by Kendra Weddle Irons
(With responses by Melanie Springer Mock and Letha Dawson Scanzoni)
It happens every year about this time: we are inundated with Girl Scout cookies. Most people I know prefer the thin mints. If you happen to agree, perhaps you’d like to try a suggestion one of my students made: put them in the freezer. This, apparently, takes the thin mints to a completely new level of irresistibility. I cannot vouch for this, however, because my preference lies more with the caramel delights and shortbreads. Still, there is no doubt about it, the arrival of annual Girl Scout cookies makes news each year.
So, just as we are ripping open our favorite sweet treat, news from the Boy Scouts has surfaced and probably is getting more attention in Texas than other parts of the U.S. because Irving, Texas, is home to the Boy Scout headquarters and our Governor, Rick Perry, has recently gone on record voicing his strong opinion.
At issue is whether or not the Boy Scouts will reconsider their previous stance on allowing openly gay boys to join.
Unlike the Girl Scouts who have welcomed girls of all sexual orientations and have adopted a policy where no one lifestyle is advocated as better than another, the Boy Scouts have opted for a less hospitable position. As a youth organization centered on endorsing and promoting values, the BSA has come under considerable pressure and scrutiny in the last few years because of its determination to exclude a particular group of young boys, seeing them as antithetical to these specific values. The Scout oath asks a pledge among other things to be “morally straight” which, I suppose, is intended to send the message that only “straight” boys need consider Scouting a viable option.
On the other hand, the values described on the BSA website as undergirding the organization clearly call for inclusiveness, perhaps a blind spot for those who have never felt themselves to be on the outside. Among the twelve values each scout is to uphold, being friendly, the website claims, entails learning to understand those who are different from oneself, respecting others’ customs and ideas. Being kind, the scouts are told, involves treating others as you would like to be treated while being reverent includes respecting the beliefs of those of various faith traditions.
In certain contexts with varied life experiences it is easy to see how these core values could be employed in support of greater diversity and openness to gay members within the organization. At the same time other values such as bravery, where scouts are told to be courageous in standing up for one’s beliefs, and obedience, the urging of scouts to respect the law (here, one can imagine this being applied to church law), could readily be used to maintain the status quo, teaching scouts to see the BSA as one of the last strong-holds in America, needed to maintain “traditional” versions of values because the balance of America’s greatness is fundamentally at stake.
Precisely at this crossroads of values and experience is where I think Christian feminists can and should enter into the conversation, even though many may claim women should have no bearing on an organization designed specifically for boys (though, of course, there are many Christian feminists who are men as well, as the recent biographical essay by Gary Tandy illustrates). We who have lived on the border, pushed away from mainstream (patriarchal) versions of Christianity can speak about values in a fundamentally different way because of our often marginalized experience. How does an insider know how to understand the lived reality of an outsider unless an outsider has shared deeply and fully?
It is all too easy in our society immersed with information but with little cultivation of knowledge to become numb to the many ways we continue to be marginalized by others, hearing only dominant voices, failing to seek out alternative points of view or, in the worst case, being complicit in the subjugation of alternative perspectives.
I was reminded of this challenge on a recent afternoon in my car when I heard Krys Boyd, NPR host of Think, interview Julie Burton, President of the Women’s Media Center, about the lack of women in the media and how that affects the news we consume on a regular basis. Burton, while praising National Public Radio for having greater gender balance than most other news organizations, still pointed out how two leading NPR reporters, one male, the other female, illustrate imbalance in the sources they use to construct their various reports. The female journalist had an almost equal gender representation among her sources while her male counterpart relied upon more than 70% men for his sources while relying upon women for less than 30%. As Burton noted, this invisibility matters because it changes the scope of the questions we ask; it shapes the narratives that subsequently shape how we view our world.
Another illustration where we can easily see the effects of a group in power making determinations about others (without having the necessary life experience to see their blindness) has been with the House of Representative’s inability to renew the Violence Against Women Act. Where the almost all-male leadership claims to take women’s lives seriously (or, as in Eric Cantor’s recent remarks: he cares very deeply about women), the truth is so few women are part of the decision-making process as to make a significant difference in the outcome of such legislative efforts. Men routinely support or hold-up laws that have no impact on their lives but have real effects on the lives of women across our country, people whose lives are invisible, whose voices are never heard.
One of the reasons I joined EEWC is because I wanted to align myself with people who see God’s grace extending beyond ourselves and to other groups who have been oppressed by church structures and dominant theologies.
So, on this occasion, when the BSA is considering its policy about gay boys being openly included in Scouting, I hope Christian feminists will lend support to our gay brothers. We have understood the love and justice of God to be expansive, extending well beyond the walls churches or faith communities can build. We know the reality of exclusion and from our vantage point can spread the good news of friendliness, respect, and kindness to all people.
