It’s hard to believe that we’re just a couple of weeks away from the first anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to end its century-long blanket ban on LGBT adult membership. But despite being hailed as a historic change, the new policy not only enables further discrimination, it also raises questions about the leadership Hillary Clinton would provide should she win the coming election.
After an embattled incremental approach that finally saw gay and bisexual youth admitted into scouting in 2013, the end to the blanket ban on LGBT adults, which came July 27, 2015, was, to many, a cause for celebration. Some, like gay scoutmaster Ryan Scott, felt like they could finally be themselves. But when former assistant scoutmaster Greg Bourke attempted to rejoin his son’s troop in Louisville, Ky., after being forced to resign four years earlier, the local Roman Catholic hierarchy said Bourke could not return to the church-sponsored unit because he is gay.
Such flagrant discrimination is made possible by the “religious freedom” exemption provided by the resolution through which the current BSA policy was adopted. “The message of Scouting,” according to the resolution, “is one of toleration and respect for different religious and moral conclusions in this matter, acknowledging that reasonable minds may honorably differ. … Any effort to exclude or penalize chartering organizations based on their beliefs or policies regarding marriage, family, or sexuality is contrary to the Boy Scouts of America’s commitment to religious freedom.” This exception allows individual units to reject leaders like Bourke based on claims of religious freedom.
As a bisexual Eagle Scout and former adult leader in the Boy Scouts, I wish that what happened to Bourke was an isolated event. I’ve never forgotten what it was like, nearly 20 years ago, to watch as a close friend of mine was kicked out of the Boy Scouts for the “crime” of being gay. But as Justin Wilson, executive director of the advocacy group Scouts for Equality, recently told me, Bourke isn’t alone. “There have definitely been cases of gay adults being prohibited from joining religious troops,” Wilson told me. “I've heard from a number of people who have experienced this, and I'm sure there are countless other cases that we haven't heard about. Unfortunately, this is exactly what we expected would happen with this policy.”
With the U.S. president serving as honorary president of the Boy Scouts, and with former Scouts for Equality executive director Zach Wahls being a pledged delegate for Hillary Clinton, I wonder: What is Clinton’s position on the Boy Scouts’ policy? And would the Boy Scouts listen to Clinton were she to call for an end to the “religious freedom” exception should she become our next president?
The Clinton campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the Boy Scouts’ 2015 policy change. But Clinton is on record as a strong opponent to so-called religious freedom legislation that acts as a cover to discriminate against LGBT people. Last year, for example, Clinton voiced distaste for Republican Gov. Mike Pence’s actions when he signed-off on a law in Indiana that would allow people and businesses to cite religious beliefs as grounds to discriminate against LBGT people. In a tweet, Clinton said, “Sad this new Indiana law can happen in America today. We shouldn’t discriminate against ppl bc of who they love.” She voiced the same concerns in another tweet about a similar law approved in Arkansas, saying “Like IN law, AR bill goes beyond protecting religion, would permit unfair discrimination against #LGBT Americans. I urge Governor to veto.”
To my mind, Clinton’s position against the LGBT rights disasters in Arkansas and Indiana suggests that she would strongly oppose the Boy Scouts’ current policy because it enables further discrimination under the guise of “religious freedom.” Were Clinton to instead support the current policy, it would not only undermine the future of LGBT people in the BSA and beyond, it would bolster the case of those who have criticized Clinton for equivocating and not being there at the beginning in support of LGBT rights. As a candidate counting on LGBT support in the coming election, that’s a move she can’t afford to make.
Last July, White House principal deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said the Scouts’ new policy was a “big step forward” and was “consistent” with President Obama’s views. That’s a position echoed by Justin Wilson, who described the current policy to me as a “necessary first step.” But after a year of continued discrimination under the banner of “progress,” I for one think it’s high time we take the next step and end the current nonsense. Complacency with the Boy Scouts’ policy and incrementalist approach risks giving anti-LGBT activists time to regroup and increase their numbers all the while enabling further discrimination with institutional support. It also sends the dangerous message that when it comes to LGBT lives it’s OK to settle for less.
The Boy Scouts should know that the time for half measures is over. It’s time to end the discrimination once and for all. We can’t afford to settle for less.
DASHANNE STOKES, Ph.D., is a sociologist, writer, and television and radio commentator. Follow him on Twitter @DaShanneStokes.