A sobering lesson from the ban on gay Boy Scouts

In his new book, “Morally Straight,” journalist and former scout Mike De Socio examines the scapegoating of LGBTQ+ people amid the organization’s controversies.

(Ted S. Warren | The Associated Press) This Wednesday, May 21, 2014 file photo shows merit badges and a rainbow-colored neckerchief slider on the Boy Scout uniform of Pascal Tessier, 17, a gay Eagle Scout from Kensington, Md., as he speaks in front of a group of scouts and scout leaders, outside the headquarters of Amazon in Seattle. The group delivered a petition to Amazon that was started as an online effort by Tessier, urging Amazon to stop donating money to the Boy Scouts due to the organization's policy of excluding openly gay adults from leadership positions, despite recently accepting gay youth as scouts.

At its peak in 1972, the Boy Scouts of America boasted 6.5 million members. As of 2021, that number hovered over just 1 million. The decades-long decline has been marked by the exclusion of queer youth, a sex abuse scandal, a bankruptcy filing and, most recently, an effort to rebrand.

In his new book, “Morally Straight: How the Fight for LGBTQ+ Inclusion Changed the Boy Scouts — and America,” journalist and former scout Mike De Socio links these controversies and failings, noting the ways that one led to the other.

Starting in 1978, the Boy Scouts adopted an official policy banning gay scout leaders and members. The policy pulled from the scout oath that boys would remain “morally straight,” which meant they agreed they would live with “honesty, to be clean in your speech and actions, and to be a person of strong character.”

The scouts interpreted that oath to literally mean straight. That policy had a devastating effect on the organization, De Socio argues. It not only ruined the scouting experience for queer youth, it prevented BSA from taking action on real harms facing its kids.

“Whether by design or effect, the battle over gay membership served as a forty-year distraction to solving the problem of child sex abuse in the organization,” De Socio writes.

De Socio contends that BSA knew it had a pedophile problem from its inception, and that rather than addressing it, the organization blamed its gay members.

He interviews John Halsey, a 60-year member of BSA. Halsey claims the scouts needed an easy scapegoat to cover its failures to protect children. “And they decided the way to create a scapegoat was to create division within membership by placing blame on the gay community, which has nothing to do with the problem at all,” Halsey told De Socio.

In pedaling the myth that gay men are pedophiles, the scouts shirked their duty to protect youth in their own ranks as reports of sexual abuse against its leaders piled up, De Socio writes.

The book centers on scouts like James Dale, who unsuccessfully battled the scouts in court in the 1990s for the right to continue with the organization despite being openly gay. As De Socio notes, Dale’s case, and the question of gay scouting, consumed the nation in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“What most people didn’t know was that in the very same years that the BSA was in court fighting to keep Dale out of the ranks, the Scouts were receiving more than 100 child sex abuse allegations annually,” De Socio writes.

In all, more than 80,000 men have filed complaints against the organization alleging sexual abuse.

The book also follows the story of Steven Cozza, a straight 12-year-old who devoted years of his life lobbying the scouts to change their anti-gay policies.

De Socio argues that scouting served as a safe haven for many LGBTQ+ youth, in part because boys could excel without having to fill rigid gender roles.

“It’s a place where different kinds of skills are valued, where you can be kind of nerdy and still succeed,” De Socio said in an interview with The 19th. “I think that just had overlap with queer kids. We also have to remember that a lot of kids don’t know their sexuality when they join scouting, especially as a 5- or 6-year-old.”

On May 7, BSA announced that it was changing its name to “Scouting America,” a rebranding that reflects its move in 2019 to allow girls and kids of all genders into its ranks. According to BSA, there are already 176,000 girls enrolled in scouting programs. The rebranding comes on the heels of a protracted bankruptcy saga that began in 2020 amid the tens of thousands of abuse allegations.

“The more cynical view is that they’re trying to wipe the slate clean after many years of turmoil and reputation damage,” De Socio said last week. “That’s probably true to an extent, but at the end of the day, the new name reflects the organization’s commitment to diversity in the ranks.”

De Socio feels that the Boy Scouts forfeited a critical opportunity to protect those very vulnerable kids starting in 1978 when they started to fixate on cracking down on gay leaders.

“I was lucky to have scoutmasters who are incredibly supportive and mentoring in my life,” he said. “I think that’s something huge that we lost by spending almost 40 years fighting this battle over queer kids in the organization.”

“Morally Straight” does not delve deeply into the history of sexual abuse in the scouts, noting that other books like “Scouts Honor: Sexual Abuse in American’s Most Trusted Institution” have already collected those testimonies. Rather it holds up both narratives side-by-side — the ban on queer scouts and the abuse allegations — on the same timeline for a reader to view them in parallel. De Socio wants the reader to draw their own conclusions.

“I think to be fair to the Boy Scouts, they never explicitly made that argument that gay people are pedophiles,” he said. “I think some of their actions may have implied that that’s what they thought.”

BSA did not respond to The 19th’s request to comment on De Socio’s claim that its fixation with gay scouts distracted from its duties to protect youth, and said that their staff had not reviewed De Socio’s book.

De Socio said he made multiple attempts to reach BSA leaders past and present during the course of his reporting the book. Most never replied, he said.

“The ones who did declined to go on the record,” he said. “In the final weeks before the book went to print, I made one last attempt at including the BSA’s official voice. I contacted the BSA’s public relations office, requesting an interview or comment. A month went by and, despite my follow-up, I never heard back.”

“Morally Straight” has a sobering lesson in a world where “groomer” rhetoric is taking hold of state legislatures on the brink of passing anti-LGBTQ+ bills.

“I think even if they never outright said it, the fact that they were so resistant to this idea of gay adults really did seed this idea that they’re dangerous, or at the very least that [they] can’t be trusted as role models. … I can’t help but think that informs some of what we’re seeing today,” De Socio said.

The Boy Scouts are inclusive of LGBTQ+ scouts today, and De Socio has attended events since the ban on queer scouts and leaders ended in 2013. He also says the organization has made important strides toward keeping young people safer from sexual abuse.

As states demonize transgender people and pass transgender sports bans, bathroom bills, and halt health care access, De Socio thinks back to the history of the scouts.

“It’s really kind of incredible in a way to see how this rhetoric just swings back around, like the groomer thing is like straight out of the ‘70s,” he said.

In that, he sees a lesson for activists fighting today and a warning for those pushing harmful narratives about LGBTQ+ people. He also sees hope.

“If there are people currently fighting these fights, they can read this book … and hopefully see that other people have been through this before,” he said. “I think that is an inspiring story.”

“Morally Straight” hits bookstores on June 4.

Originally published by The 19th.