Why Not Opt Out? — A response by Melanie Springer Mock
When I heard that the Boy Scouts of America were delaying their decision about the membership of gay boys until May, I was disappointed, to be sure. For awhile there, it seemed like the Boy Scouts were going to make an inclusive decision, and that gay boys might find at least one place where they felt anything other than marginalized. As Kendra points out in her excellent post, though, the scouting association decided to delay its decision, another door nearly slammed shut against those who only want equal standing in our society.
Although disappointed, I was also not surprised by the decision: the Boy Scouts have a long history of discrimination, and a change in the policy would have alienated a large part of their conservative constituency. But, to be honest, as deliberations drag on, I feel increasingly ambivalent about whether energies should be spent pressing the Boy Scouts to do the right thing.
Don’t get me wrong. I certainly believe LGBTQ folks have the right to full inclusion in every part of society: they are, after all, fully human, fully loved by God, fully deserving of the privileges and rights extended to others by our constitution, at least in the United States.
Still, it’s hard to get myself worked up about fighting for inclusion in an organization that sometimes seems to reinforce all those gender stereotypes I’ve spent a good portion of my own life combating: that boys are more into outdoor adventure and risk-taking than are girls; that boys are brave and courageous, and girls are team players; that boys like mud and dirt and sticks, and girls love crafts.
Some of this is my own caricaturing of the program. I lasted in Brownies about a month when I was a girl, and we’ve chosen not to enroll our own sons in scouting programs, primarily because the boys have found so many other activities in which to invest their time (and our money!).
But if you look at the Boy Scouts of America website, you see a good deal of this gender stereotyping playing out in the site’s images of “tough boys” running through mud, or snowboarding, or mountain biking, all activities I would enjoy very much, even though I’m a girl—or, rather, a middle-aged woman. And on the Girl Scouts website, the predominating images are of cookie sales, skill building workbooks, and going green campaigns. All important and worthy pursuits, though when I was a girl I would have found them a little too boring.
So I guess my question is, given the ways these traditional scouting programs serve to reinforce traditional values and problematic gender stereotypes, why aren’t progressives opting out of scouting altogether? It’s a question I ask with a good deal of trepidation, because I know the Boy and Girl Scouts continue to have an esteemed reputation in our culture; that they build important values in our children; and that many of the skills they teach reside outside any kind of gender binary. Yet asking the question—should we support the scouts, or potentially establish a different kind of scouting program?—might need to be part of our inquiry, whether the Boy Scouts ultimately decide to include gays or not.
I also ask this question with substantial hesitation because I know our country’s dreary and continued history of “separate but equal,” and that too often—most often—separate does not mean equal: it didn’t mean equal educational opportunities for African-Americans following Brown v. Board of Education, and it doesn’t mean equality now for LGBTQ people, fighting for their equal right to marry the partners to whom they are committed.
Still, what if some kind of program could be created—one that taught values similar to those offered by Scouts, but also promoted those values in ways that were truly inclusive, truly courageous, truly willing to accept and celebrate difference? And, also, that were truly willing to look beyond the gender stereotyping that says “boys will be boys, and thus should go mountain biking” and “girls will be girls, and thus should sell cookies”?
Some conservative Christians have already done this: create an alterative scouting program, that is. I blogged about the Christian scouting program last February, when Indiana representative Robert Morris publicly denounced the Girl Scouts and refused to celebrate the group’s 100th anniversary, arguing that Girl Scouts were a den of “feminists, lesbians, and Communists” who exist as a “tactical arm of Planned Parenthood,” and who “encourage sex.” (As Letha notes, the Girl Scouts have a much more progressive history than the Boy Scouts, but I imagine Morris’ critique is a tad off-based.)
At the time, I wrote about the American Heritage Girls, an evangelical counterpart to the much more secular Girl Scouts. The AHG program teaches girls values in God and country and Christian womanhood. Providing lessons in remaining sexually pure until marriage is also a big part of their program, as is learning those skills which will make young girls useful helpmeets for their spouses.
American Heritage Girls haven’t become as mainstream as the Girl Scouts, but I suppose that’s their point: because Girl Scouts are potentially tainted by secularism, some people created another program that better expressed their values, and that could convey those values to their girls.
Which makes me wonder: What would happen if progressives changed their tact, let the Boy Scouts retain their regressive principles, and started a far more inclusive program? Could there be a scouting program that truly allowed all girls and boys to pursue interests regardless of their gender? That let girls ride mountain bikes, if that was their interest, and boys bake cookies?
What if there was a scouting program that truly did teach children to be friendly, kind, and couragous, even to those whose identity is different than one’s own?
