Gender-Fluid Scouts of America

What is the common thread between objections to gay Boy Scouts and female Boy Scouts?

Children in scout uniforms hold hands around a bonfire
Cambodian boy and girl scouts join hands as they dance around a bonfire in 2008. (Heng Sinith / AP)

The flames in the campfire are leaping, and so are the figures around it, in flowing khaki robes emblazoned with various pronouns.

The scouts are celebrating completion of their collective merit badges: Forestry, Universal Healthcare, and Gloria Steinem.

Eventually the scoutmaster steps away from the harpsichord, and the figures settle in lotus position. One tells a scary story about the wage gap. A younger scout is so terrified he wets his vestment.

The scout is hoisted on high and roundly celebrated for his ability to be moved by injustice.

I could go on—and would love to—but the point is, as the meme goes: This is the future liberals want.

Is it? The intense criticism of last week’s announcement that Boy Scouts of America will expand to include some girls suggested a slippery slope to social control by a cabal of anti-gender liberal power brokers. As someone who earned the rank of Eagle Scout—an honor I included on college applications and probably benefitted from in various ways over the years—I wanted to understand the objections to opening the opportunity to everyone.

And why would some of the same people who objected to gay Boy Scouts also object to boys spending more time with girls?

The most common argument I came across involved citing the name of the organization. There was emphasis on the word boy. As in, for example, North Carolina resident Kevin Stewart told Fox 8, “It’s called Boy Scouts for a reason.” And Troy Meekhof, a film student, wrote on Twitter, “It’s called ‘Boy’ Scouts for a reason.”

The naming of the “Boy Scouts of America” came in 1910, when women could not vote, on the heels of Robert Baden-Powell’s 1908 book Scouting for Boys. Baden-Powell, a British army officer, sought to impart a lifestyle that would “combat brooding and selfishness.” Though in his text he also praised “women scouts of the nation” like Grace Darling and Florence Nightingale. And Baden-Powell is quoted by the Boy Scouts as having said, “It’s the spirit within, not the veneer without, that makes a man.”

The boys of 2017 will go on to relate to women in ways different from the boys of 1910—who would know women as wives and family, but had little expectation of working together as peers. Vice President Mike Pence opts against working lunches alone with women, but elsewhere expectations of professional relationships without regard to gender are common. And they have proven extremely difficult or impossible again and again and again for men raised in a previous era.

The essence of the debate was well captured by commentator Tomi Lahren, who noted: “All this BS about girls invited to join Boy Scouts. Ever heard of GIRL Scouts? It’s okay for girls to be girls and boys to be boys!!”

People have heard of Girl Scouts, in my experience. They sell cookies that are vastly better than Boy Scout popcorn. What’s interesting here is the language of acceptance: It’s okay to be a certain way, a phrase typically used to empower a marginalized group. Here it’s used to defend a rigid understanding of the way the world should be divided—one perceived to be under attack.

Others echoed this appeal to antiquity: This is the way things have been for more than 100 years, and so it is self-evident that they should not change. As commentator Liz Wheeler put it, “Only boys should be Boy Scouts. Only girls should be Girl Scouts. Because girls and boys are different. Why is that so hard for liberals?!”

Assuming that’s a genuine question, I may have an answer. A constant tension among human-rights advocacy is whether to focus on protection or freedom. Nowhere is the debate more heated than on questions of gender and sexuality. There are times when it is necessary to highlight differences among groups of people, and there are times when it’s beneficial to downplay differences. When calling out discrimination and injustice predicated on such a difference, it needs to be discussed frankly. When the difference is being named to excuse injustice, it’s better to emphasize what everyone has in common.

The separate-but-equal approach casts women as a group to be respected and protected but understood as deeply other. It also reinforces the idea of two monolithic genders that interact in a particular way.

This is the heart of the issue, and it was most clear to me in the objections invoking sex and rape. Some expressed concern that the boys will engage in violence against the girls. A columnist at TheBlaze wrote a very popular tweet: “Liberals: ‘Men are dangerous rapists.’ Also liberals: ‘Men should go in girl locker rooms and girls should go camping with Boy Scouts.’”

But these so-called liberal claims are not contradictory. The idea is that the solution to sexual violence is not to separate men and women, but for people not to commit sexual violence. That will involve cultural change that begins with small policies.

During past years’ debates over banning openly gay and trans Boy Scouts and leaders, detractors cited the potential for sexual activity among males in the woods. Some of the same detractors now expressed concern about boys being with girls. The fundamental element there is really not the preservation of heterosexuality, but the preservation of status. The objection is to anything that threatens the exclusive nature of what it means to be a man as it refers to a code of identity that commands power.

The darkest side of this code recurs in story after story after story. Earlier this month, producer Harvey Weinstein invoked it in his defense that he had come from “a different generation.” And it’s possible to acknowledge the relevance of that admission without absolving him of guilt. His alleged and admitted behavior suggests that he fundamentally did not see women as peers—or even as autonomous beings with the right not to be abused. At age 65, it’s unlikely that even the most intensive therapies would undo or reverse this way of seeing the world once it’s so deeply etched into a person’s consciousness.

The learning might have happened, though, through constant exposure to a world in which boys and girls, men and women, interact with each other in quotidian ways—ways not sexual or objective or predicated on differences. A world in which variously gendered people can operate in the same vicinity and there is no need for teaching anyone about other groups being “equal” at all.

This is far from what’s on the table at the moment with the Boy Scouts’ announcement. But it does seem to represent a step toward what is a very clear takeaway from last week—or maybe year, or ever—that boys need to learn how to interact with girls.