Bias in the Brotherhood: Two Corps’ Common Enemy

The Madison Scouts Drum & Bugle Corps, an all-male youth performance organization founded in 1938, competes each summer with other youth performance groups in the Drum Corps International circuit. The organization recently concluded its 2017 tour, appearing in over 30 performances throughout North America and at the DCI World Championships in Indianapolis, IN.

The Madison Scouts during their 2017 production “The Last Man Standing.” Source: MadisonScouts.org.

The United States Marine Corps, an organization founded in 1775, defends the country from nefarious state actors and militant groups that threaten the very fabric of liberty. Many in the Marine Corps and other branches of the United States military are not close to concluding their tours, and continue to fight around the world for the perseverance of freedom.

These two Corps share one sobering similarity: Both have banned the same transgender student from joining their ranks.

The transgender student turned away from the Madison Scouts

The transgender student turned away from participating in the 2016 Madison Scouts audition process — Payton McGarry — is a veteran of the Drum Corps International community, and previously performed as a trumpet player with the Boston Crusaders in 2015. The two years prior, Mr. McGarry marched with the Carolina Gold Drum Corps, a performance organization within the all-age Drum Corps Associates circuit.

Payton McGarry. Source: Facebook

According to a recent essay authored by Payton McGarry and published by the pro-LGBT legal advocacy group Lambda Legal, Mr. McGarry has held a life-long dream of joining the military:

“Like a lot of kids who grow up dreaming of entering the armed forces, I come from a military family. In high school, I joined the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC), and ended up being a unit commander for two years, which is pretty rare.

Over the past few years, Mr. McGarry has led a life off the field that aims to bring awareness to civil rights issues affecting transgender persons. He rose to national recognition in 2016 as a plaintiff in the ACLU’s federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of North Carolina’s House Bill 2 (the “bathroom bill”).

In an interview with Democracy Now! — a daily independent news hour anchored by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez — Mr. McGarry began by recalling his backstory of transitioning to a transgender male:

“I grew up in a small town in North Carolina. At about the age of 15 or 16, I started feeling different. You know, something just felt a little bit off. I started coming out to my family, my friends, and seeing a therapist based on [gender] at 17 years old, and started hormone replacement therapy [at 18 years old].”

Mr. McGarry spoke about the realities of facing discrimination in many forms — including physical violence — as a result of North Carolina’s House Bill 2.

“[North Carolina’s House Bill 2 is] requiring me to use the female restroom [where single occupancy bathrooms are not available] and this is distressing because I used the female restroom until it was not feasible for me to, until I was getting pushed, shoved, slapped, screamed at every time I went into a female bathroom.”

Mr. McGarry discusses his recurring challenges of being perceived as a burden to society.

I saw people spout wildly inaccurate stats about the cost of health care for transgender people, when even most major publications are reporting that the cost of health care for trans service members is minuscule compared to the rest of the military’s budget.

Payton describes his outlook as a trans male living in a world where transgender rights are in the minority:

“Seeing all the misinformation and lack of education is hard, but feeling that hatred is almost unbearable.”

The revelation of the transgender student admissions ban

When Payton McGarry, a female-to-male (FTM) transgender student, contacted the Madison Scouts requesting audition information for the 2016 season, he received unwelcoming news from the administration concerning his eligibility before he even had a chance to play a single note.

In the message, Dann Petersen, Corps Director of the Madison Scouts, replied to the transgender student’s inquiry by describing the admissions policy as follows (with emphasis added):

“For us, we use sexual assignment [sic] as listed on your birth certificate to determine eligibility. As you know, drum corps do not have the ability to modify the accommodations in which we are guests throughout the summer. In most cases, members have access to one set of bathrooms and locker rooms. Having members of one sex means they can use both locker rooms interchangeably provided we are not sharing space with other activities.

The Madison Scouts official claimed there existed an eligibility standard of using the “sexual assignment” — an apparent reference to sex assignment — as listed on the birth certificate. However, the Corps has not published any guidance anywhere on its website — including within its own official bylaws — that would discourage transgender males or female performers from auditioning for the organization.

When faced with ambiguity and uncertainty, the Madison Scouts administration — much like the United States presidential administration — caved to the situational pressures and opted to impose a ban on Payton as well as an entire class of recruits.

The unwritten all-male tradition

The Madison Scouts Drum & Bugle Corps was established in 1938 as an all-male Boy Scouts Explorer Post, but the Corps leadership has since chosen to let the official charter lapse. Accordingly, the Boy Scouts of America’s recent decision to begin accepting girls into more scouting programs in 2018 has no operational effect on the Madison Scouts.

The Madison Scouts administration declined a September 2 request to provide an official written confirmation if a FTM transgender student would be eligible to audition for the 2018 season. The Madison Scouts administration similarly declined to dispute or provide a written comment about the Payton McGarry incident.

On September 7, Gregg Auby, Chairman of the Board of Directors, made an official announcement reaffirming the organization’s commitment to serving an all-male membership in the best way possible.

Multiple officials serving in the Madison Scouts leadership declined to discuss this matter on the record but nonetheless acknowledged that the Corps policy has traditionally barred admission of FTM transgender students.

