BSA policy, major donors withdrew their support of the Scouts, and local councils openly defied the national policies.
It took thirty-seven years of prolonged activism to change the BSA’s mind on LGBT+ inclusion. In contrast, according to Scouts for Equality, “a month after the BSA first removed a transgender boy from the program, it has reversed the policy that led to his expulsion.”
In all likelihood, the BSA made the change because they remember the high cost of fighting and losing on LGBT+ inclusion. Now, with membership increasing once again and companies signaling support for trans rights, the BSA is betting that they can endure any backlash.
That is not to say the Boy Scouts are entirely safe from retribution. Aside from faith-based Scouting alternatives and conservative “pro-family” groups, the Boy Scouts are still waiting on some critical input. As of now, the largest hurdle has yet to be cleared—and that hurdle is in Utah, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is considering its response.
Mormons, Evangelicals, and the Boy Scouts’ Obligation
When the BSA voted to allow openly gay adult leaders in the organization, the LDS Church voiced its displeasure. While the church does not ban adults with same-sex attraction, its leaders deliberated for a month over how to respond to the BSA’s change of rules. When BSA leaders announced that gays were staying, the church was clear that “at this time” it was the best option for their youths.
It’s difficult to overstate how much was at stake for the BSA during that month. With close to five hundred thousand Mormon Scouts making up 20 percent of Scout membership, a mass defection could have been devastating. But aside from that considerable risk, it seemed like church groups were just waiting to break ranks and be the first to quit en masse. The president of the Southern Baptist Convention spoke the day after the policy change, saying some churches “will have to cease their sponsorship and involvement.” The National Catholic Committee on Scouting expressed their concerns over possibly condoning “sexual activity.” All three groups remained with the Scouts.
From the outside looking in, their participation might have seemed like a non-issue. The Boy Scout policies on gay members, like the policy on transgender members, do not prevent local troops from kicking out LGBT+ members. Instead, these policies only state that the national organization will not require their expulsion.
Troops that want to accept LGBT+ people can and do, while other troops maintain their bans. At the local level, that means a lot of troops got exactly what they wanted. It’s still up to the major sponsoring organizations to make decisions as they see fit. Perhaps this mediates the tension. Regardless of whether the LDS Church wants to leave the BSA, its members are happy to stay. Bruce Hough, the president of the Great Salt Lake Council of the BSA, said that this policy was a return to the status quo. “The really simple answer was we just go back to the way we’ve been doing it for a hundred years, which is the parent fills out an application and puts down the gender of their child that’s what we will accept.”
Still, the suddenness of the BSA policy change—or “clarification,” as Hough calls it—has likely rubbed church leaders the wrong way. They learned of the change from the press release, just like everyone else, which might be seen as forcing the issue on the LDS Church. In 2015, the LDS Church requested that the Scouts delay their vote on gay adult leaders until the church, a request the BSA declined.
If churches do quit over this most recent policy, or even if the LDS Church withdraws its support, they do have other options for their youths to pursue. One such organization is Trail Life, an evangelical Scouting alternative that formed in response to the BSA admitting gay youths. They have taken this opportunity to decry the BSA’s “voluntary departure from timeless values they once embraced.” Last week they expressed worry that the BSA policy might leave boys “psychologically, spiritually, and possibly physically scarred”; this response was far stronger than the one made in response to the gay-adult policy, when they asked members to circulate the BSA’s press release. The reasons for the disparity in response are not clear.
Still, the BSA has little to fear. Their membership exceeds two million youths, dwarfing Trail Life’s reported twenty-six thousand members. Religious families still have ready access to troops hosted by churches and led by church leaders; the organization includes religious “reverence” as one of its core values for the boys.
According to Scouts for Equality, the organization will only get better from here. Justin Wilson, their executive director, points out that they started out doing advocacy work for LGBT+ inclusion, but their subsequent work in transgender inclusion has more than paid off. Policy fights may be in the past, but they will continue to work to make the Scouts an “even more welcoming, inclusive, and diverse organization.”
Many BSA participants, like myself, value the BSA because they accept everyone. I was in Scouts, as were my brother and father, along with his brother and father; we made a tradition of joining Scouts when we were vulnerable and seeking community. I needed friends because I had just changed schools, but I can only imagine what the organization meant to my father. As a kid he moved almost every year until middle school, when his father died unexpectedly. He needed the organization then more than ever.
Scouting can help boys feel normal, whether they’re suffering from personal tragedy or deciding who they want to be. Joe Maldonado gets to experience Scouting now, not because of some protracted legal battle but because his inclusion aligns with the ethic of Scouting. Being Boy Scouts taught my family a great deal about leadership, camping, first aid, and other tangible skills, but maybe the greatest lesson was learning that whoever we are, we have value.
I hope Boy Scout troops continue to take every opportunity to teach that lesson.