Turns out, some folks are already taking up the charge. As I was finishing this post, a story came across my Facebook feed about the 55th Cascadia Scouts, a group in Portland that’s open to kids of all faith traditions, genders, and sexual orientations. Like other scouting groups, the 55th Cascadia Scouts have merit badges, backpacking trips, and uniforms; unlike other scouting groups, the 55th Cascadia Scouts does not include discrimination as one of its tenets.
Until they become a nationwide organization, though, parents who want their children in scouting have two primary options. Although Kendra suggests the Girl Scouts have a good record of inclusiveness, I’m still not convinced that either program allows boys and girls to explore all they were meant to be outside of rigid gender roles. Perhaps it’s time for those who stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ community to opt out of scouting programs altogether, and create a different kind of organization where everyone can truly belong.
Sorting out the Issues—A response by Letha Dawson Scanzoni
When I think about any organization trying to decide “what to do about LGBTQ people “ (or about any other group being discriminated against), I tend to cluster my thoughts under three headings: empathy, fear and misunderstanding, and misnaming the problem. With that in mind, let’s try to sort out the issues that I believe need to be considered.
One summer many years ago, I worked as a counselor at a Christian camp in an eastern state. The camp’s leadership emphasized “the Spirit-filled higher Christian life” and “bringing every thought and action under the Lordship of Christ.” The group supported missionaries in far-off countries, and the children sang about how Jesus loved all the children of the world. “Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight.” After the year I served as a counselor, my mother was a cook for the camp the next two summers. It seemed like a wonderful group of people.
But several years later, someone on the executive board of the camp told my mom there had been a “crisis” in the camp. I was shocked when Mom wrote and told me what it was.
It seems a mother had attempted to send her son to the camp, and somehow the leadership found out that the family was African American. The pastor and staff were thrown into a panic. Such a thing had never come up before. They didn’t know what to do, so they finally decided to refuse the child’s application and return the check, telling the mother that they “didn’t have accommodations for such a situation” (whatever that meant!) and that they were sorry but the boy wouldn’t be permitted to attend.
Although this happened in the 1960s, it did not occur in the segregated “Jim Crow” South, but rather in a state in the Northeast Census Region.
What shocked me as much as the incident itself was the attitude. The camp leaders were worried about the camp’s reputation and how it might be damaged in the eyes of their Christian supporters if they admitted a black child, but they were not at all concerned about the feelings of the child! I couldn’t believe that such a thought didn’t seem to have entered their minds. They could not or would not put themselves in his place and feel the hurt that he surely felt at such rejection. They didn’t even know him. They apparently couldn’t even imagine that he was just a little boy who wanted to share in the outdoor adventures and singing around the campfire and the Bible studies and all the other activities that the other kids shared. If he were in a foreign land, he might be “precious in Jesus’ sight,” as the song said. But not here. No, not at “their” camp.
This lack of empathy—this stubborn refusal to see through another person’s eyes, walk in another person’s shoes, imagine how another person feels—is, I believe, a major factor in the refusal of the Boy Scouts of America to admit gays as scouts or scout leaders. Exclusionary policies always need to be examined in the light of empathy (or the lack thereof) rather than in terms of an abstract notion of organizational “purity.”
Fear and misunderstanding
It’s also tempting—and so very easy— to simply dismiss the controversy over Boy Scout membership for gays as being a case of discrimination based on nothing more than hate-filled bigotry. And while there’s no denying hatred and bigotry in such discussions, I think we also need to realize that, for many people, honest worries, fear, and lack of knowledge surround the topic of homosexuality. Some people are just plain scared.
This is especially true for parents who have been listening to anti-gay activists and talk-radio hosts who spread around a great deal of misinformation and intentional disinformation, much of it based on the the writings of Paul Cameron and his Family Research Institute (not to be confused with the Family Research Council, another “family values,” anti-gay group). Then there’s the American Family Association that we’ve talked about on this blog before. Such groups— some of them with scholarly sounding names and lots of footnotes, charts, and statistics in their writings— have been able to convince many people that homosexuality and pedophila are linked and virtually one and the same.
Many parents and grandparents who listen to and believe such warnings are thus understandably frightened at the prospect of lifting the ban on gays in the Boy Scouts of America. And to keep the fires burning, numerous organizations and spokespersons are constantly adding fuel to the the flames, claiming that children will be endangered by either molestation or recruitment into homosexuality.
What can we do to extinguish such fears? We need to help people find accurate information. Let’s start with the most basic fact: pedophilia is something altogether different from homosexuality.
And then some definitions are in order. Let’s start with sexual orientation.