Shortcomings of using “sex assignment” as an eligibility reference point

The sex assignment as listed on the birth certificate is not generally interpreted as a reliable indicator of one’s perceived gender, as it is a legally amendable determination in nearly every state. The process to update an individual’s birth certificate differs across each jurisdiction, and in some cases involves first having to comply with burdensome surgical requirements.

Original Map Source: Wikipedia

It’s unrealistic to expect that all transgender students can seamlessly navigate our complex legal system, much less have the funds or support necessary to undergo sex reassignment surgery prior to auditioning for the Madison Scouts.

Recognizing deficiencies in this standard, the Boy Scouts of America in January 2017 announced that “referring to birth certificates as the reference point is no longer sufficient,” and immediately began accepting FTM transgender students by using the gender identity as listed on the individual’s application.


The Corps Director suggested that the organization would face logistical challenges in accommodating transgender students with respect to bathrooms and locker rooms. But that assertion appears to ignore the successful approach and efforts taken by other drum corps toward accommodation.

The Blue Stars Drum & Bugle Corps leads by example

A transgender student performed with the Midwestern-based Blue Stars Drum & Bugle Corps during two recent seasons (2014 and 2015), and that organization apparently had no issues complying with federal, state, and local laws in any DCI-provided accommodation. That assurance was provided directly by Russ Gavin, the Corps Director of the Blue Stars Drum and Bugle Corps.

Members of the Blue Stars Drum & Bugle Corps during their 2017 season performing their show “Star Crossed.”

In a remarkable on-the-record interview, the Blue Stars Corps Director revealed how he exercised robust leadership by coordinating with the various arms of his organization in a relentless effort to foster an inclusive, welcoming environment for transgender students.

Dr. Russ Gavin in an undated photo (Image credit: Russell Gavin)
“It was around this time of year — October — and we were heading into camp, and [the FTM transgender student] said ‘Hi, I am a transgender male, and I would love to be part of your organization.
I was immediately like ‘alright, we have an opportunity here to be the people who do this the right way.’”

With his uniquely southern accent reminiscent of his Alabama roots — and in a friendly, sociable style resembling that of the famed Charles W. Chuck Bryant — Dr. Gavin recalls the contentious national mood and conversation at the time:

“This was right as ‘the bathroom wars’ began across our country with all the politicizing of [the transgender bathroom rights] issue, so I was like ‘we’re not only going to be on the right side of history, we’re going to teach people how to do this.’”

The first steps of inclusion were conservative, but nonetheless the Blue Stars administration attempted to empower the transgender student at every avenue.

“To walk through it kind of chronologically: at the first camps, […] there are men’s showers, women’s showers, and then several standalone showers. So I asked [the transgender student]: ‘What would you like to do? This is your choice, you are empowered, the ball is in your court.’ And he said ‘I’m just going to use the private one for now, and, you know, we’ll see.’ So that’s what happened through spring training.”

Dr. Gavin talked about how the news spread when a transgender student marcher — the first openly transgender student in the organization’s then-50-year history — revealed to other members that he would perform among them that season:

“[The transgender student] went on to his section’s Facebook page, and he said to his section ‘hello everyone, I have met many of you, [and] it is important to let you know that I am a transgender male. I am post-op, and have had breast removal surgery. Here are the questions I would invite you to ask a transgender person, and here are questions you should not ask a transgender person:
‘Do NOT ask me what my old name was. Do NOT ask me about my genitalia.’ Those were the two really big ones. ‘DO ask me what it is like to be me. DO talk to me about what I like and don’t like. DO treat me like I’m a regular person.’ It was so cool, because in that moment there was no whispering, there was no wondering. “Hey, head’s up, and we have a member here. This is their biography, everybody’s got their own too.’”

As the Blue Stars tour commenced, the experience became more of a natural routine that most performers in the DCI activity are readily familiar with:

“Once we got to tour, [where the law permitted, the FTM transgender student] was using the male shower with a bathing suit on. And then he kinda got tired of that, and was just using the male shower [without a bathing suit]. And again, the whole season, there was just a dude […] taking a shower, and we had to go to a show, so could we please get our hair washed and get our uniforms on?”

The legal uncertainty amongst the various housing sites was of a slight, but manageable, concern. As Dr. Gavin explains:

“In some ways, we had to […] realize that we were in a period of fluctuating legislation nationally on this conversation, and know that when we hit certain states, in a way we might risk violating laws that hadn’t been written yet, in most cases. At that time, a lot of these things had not even been passed, and we were like “ok, this is going to be interesting, but we need to do the right thing here.”

Dr. Gavin describes the generally positive reception of the Blue Stars’ members, alumni, and parents by saying:

“I’m sure within our membership there were members who these things challenged their view of the world, […] but never to the point that it was brought up in any way to anyone. And I would hope that the people that [felt] forced into those positions who thought their views of things was challenged, realized ‘oh wait a minute, it’s just a dude playing a horn.’
It was a very easy experience in that way — way easier than all of my pragmatic friends thought. And honestly, I thought at some point I would have to tend to the [decision] more than I ended up having to, but I didn’t. It just took care of itself, as a drum corps… and nothing we do [in the drum corps activity] is logical.”

