This past January, the Boy Scouts of America amended their membership standards to allow transgender youth to join, reversing a century-old stance.
For Scouts for Equality — an organization committed to ensuring that the BSA continues to be an organization that contributes positively to the lives of America’s young people — the decision was a momentous one. And compared to the decades of work, lawsuits, and millions of Change.org petition signatures that led to the inclusion of lesbian, gay, and bisexual members, it was a fast response to the now overturned dismissal of Joe Maldonado, a transgender boy in New Jersey.
With the media reporting that the Trump administration may soon issue new guidance that outlines which restrooms transgender students can use, Change’s A.J. Walton recently chatted with Scouts for Equality’s executive director, Justin Wilson, where they talk BSA, the current political climate, and the hard work of creating change.
Q: Scouts for Equality has played an important role in moving the Boy Scouts of America to be more inclusive of the LGBTQ community. Why do you all feel it’s important for an institution like the Scouts to be equitable?
The mission of the Boy Scouts of America is to prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Law. If the organization hopes to teach its young people this, it needs to live by those values as well. In Scouts, we talk a lot about helping other people and being “a friend to all.” It’s impossible to be a friend to all while simultaneously telling a family they aren’t good enough to be a part of Scouting. Furthermore, the BSA prides itself on developing the youth of today into the leaders of tomorrow. It’s incredibly important for our society to have leaders who will be unbiased, unprejudiced, and unafraid of standing up for minorities. If we hope to achieve this, we need to instill those values at a young age.
Q: In the past, why have some individuals been denied the opportunity to be a part of the community — or at least couldn’t be open about who they were?
I suspect that fear drove a lot of the policies. People didn’t understand what it meant to be gay, and may still not understand what it means to be transgender. It’s not difficult to see how this fear could have turned into discriminatory policies. Once those policies were in place, many people naturally self-selected into and out of the Boy Scouts because of these policies, which only reinforced them and made them more resistant to change. Fortunately, eventually the Boy Scouts returned to its roots and started focusing on how it can best serve all boys in America.
Q: In our society, there’s a certain machismo sense of what it means to be a boy or a man? How does Scouts for Equality’s work and purpose disrupt those widely held assumptions, and what are the ways it intersects with other movements of inclusivity?
We encourage people to live their lives openly and honestly, and to be proud of who they are. This is a natural starting point for disrupting stereotypes. We can really begin to dismantle that machismo sense of what it means to be a man when we start introducing more and more diversity into the Boy Scouts. I’m not talking only about diversity in terms of LGBT inclusion, either. As an organization, the BSA should be thinking about how it can increase its diversity across all facets — ethnicity, race, national origin, family structure, different abilities, and so on. Once we find ways to include more people with diverse backgrounds, we realize that there is more than one definition of what it means to be a boy or a man. This knowledge opens the doors to new possibilities, and allows people to be more comfortable defining their ideal existence.
Q: A recent piece in The Advocate said that “the way forward for LGBT policy under the Trump administration, a GOP Congress, and a conservative Supreme Court seems bleak at best.” Do you share that sentiment, and how do you see your work going forward in an administration that — as a whole — seems to stand in contrast to Obama’s.
The general public is strongly in favor of LGBT-inclusive policies, even if our current administration doesn’t support it. This change has come about so rapidly that some people take forward progress for granted. But the reality is that there are always going to be setbacks. We can’t expect to have uninterrupted progress for all of eternity. Just look at how far we still have to go with racial equality in America, decades after the beginning of the civil rights movement. That all speaks to the importance of remaining vigilant and collaborating with other movements in support of diversity and inclusion for all. We can’t let our guard down, and we must remain steadfast in our devotion to equality. If we can push forward with that mindset, we will find a way to weather any challenges that come our way.
Q: Throughout Barack Obama’s presidency, he and others in his administration often talked about how hard change is and how painful changing the status quo can be. What have been and what continues to be your biggest hurdles in your work? And have there been moments or through people when you’ve been pleasantly surprised?
People often have a difficult time understanding why discriminatory national policies are problematic if they aren’t causing problems at the local level. In the beginning, there were many people who told us that they supported the idea of what we were doing but wouldn’t get involved or speak out because their troop was already “quietly inclusive.” They felt that since they allowed LGBT people in their group, there was no need to do anything more. The status quo worked for them, so why expend the energy trying to change it?
In order to make progress, we need people to be able to see the bigger picture. As Dr. King famously said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” You may not be the one experiencing the injustice at the moment, but how would you feel if the tables were turned? If you were asking for help and nobody would answer your call because it didn’t directly impact them?
However, there have been times where I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the willingness of people to accept change. When working towards LGBT inclusion in the Boy Scouts, it’s easy to allow yourself to begin developing your own sets of stereotypes, especially about older people who are involved in Scouting. I needed to constantly remind myself that, just as I wouldn’t want someone to judge a youth based on their appearance, I couldn’t judge an adult based on theirs either. There were many times when I fearfully brought up this topic around veteran Scout leaders only to be pleasantly surprised by their level of support.
Q: What are things we can learn from youth in the present that might help the wider public be open to new ways going forward, specifically as it relates to the LGBTQ community?
People often make the mistake of assuming that a child’s or adolescent’s point of view is somehow less valuable than an adult’s. The truth is, many adults will spend their time telling you why something can’t be done, while a youth will spend their time dreaming up possibilities. The only obstacle to progress is our own reluctance to allow it to happen. In my Scout troop, I am confident that I learn just as much from my Scouts as they do from me. We have to keep our minds open and have the humility to be willing to learn.
In relation to LGBTQ topics specifically, I think we’re going to see less and less focus on labels as time goes on. Based on my observations, it seems to me that younger generations are becoming increasingly willing to blur the lines of discrete sexual orientations and gender identities. We have to be able to be flexible in our understanding of the world, and ensure we never become people who hypocritically advocate for change but then become unwilling to accept change when its coming from a younger generation.
Q: Organizing is hard work, be it face-to-face or online. What are some guiding organizing principles that you all have found fruitful and advantageous? How can others help you work going ahead?
I always find success when I lead by example. If you truly believe in something, get out there and advocate for it — even if you’re the only one doing so. If you truly care about it, and show a deep passion for it, that attitude will be contagious. You’ll find people who are energized by your positivity and resilience, and sooner or later others will join in. This can take time, but the best volunteers are the ones who come to you — not the ones you have to go out and recruit. Also, you can only do so much from behind a computer screen. Spending endless hours in the echo chamber of social media is not going to change the world. Get out there and talk to people in your community. That’s how change happens.
A.J. Walton is a Sr. Communications Manager at Change.org.