CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As a private, voluntary, membership organization the Boy Scouts of America has legal and constitutional rights to exclude from its membership those who disagree with its values. This month, its national executive board chose to delay resolving the controversy surrounding its policy of excluding gay boys and adult leaders. That delay will make the decision neither less complex nor less controversial.
From 1950 through 1958, as a boy who was gay, I benefited greatly from being a Cub Scout and then Boy Scout. During much of that time I did not know the word homosexual and not until my early 20s did I hear the term "gay." As a very young boy -- years before I knew about anything sexual -- I realized that I preferred boys to girls. With adolescence, sexual awareness came, and my friends began talking about sexual attractions to girls. At that time, I recognized that I was attracted to guys. I was neither ashamed nor did I feel guilty about this; however, I did understand, that in those days, this was not something to talk about.
My experience in scouting focused on camping, canoeing, swimming, first aid, archery. It did not focus on sexual activities anymore than going to school or other youth pursuits did. My association with other boys at school, church, and scout activities did eventually make me aware that a few other boys and I did have the same sexual orientation. These activities did not provide me with sexual opportunities; actually those activities were designed to discourage such opportunities.
There is no doubt in my mind that, just as over 50 years ago when I was a scout, today some Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts are gay. News reports indicate that around 70 percent of scout troops' organizational sponsors are religious organizations. A good number, perhaps a majority, of those are groups such as Mormons, Catholics, and Southern Baptists who actively oppose equality for gay people. It is also no secret that in all of those religious groups there are gay members. If they want to exclude those people from membership, I accept that as a social and legal reality. I disagree, however, with the beliefs that lead to that standard. Furthermore, I absolutely reject the idea that these groups can dictate social and ethical standards to those outside of their religion.
As an American who also is gay, I have enjoyed a good, happy life. I have contributed in valuable ways to my family, my profession, and my community. Now in retirement, I enjoy a loving, rewarding relationship with my male companion. Young people who are gay should have the same opportunity, and that includes participation in scouting.
The Girl Scouts, Boys Clubs, Girls Clubs, and other youth organizations have included gay youth for years without catastrophic consequences. The Boy Scouts of America should do the same.
By their nature, compromises do not satisfy all of the policy preferences of those who make them. A compromise allowing individual scout troops to determine local membership standards offers a way to move forward on this issue. This compromise has shortcomings. The chief difficulty is that it elevates little boys' sexual orientation to an unmerited importance and such emphasis is a distraction from the positive attributes of scouting. It is, nevertheless, a compromise that can satisfy all but the most adamant groups.
Being gay did not diminish the benefits I gained from scouting. Nor did it take away from the advantages the non-gay boys in my troop gained from being scouts. It should be the same for boys today.
Smith, of Charleston, is a political science professor retired from West Virginia State University, is active in civil liberty issues and has published widely on constitutional protection of religious liberty.