Of course, the Blue Stars had planned to address a whole host of “what if” situations, including the (ultimately nonexistent) resistance from other students or their parents to the idea of transgender student inclusion:

“What if our students are uncomfortable about this, and we get a call from a parent. And my answer to that was ‘if a parent does not want their child to march in our drum corps because we have a transgender member, then they should not march in our drum corps.’”

The Blue Stars Drum & Bugle Corps has since acted as a comprehensive resource for other DCI organizations seeking information and assistance in working through the legal and cultural issues surrounding transgender students, and Dr. Gavin named to me four separate drum corps with which he has recently shared his treasure trove of experience.

Dr. Gavin reiterated to me more than once in our interview that he hopes the Madison Scouts is the next group that gives him a call for advice:

Brad Furlano, who is the [Executive Director of the Blue Stars], puts it out there — hey, we have done this, call Russ if you need to talk about it. We want to be that resource, we want to be that leader.”

After learning that the Madison Scouts had recently turned away an FTM transgender student, Dr. Gavin choked up for a moment in a sense of shock and bewilderment as he struggled to find words to describe his noticeable feelings of confusion and sadness.

But after a brief pause to collect his thoughts, Dr. Gavin nonetheless affirmed the right of the Madison Scouts — and inherently his own drum corps — to choose an appropriate admissions policy for the organization:

“If the Scouts are going to be all male, and they make the choice to label the transgender male as not fitting into that, I guess that is their right… but I would — in an organization that has been such a friend to the LGBT community historically — I would say you are at risk of being on the wrong side of history.”

When asked what he would recommend the Madison Scouts organization do if the corps were to maintain a strictly all-male admissions policy and turn away another FTM transgender student, Dr. Gavin swiftly replied:

Send all of them to us.”

Overwhelming youth support for going co-ed and ending the ban on FTM transgender performers

Alumni members recently surveyed the entire 2016 Madison Scouts corps on their support for allowing females and transgender males into the Corps. The final poll results reflected the spirit of inclusivity that the alumni as a society has historically demonstrated, especially toward the LGBT community.

On the topic of “going co-ed,” 61% of the youth members polled expressed unconditional support—perhaps an achievement in its own right for those who value the sense of equality a co-ed experience fosters. In a similar vein, youth member support increased to 86% for ending the Corps’ ban on female-to-male (FTM) transgender students.

Upcoming public hearing to revise the Madison Scouts admissions policy

On November 3, 2017 at 6:00 p.m. Central Time, the Madison Scouts Board of Directors will hold its first public annual meeting since the post-season gender debate began brewing earlier this fall.

At this meeting, voting members are expected to engage in an open debate to formally revise the existing Corps admissions policy, in a move that some may cast as either a step toward equality, or rather the Madison Scouts’ first step in its predictable acquiescence to political correctness.

The End… (for now)

“A delay is not the end […] but again, this month and this week, I’ve seen my whole plan for my future fall down around me, just as it had when I wanted to join the Marine Corps in high school.” — Payton McGarry

A delay on admitting new transgender recruits by the Trump administration is perhaps not the end for Mr. McGarry in pursuing his dream of joining the military. But now that he has “aged out,” if the Madison Scouts formally ends its transgender student ban, it would be too late for him to participate.

Mr. McGarry has however already contemplated a plan for what he would do if any branch of the military ever affords him the opportunity to serve our country:

I am a transgender man. And if I ever do someday make it into the military, I will be there for my siblings on the battlefield just as they would be for me. […]
I will be there for them because it will be my solemn obligation to myself, my colleagues and my country. I will be there because I recognize everyone’s right not just to survive, but to do what we love. To thrive.

[UPDATE 11/02 at 1:30 p.m. Central Time] Chris Komnick, Executive Director of the Madison Scouts Drum & Bugle Corps, issued a private statement on October 26 discussing the corps’ eligibility policy. One week following the statement to the alumni, however, the Corps has not made any public announcement on its website regarding formal changes to its admissions policy.

The path toward revising the corps’ admissions policy follows a lengthy inquiry into the actions of the Madison Scouts leadership after reports emerged in early September that the Corps Director denied a transgender student the ability to audition for the 2016 Madison Scouts season.

Some have argued that the refusal to accommodate a transgender student may have constituted unlawful sex discrimination under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (20 U.S.C. §1681 et seq.), as United States Department of Education guidelines in effect at the time asserted transgender students were protected under such Federal law.

Citing recent internal discussions with Madison Scouts leadership, multiple sources indicated that the organization intends to follow the two-step revision approach taken by the Boy Scouts of America — first allow FTM transgender students, and then ultimately remove all gender barriers to entry.

It’s unclear whether any decision to formally revise the corps’ admissions policy will require subsequent approval from the board or voting members before it will take effect.

An earlier version of this article included direct quotes from Madison Scouts officials made on a semi-private Facebook forum. Links to such posts are now provided in lieu of direct quote. Additional technical revisions are reflected in the above article.

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