In the least inspiring civil rights move ever, Boy Scouts of America President Robert Gates this week urged the group to stop banning gay Scout leaders not because he wanted to do the right thing, but merely out of self-interest. “We must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be,” Gates said. “Any other alternative will be the end of us.”
When Gates, former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense, considers the world as he wants it to be (he’s part of that “we,” after all), it seems to be one in which loving gay fathers could not lead their own sons’ Scout troops. Centuries more of teaching children that LGBT folks are lesser humans, unfit to teach children, unworthy, unsavory, stereotyped as child molesters: that’s his wished-for world?
The Boy Scouts of America has a long and ugly history of discrimination. Though scouting is co-ed throughout most of the world, girls are banned in U.S. trooops. Until 1942, African American kids could be and often were barred from local chapters. Gay kids were excluded until 2013. And in court cases, the Boy Scouts could always be counted upon to argue that they were a private organization without an anti-discrimination policy, and thus they should be free to exclude members on any grounds they chose. I litigated one of those cases in the 1990s.
The lesson in Gates’ petulant “I’m-doing-it-because-you’re-making-me-not-because-I-want-to” statement is the power of persistent activism. For decades, kids, parents and former Scouts have lobbied against homophobia in the organization. As the Boy Scouts stubbornly clung to its discriminatory policy over tolerance, activists started lobbying Boy Scouts supporters to cut off support.
Those efforts were hugely successful.
Disney World recently severed ties with the Scouts, as did Lockheed Martin, Merck and UPS. Singers Carly Rae Jepsen and Train refused to perform at the National Scout Jamboree in 2013. Religious groups like the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Union for Reform Judaism stopped hosting scout troops. Fifty United Way chapters stopped funding, as did Pew Charitable Trusts. Corporate donors Chase Manhattan Bank, Levi Strauss, Fleet Bank, CVS and Caterpillar all cut them off. Intel refused to fund any troop that would not sign a non-discrimination pledge. And on and on.
Eagle Scout Steven Spielberg resigned from the Boy Scouts Advisory Council in 2001, saying, “it has deeply saddened me to see the Boy Scouts of America actively and publicly participating in discrimination.” Microsoft founder and former Scout Bill Gates called on the Boy Scouts to lift the ban. Both major 2012 presidential candidates, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, both spoke out against the Boy Scouts’ policy.
The result? Activists may not have changed the heart and mind of Gates, but they’ve forced him to advocate changing the policy, which is more far-reaching. Perhaps in a few years, Boy Scouts leaders will come to see that life in the egalitarian 21st century is the world they should have wished for all along.