It didn’t take long for the mud to start flying.
The Boy Scouts’ decision to lift its membership ban on gay youth was but hours old, and already the commenters on the Washington Post’s story about the decision were divided into warring camps – “bigots” versus “perverts” (as described by their respective opponents).
The dialogue, such is it is, captures our cultural tension over homosexuality. No one wants to “hurt” kids or make them feel bad by excluding them. (And it’s a pity that name-callers from both ends dominate on-line comments.) But as a culture, we’re divided over what it means to be “openly gay” and uncertain what our response should be to those who declare themselves so.
Let’s be clear: the Boy Scouts’ decision is not a statement about the morality of homosexuality. It’s a decision to “serve every kid.” Premised on the idea that “kids are better off in Scouting,” the “voting members of the National Councilapproved a resolution removing the restriction denying membership to youth on the basis of sexual orientation alone, effective January 1, 2014.” The ban on homosexual adult leaders stands.
But while lifting the membership restriction on gay youth says nothing, directly, about morality, the moral issues surrounding homosexuality will be impossible for parents, kids, and Scout leaders to avoid.
Certainly no boy should be taunted or teased for being less masculine than his peers and no adolescent should be treated badly for experiencing same-sex attraction. The Catholic Church specifically teaches that individuals experiencing same-sex attraction “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”
Arguably, the Scouts would be a fine place for a boy who is struggling with his sense of masculinity to find strong male role models and to feel accepted by and included within a friendship circle of male peers. That acceptance alone may prevent lifelong emotional wounds. Catholic troops, in particular, where all members should be motivated by authentic charity, ought to be welcoming places marked by friendship and sensitivity to others’ feelings.
It’s simplistic, though, to suppose that the only issues posed by integrating openly gay youth into scout troops will be issues of kindness and inclusion.
The biggest issue is really an “if/then” problem: If a teen is “openly gay,” then what?
The culturally-approved LGBT script goes something like this: the teen identifies himself predominantly by his sexual orientation (i.e he’s a “gay teen,”), finds role models within the gay community, envisions a future with gay sexual partners, and begins to initiate romantic (if not sexual) relationships with other gay teens or men. He proclaims his sexual orientation proudly and supports “equality” for the LGBT community.
Practically speaking, the openly gay teen in the Boy Scouts will act like any other teenager, but focused on guys, not girls: he might talk about the boy he has a crush on, comment on the physical attractiveness of a particular singer, sports star, or friend, or share harmless details of his same-sex dates. Those actions are natural enough in the heterosexual context, interspersed among conversations about sports, food, and scouting activities.
But they pose a problem coming from a gay Scout. How should straight Scouts treat those comments from their gay friend? If they react to a gay friend’s crush just as they would to a straight friend’s love interest, they effectively normalize his sexual orientation. If they react with discomfort or distaste at the thought of their gay friend’s interest in another boy, they might hurt his feelings or be labeled as intolerant or bigoted. It’s impossible – and undesirable – for Scout leaders to impose a blanket ban on all such conversations, given that friendships inevitably involve sharing details of each other’s lives.
That’s just one set of potential problems, however.
The gay teen is also likely to behave in ways that set him apart from his heterosexual peers in the Scouting troop. He may, as some studies suggest, use pornography at “higher” rates than his straight peers, or be exposed – through gay pornography, conversations, or experience – to “specialized sexual behaviors” common only to the gay community (Warning: Not for the squeamish.)
He might show up at camp wearing a Human Rights Campaign t-shirt, emblazoned with the LGBT slogan, “All Love is Equal.” His Facebook page may sport the latest “marriage equality” meme or display his pictures from the gay pride parade he attended. And his profile picture might be a cute photo of him with his boyfriend.
Again, how should his peers and Scout leaders respond? It’s impossible to ignore – and beyond the authority of the Scout leaders to control. But it will have an impact.
The situations I’ve described are not far-fetched. They reflect the reality of living in a culture terribly confused about gender and sexuality – a culture that no longer knows why it matters whether sex occurs between a husband and wife or between two men, two women, or any consensual, pleasurable combination.
It will be tough, if not impossible, for the Church to include gay Scouts without confronting, head-on, the deep divide between Catholic sexual morality and the secular creed of sexual “tolerance.”
The Church’s approach to homosexual persons differs greatly from the cultural script. The teen who finds himself experiencing same-sex attraction is encouraged by the Church to see himself first and foremost as a person, called to live chastely and to strive for Christian perfection (a description that applies to all of us, regardless of sexual orientation).
But he also needs support in understanding that his sexual attraction towards other boys or men is a “disordered” inclination, because sexual intercourse is properly oriented towards “the conjugal love of man and woman.” As a result, he must understand that “under no circumstances” can same-sex sexual contact ever be “approved.” To bear that cross, he will need to cultivate the virtue of “self-mastery,” pursue “disinterested friendship,” and seek strength from “prayer and sacramental grace.” (See Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 2357-2359.)
The practical impact? The gay teen in a Catholic troop shouldn’t be sharing with his fellow Scouts his sexual attraction to other males. He can’t talk excitedly about bumping into his crush at the mall or hoping he’ll say yes to the prom. In fact, he can’t take a same-sex partner to a dance or on a date because he must strive to keep same-sex friendships non-romantic.
So what, then, does it really mean to say that an “openly gay” teen will be accepted in Scout troops? It won’t – can’t – possibly look the same in a Catholic troop as in the Unitarian troop down the street.
The only thing that’s clear right now is that the Boy Scouts’ decision has stoked, not quenched, the cultural fires over homosexuality.
Mary Rice Hasson is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.