The Boy Scouts of America said Monday it will allow transgender children who identify as boys to enroll in its scouting program, reversing a century-old practice of determining a child’s eligibility through the gender written on their birth certificate.
But the announcement comes with a caveat.
Churches and other faith-based sponsors of local Cub and Boy Scout programs “will have the right to make decisions [about transgender boys] based on religious beliefs,” a spokeswoman for the Boy Scouts confirmed for The Christian Science Monitor on Tuesday.
“Additionally, we will work with families to find local scouting units that are the best fit for their children,” the spokeswoman wrote in an email.
The new practice marks a shift in how quickly an organization that has long personified traditional American ideas of boyhood and masculinity adjusts to a country changing right in front of its eyes. When the scouting movement was founded a century ago in Britain by Robert Baden Powell, an English veteran of the Boer War, he wrote in the Scout’s 1908 manual that each boy should be like “one brick among many others in the wall” holding up a house, an ode to uniformity and soldier-like readiness.
When it was confronted with cultural conflicts involving race and, later, sexual identity, Boy Scouts of America (BSA) was slow to respond to change. During the Civil Rights era, some local groups' refusal to admit African-American Scouts led to complaints of segregation. And only after three decades of criticsm and legal battles did the organization lift its ban on gay Scouts, in 2013, and on gay Scout leaders, in 2015.
But the recent decision to become inclusive of transgender boys came after weeks of conversation, not years, the organization said in a written and video statement.
“I think it sends a clear message – the Boy Scouts have turned a corner in how they’re approaching these kinds of issues,” says Zach Wahls, co-founder of Scouts for Equality, a nonprofit that advocates for stronger protections in the organization for gays and transgender people.
“Boy Scouts of America is one of our country’s preeminent civic organizations. Them choosing to acknowledge gender identity is a really big step forward,” continues the Eagle Scout, mentioning BSA's millions of members and iconic status. “The fact they were able to do this without a protracted public campaign is pretty remarkable.”
But the fine point of this policy, to allow local exceptions because of religious beliefs, also shows the organization’s continued attempts to maintain the support of the faith-based groups that sponsor about 70 percent of its troops, while still keeping pace with societal changes. Even so, Monday's diplomatic approach was met with criticism.
“The Boy Scouts of America sacrificed its last vestige of integrity on the altar of political correctness,” wrote Todd Starnes, a Fox News columnist and commentator, in an article titled “It’s time for churches to sever ties with Boy Scouts.”
"It's very sad news," adds Mark Hancock, chief executive officer of Trail Life USA, a Christian-based scouting organization founded in response to BSA lifting its ban on gay Scouts.
"We don’t want to see boys psychologically or spiritually scarred by the confusing message that it gives them," he says about transgender children. "It's about protecting kids and giving them a good, healthy experience. I can't imagine how I would be able to structure any policies to prevent them from being harmed in that kind of environment."
The policy that BSA implemented with its announcement on Monday allows transgender children who identify as boys to enroll in its boys-only programs. The organization previously relied only on the gender written on a child’s birth certificate. Now, eligibility will be determined by the gender a parent or child lists on the application to become a Scout.
The organization said the change came in response to the national debate about gender identity and transgender rights, with cities and states wrestling with whether and how they should regulate gender identity in public restrooms and at schools.
“For more than 100 years, the Boy Scouts of America, along with schools, youth sports and other youth organizations, have ultimately deferred to the information on an individual’s birth certificate to determine eligibility for our single-gender programs,” the organization said in a written statement as well as a video statement from Chief Scout Executive Michael Surbaugh. “However, that approach is no longer sufficient as communities and state laws are interpreting gender identity differently, and these laws vary widely from state to state.”
But public image may also play a role: The Girl Scouts have already allowed transgender girls into its groups, and BSA faced negative publicity and the legal threat of a civil rights complaint for an 8-year-old transgender boy who was removed from a Cub Scout in northern New Jersey after a month. Joe Maldonado was forced out of his Cub Scout unit in December after some parents complained about the fact that he had been born a girl.
Joe’s mother, Kristie Maldonado, told The Record newspaper that she filed the complaint with state officials last week, charging the Northern New Jersey Council of the Boy Scouts with discrimination. She said she was considering moving forward with the complaint, but received a call from the Boy Scouts on Monday night informing her Joe would be welcomed back.
However, the new policy also allows units sponsored by faith-based groups to opt out because of their religious beliefs. About 70 percent of local Cub and Boy Scout units are sponsored by faith-based groups, of which the Mormon church is far and away the largest: in 2015, about 430,000 of the country's 2.6 million Scouts belong to BSA units sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Utah.
In a Tuesday press release, church leadership announced that it is studying the BSA's announcement. In 2015, the Mormon church took a deliberate, month-long pause to reexamine its affiliation with the Scouting programs when Boy Scouts of America chose to end its ban on gay adult leaders. However, it has continued to support Scouting units, after BSA assured the church and other religious sponsors that local groups would be able to appoint Scout leaders based on their values.
In July of that year, the Boy Scouts ended its blanket ban on gay Scout Leaders, after years of resistance starting in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2000, the Boy Scouts won a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling that upheld the ban, after the defense argued that the Scout oath to be “morally straight” implied an opposition to homosexuality and was part of the Scouts’ core message. But in the next decade, the Boy Scouts faced a petition with more than 2.2 million signatures in favor of admitting gay Scouts, and an investigation by the New York Attorney General’s Office to determine whether the organization had discriminatory employment practices.
In light of that history, the new policy sends a strong message, despite its limits, say gay and transgender rights advocates.
“The fact the boy scouts are taking such a clear and positive step and making it explicit really is a signifier of the growing American understanding of transgender people and the need to end discrimination,” says Evan Wolfson, a gay rights advocate and the lawyer who argued in front of the Supreme Court in the 2000 case, Boy Scouts of America v. Dale. “The fact they’re taking this step when there is so much bitterness and hostility to transgender and gay people still among the shrinking base of the right wing is a very welcome and encouraging sign to the country.”
But, he adds, Boy Scouts shouldn’t “franchise discrimination” by allowing religious-sponsored units to exclude gay Scout Leaders or transgender boys.
Jen Manion, a history professor at Amherst College, says the practice also speaks to the role of children in the debate about gender identity and acceptance in the United States. Apart from Joe, a transgender teenager on a Los Angeles-area baseball team has drawn attention in the sports world, and individual students have become the face of legal debate over school restrooms and changing facilities.
“I think with young people you have these tremendously courageous kids, some of them with supportive parents and supportive communities,” she says. “They are really putting themselves out there – educating, educating, educating. I like to think that it’s part of a bigger movement.”