Scouting Activist

Eagle Scout Zach Wahls, 20, of Iowa City talks after delivering a 280,000-signature petition to the Boy Scouts of America's annual meeting in Orlando on May 30. Wahls, the son of gay parents, is pressing Scouting to change its policies towards homosexuality. (Reuters / January 30, 2013)

It's not yet a done deal, but indications are that the Boy Scouts of America may soon lift its longtime ban on allowing openly gay members. If the policy change occurs, it will be a step forward for the 103-year-old organization.

But perhaps only a baby step. The proposal, which apparently will be discussed next week by Scouting's executive board at the group's headquarters in Irving, Texas, would overturn only the nationwide prohibition on gays. Deciding whether to accept homosexual members would be left up to local troop sponsors.

As one critic commented, the new rule wouldn't forbid bigotry; it would make bigotry optional.

The Boy Scouts' refusal to admit those who are openly gay is largely based on the part of the Scout Oath in which each boy vows "to keep myself … morally straight." The oath was written before "straight" was widely used as a synonym for heterosexual; the prohibition was based simply on the idea that being gay was immoral. It's not.

This is not the first time the Boy Scouts have decided to make some membership decisions purely local ones. About 100 years ago, the question of letting African American and white boys be Scouts together was officially linked to the policies used by the public schools in each community. Thus for decades, Scouting in the South was strictly segregated, as the schools were.

An additional complication, which apparently might also be left to the local sponsors, is whether now to allow openly gay scoutmasters. This is of particular concern because of the fear that adult men sexually attracted to teenage boys would use their positions as leaders to abuse Scouts. Such abuse has indeed occurred, in Scouting as elsewhere — but study after study has shown that gay men are no more likely to be child abusers than are straight men.

If bumping admission criteria down to the local level is all the Boy Scouts can accomplish now, so be it. But what's really needed is a nationwide policy saying that one's sexuality has no part in Scouting.