Social psychologist David Myers and I, in our book What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage, wrote that “sexual orientation means an attraction toward members of the other sex (heterosexual orientation) or one’s own sex (homosexual orientation). Such attraction is revealed in our longings and fantasies.” The emphasis is on the attraction— the feelings— not necessarily expressing those feelings in actions. In other words, while the majority of people are attracted to persons of the other sex (just as most people are right-handed), a minority of people are attracted to persons of the same-sex (just as some people are left-handed). Sexual orientation, then, is simply a realization of the direction of one’s feelings and the longing to someday have a romantic relationship with someone who is of the same sex as one’s own.
An excellent brochure that can be downloaded from the American Psychological Association puts it this way:
“Sexual orientation refers to an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes. Sexual orientation also refers to a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviors, and membership in a community of others who share those attractions. Research over several decades has demonstrated that sexual orientation ranges along a continuum, from exclusive attraction to the other sex to exclusive attraction to the same sex. However, sexual orientation is usually discussed in terms of three categories: heterosexual (having emotional, romantic, or sexual attractions to members of the other sex), gay/lesbian (having emotional, romantic, or sexual attractions to members of one’s own sex), and bisexual (having emotional, romantic, or sexual attractions to both men and women.” (From Answers to Your Questions for a Better Understanding of Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality, © 2008 American Psychological Association. Quoted by permission.)
Pedophila and sexual molestation, on the other hand, are altogether different from sexual orientation. One of the world’s foremost authorities on the scientific research on these topics, Dr. Gregory Herek, a psychology professor at the University of California at Davis, points out that many people are confused about terminology. He says we need to be careful about how we speak of these topics. As Herek explains, the term pedophilia “usually refers to an adult psychological disorder characterized by a preference for prepubescent children as sexual partners. He points out that “this preference may or may not be acted upon.”
While pedophilia is a diagnostic label referring to a psychological propensity, the terms child molestation and child sexual abuse refer to “actual sexual contact between an adult and someone who has not reached the legal age of consent.” Dr. Herek takes care to point out that not all incidents of child sexual abuse are committed by pedophiles—and not all pedophiles actually commit the molestation of children.
Adding to the confusion, writes Dr. Herek, is the way many people speak of the sexual abuse of young boys by adult men (such as the recent cases of Roman Catholic priests sexually abusing altar boys) as being “homosexual molestation” — or “heterosexual molestation” in cases where young girls are abused. The problem with such terminology is that the terms used “refer to the victim’s gender in relation to the perpetrator” and say nothing at all about the perpetrator’s sexual orientation.
Dr. Herek says that many child molesters “don’t really have an adult sexual orientation. They have never developed the capacity for mature sexual relationships with other adults, either men or women. Instead, their sexual attractions focus on children —boys, girls, or children of both sexes.” You can find Dr. Herek’s article, “Facts about Homosexuality and Child Molestation” online. He also unmasks the false claims and statistics used by many of the right-wing groups mentioned earlier.
You can see how important it is to know the facts before stigmatizing persons whose sexual orientation is gay or lesbian and then making totally false assumptions about him or her.
That brings me to my third point.
When a person’s existence is perceived as a problem
W.E.B. Du Bois, who died in his nineties in 1963, was the first black man to receive a PhD in history from Harvard and went on to earn a reputation as a sociologist, historian, author, and activist. In his book The Souls of Black Folk, he wrote that, in his experience, there was a question that people in the white world wondered but didn’t dare to ask directly— although they would hint at it in the statements they made and the questions they voiced “in a half-hesitant sort of way.” The question? “How does it feel to be a problem?”
How does it feel for a person or group to feel that by their very existence they are a problem? Du Bois talks about his childhood and when he first became aware that he was different and wondered, “Why did God make me an outcast?” And yet, to white society, his very being was perceived as “a problem.”
But he was not the problem. A dominant group that refuses to recognize the humanness, worth, and dignity of another person is the problem. The little boy who wanted to attend the camp in my opening story was not the problem; the camp leadership was the problem. The gay boys who want to join the Boy Scouts are not the problem; the policy of discrimination is the problem. The 7-year-old transgender child who wanted to join the Girl Scouts was not the problem; the attempt to prevent her from doing so through an attempted cookie boycott organized by prejudiced parents was the problem.
By keeping gays out of their organization, the Boy Scouts of America are teaching their scouts that LGBT people are, by their very existence— at the very core of their being— “a problem.” The “problem” is not about something they have done but about who they are—members of a misunderstood and stereotyped minority group of people who are somehow not fit to be associated with. The scouts are thus learning that prejudice and discrimination and intolerance are acceptable.
I saw a cartoon recently in which a scout starts to help a white-haired woman on a walker as she begins to cross the street, then pauses as the thought strikes him that he’d better ask a scout leader whether it’s OK to help her, since she might be gay. Is this what we want our scouts to learn?