Exclusive Q&A: Can the Boy Scouts of America Face the New Normal?

Former Scoutmaster James Dale, whose lawsuit against BSA went to the Supreme Court, shares his thoughts on lifting the ban on gay members.

james dale and his parents at the supreme court

Former Eagle Scout James Dale, right, poses for a photograph with his parents outside the Supreme Court, April 26, 2000, in Washington, D.C. Dale was barred from the organization when it became known that he was gay. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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In 1990 James Dale was the assistant Scoutmaster of a New Jersey Boy Scout troop. He was expelled after BSA officials saw an interview he’d given in connection with his role as co-president of the Lesbian/Gay student alliance at Rutgers University. Dale filed suit against the BSA in New Jersey Superior Court and his case was eventually heard before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In its June 2000 ruling upholding the BSA’s right to expel Dale, the majority opinion said in part that, “public or judicial disapproval of a tenet of an organization’s expression does not justify the State’s effort to compel the organization to accept members where such acceptance would derogate from the organization’s expressive message.”

Wednesday, February 6, was the date the Boy Scouts of America’s (BSA) Executive Board has set to announce whether or not it will alter “the organization’s expressive message” by removing the controversial ban on gay members. Belying its motto to “Be Prepared,” the BSA used Wednesday’s media attention to announce that its decision will be postponed until May.

If eventually approved, the new policy will allow local councils to make their own decisions in admitting or not admitting gay scouts. This is a quick reversal from just last summer when the board publicly reaffirmed its anti-gay stance.

In the week leading up to the delayed decision, politicians of all stripes have weighed in on the topic. On Saturday, Texas Governor Rick Perry, who wrote the 2008 book On My Honor: Why the American Values of the Boy Scouts Are Worth Fighting For, made his opinion clear: “I think most people see absolutely no reason to change the position and neither do I.”

On Sunday, President Obama told Scott Pelley of CBS News, “My attitude is that gays and lesbians should have access and opportunity the same way everybody else does in every institution and walk of life.”

In truth, the public debate on whether or not to allow gay scouts has actually been going ever since the Supreme Court delivered its June 2000 decision on Scoutmaster James Dale.

How much has changed, or not changed in the past 13 years? TakePart caught up with James Dale to find out what he thought about the latest chapter in the BSA versus gay scouts saga.

TakePart: What did the Scouts mean to you? Do you feel like you still took away some positives from your time with them?

James Dale: I think that the program I was a part of wasn’t the same program that they ultimately have now. I think they essentially got taken over by conservative and right-wing groups. When I was a part of the organization, sexuality had nothing to do with it. It was only a policy that they sort of decided to use to exclude gay members. So I thought there were definitely a lot of positives.

“I found acceptance in scouting—maybe more so than I found in traditional youth activities. So I imagine once they stop discriminating, and teaching discrimination, that will return.”

Giving local organizations the decision on whether or not to allow gay scouts, rather than mandating nationally, kind of feels like the Boy Scout version of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Do you see a parallel type of thinking here?

In some ways you can compare it to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, more just from the perspective that it’s a failed policy. But it’s actually not like that. What they’re proposing is that individual scout troops can decide who is moral and who is clean. So what they’re doing is that they’re not leading—they are pushing the decision down. They’re delaying the inevitable by not addressing the issue and they’re forcing local troops to kind of battle out the issue themselves, which I think is a horribly destructive thing and will lead to more lawsuits. It’s not a compromise, it’s a copout.

People on both sides of the issue have said they think this policy will just lead to more acrimony and lawsuits.

Exactly, it’s just not a logical answer to where we are today. I think maybe 13 years ago, before the case was heard by the Supreme Court, that might have been a temporary solution they could have gotten through. I don’t think that’s an answer today.

Do you think that this new policy will push religion even more to the forefront in scouting since so many local sponsors are churches?

I don’t think that issue changes one way or the other. When I was in scouting, some of my troops met in churches and some of them met in public schools. So I don’t think that it’s any more or less than it once was. The reality is that groups who sponsor scouting need to hold to their guns and do what’s right, not what’s politically expedient.

Texas Governor Rick Perry was quoted over the weekend as saying that, “To have popular culture impact 100 years of their standards is inappropriate.” He seems to think that allowing gay scouts would automatically make sexuality a topic of conversation within a Scout troop.

I think the irony is that I’ve never gone before a group of Boy Scouts in the past 23 years and raised the issue. Rick Perry did that last Saturday where he politicized the scouting program with this issue. The truth is, and the facts are, there will be gay scouts and non-gay scouts, and they need to find a way to respect each other.

When I was expelled in 1990, it wasn’t because I was talking about sexuality in a scout troop. It was because I was leading my life and part of that was being open about being gay, and I was speaking to teachers about the needs of young gay people. So I think Rick Perry is irrelevant. Unfortunately, he is also not known for being particularly sensitive on issues—whether it’s racism, or others like homophobia. I don’t look to him as a leader. I’d just as soon look to the President of the United States who is the chief scout executive. He actually has a platform, and a reason, and a position to speak to this issue—not Rick Perry.

What do think the scouting experience might be like for gay kids if they were able to be scouts without hiding who they are?

I think that was probably the 1980s when I was in scouting. Essentially, the Boy Scouts are going to have to undo the damage they’ve been doing for the past 13 to 23 years. I think it will be great for some scouts. Some gay kids will find the Scouts and think, ‘Wow, this is great, and these are things I like to do.’ For me, as a gay kid growing up, who wasn’t maybe the best soccer player or the best football player, it was a place I could be valued and appreciated for the things that made me unique and made me who I am.

And I found acceptance in scouting—maybe more so than I found in traditional youth activities. So I imagine once they stop discriminating, and teaching discrimination, that will return. Some children will find a place of acceptance and other kids might think it’s just not their cup of tea or not what they’re interested in.

Do you agree or disagree with the direction of the BSA’s proposed policy change? Talk it through in COMMENTS.

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