Sexual 'dis'-orientation and the Boy Scouts

Peter Sprigg is Senior Fellow for Policy Studies at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Tampa Tribune on May 22, 2013.

National leaders of the Boy Scouts of America, headquartered in Irving, Texas, have proposed a new resolution on membership standards regarding homosexuality. It will be voted on by delegates to their national convention on Thursday at the Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center in Grapevine.

The resolution sounds like a ringing endorsement of the Scouts' moral values -- until its last sentence. It reads: "No youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone."

"Sexual orientation" is not a unitary characteristic, but rather an umbrella term for three quite different phenomena -- a person's sexual attractions, sexual behavior and sexual self-identification.

People tend to assume that these three aspects of "sexual orientation" will always be consistent with each other in the same person and over time -- that is, that a person who is "homosexual" will experience only same-sex attractions, have sex only with same-sex partners, and always self-identify as "gay."

Research into human sexuality, however, has shown that this is not the case. Some people experience same-sex attractions, but do not engage in homosexual conduct (or even engage in heterosexual conduct) and do not self-identify as "gay." Some people have same-sex attractions and same-sex sexual conduct, but still decline to identify as "gay." Some may have same-sex attractions and self-identify as "gay," but abstain from sexual activity.

Thus, the question which journalists love to use as a challenge -- "Do you believe that people are born gay, or do they choose to be gay? -- is impossible to answer unless you define more clearly what it means to be "gay." For the most part, people do not "choose" to experience same-sex attractions. However, they clearly do choose whether to engage in homosexual sex or to self-identify as "gay." And even if same-sex attractions are not chosen, that does not mean they are inborn. Evidence suggests that they may result from developmental forces and experiences in childhood and early adolescence -- that is, from nurture rather than nature.

The proposed resolution would maintain the BSA's current policy with respect to adult leaders and volunteers. It bars "individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA." The proposal also declares that "any sexual conduct, whether homosexual or heterosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting."

Thus, when the proposed policy states, "No youth may be denied membership in the Boys Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone," it appears to be using a narrow definition of "sexual orientation" -- one that explicitly excludes one of its three fundamental aspects (sexual conduct), and is perhaps intended to refer only to sexual attractions.

Because sexual attractions are largely not a choice, those who seek compromise in debates over homosexuality are sometimes tempted to agree to "non-discrimination" provisions based on "sexual orientation," thinking this refers narrowly to such involuntary attractions. Homosexual activists, however -- those seeking the full acceptance of homosexuality as equal in every way to heterosexuality -- will always demand a broad reading of the word "sexual orientation" to include conduct and self-identification as well.

Ironically, those in Scout leadership who want to welcome all boys into the program, even if they experience same-sex attractions, seem blind to the fact that this is precisely what their current policy provides. While excluding "open and avowed homosexuals" (a clear reference to self-identification and implicit reference to conduct), the BSA also currently "does not proactively inquire about sexual orientation of employees, volunteers, or members." Therefore, "discrimination" on the basis of sexual attractions alone is impossible -- because the Boy Scouts have no way of knowing whether a Scout (or leader) experiences same-sex attractions, unless that individual chooses to act upon those attractions or publicly proclaim them.

However, if a Scout does make publicly known that he experiences same-sex attractions, that alone introduces into Scouting a topic best left to parents to discuss. And if a boy publicly self-identifies as "gay," it is an implicit declaration that homosexual relationships are acceptable and desirable, even if he plans to wait until adulthood to begin them. For example, will the Scouts tolerate a dating relationship between two Boy Scouts -- as long as they are not sexually active?

The national leadership of the BSA seems to be going to great lengths in an effort to appease those with diametrically opposed views on whether homosexuality can ever be consistent with the oath to be "morally straight." It cannot be done.