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The Scouts Take Their Stereotypes to Court

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  • tcjackson
    Washington Post, April 27, 2000 1150 15th Street NW, Washington, DC, 20071 ( Online Mailer: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/edit/letters/letterform.htm )
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 27, 2000
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      Washington Post, April 27, 2000
      1150 15th Street NW, Washington, DC, 20071
      ( Online Mailer:
      http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/edit/letters/letterform.htm )
      The Scouts Take Their Stereotypes to Court
      By John Shelby Spong
      The U.S. Supreme Court is the latest battleground on which the historic
      prejudice against gay people is being engaged. The contenders are the Boy
      Scouts of America and James Dale, an ousted Eagle Scout. As happens with
      dying prejudices, a smoke screen of rhetoric is being used to cover the
      issues in this debate. The basic question is whether a citizen of this
      country can be penalized for what a person "is," when everything he or she
      has ever "done" has been proper and even laudatory.
      Prejudice has a long shelf life and an incredibly powerful effect on
      social mores. Stereotypes, even false ones, die slowly. And strangely,
      prejudice seems to die most slowly when it is found in religious and
      patriotic settings. In this case, the Boy Scouts of America uses its
      affiliation with religious and law-and-order organizations as sustenance for
      its anti-gay policies. So it is disappointing but not surprising that the
      issue of justice for gay people is being fought out in this deeply
      traditional, overtly patriotic, and religiously affiliated organization.
      Behind the conflict are two mutually incompatible definitions about what
      it means if someone is gay. One is old and traditional. It has shaped our
      consciousness for thousands of years. The other is relatively new, arising
      in recent centuries. The new definition challenges the old one at its very
      The old definition stubbornly holds that homosexuality is a sickness or
      character flaw, a distortion of God's plan. This definition allows other
      humans to see homosexuals as "other" - as unnatural, perverted or "queer" -
      and, as such, to be dangerous to social order, untrustworthy or threatening
      in some way. Based on this view, many religious bodies righteously proclaim
      that God shares in their condemnation of homosexual people, quoting biblical
      texts such as those found in Leviticus 18 and 20 and in Paul's Epistle to
      Some religious organizations holding these views - as well as many that
      do not - are involved in scouting. The Boy Scouts argue that they
      embrace this same definition - or accommodate those who do - and dismiss
      outstanding Scout leaders, not because of anything they have done but
      they are known to be or have acknowledged being gay. Boy Scouts of America
      does so without laying claim to an anti-gay agenda or to whatever
      constitutional protection may grudgingly exist for those who organize to
      propagate bigotry.
      A new and radically contrary understanding of homosexuality has arisen
      slowly but steadily over the past 100 years or so, primarily because of work
      done in medical and scientific circles, amplified by sociological and
      anthropological studies. This definition suggests that homosexuality is a
      normal aspect of the human experience; that it is a "given" in life, not a
      "chosen"; and that it is more like left handedness, something to which a
      person awakens, than something that people elect to become. Significant
      also establish that homosexuals constitute a stable and consistent minority,
      present at all times in the human population.
      In James Dale, we have a classic example of a gay person living out what
      appears to be an unquestionably moral, responsible and admirable life. And
      yet there are those who would look past what his life presents and attribute
      to him an unworthy or even dangerous aspect, in many cases with a sense of
      full righteousness. In the face of science and of what lives like Dale's
      indisputably teach, this righteousness sadly is misplaced.
      No one, certainly not I, would suggest that all sexual behavior is
      healthy or without risk. Some homosexuals engage in behaviors that are
      destructive. Some heterosexual behavior is violent, unhealthy and life
      denying. HIV infection, for example, knows no boundaries based on sexual
      orientation, and in our society, children are far more at risk of being
      molested by heterosexual men than they are by homosexual persons. Yet no
      has ever suggested that heterosexuals might not be proper choices to be
      school teachers or scoutmasters. Heterosexual misconduct is viewed as an
      individual deviation from a collective good. But all homosexual conduct is
      viewed as inevitably a manifestation of something that is both evil and
      dangerous to be around.
      So we have a strange anomaly in this particular court case. An Eagle
      Scout who has served scouting nobly and well without a single breach of
      propriety is removed because of who he is, notwithstanding all he has done.
      Certainly the government may demand that a person not be penalized for who
      is when his record contravenes all he is miscast to represent. If the
      Supreme Court should decide in favor of the Boy Scouts of America in this
      case it would be symptomatic of the fact that the definitions, stereotypes
      and prejudices of the past are still operating and that the profound
      ignorance on which they are based is still encouraged to flourish.
      One can only hope that the court will not vote to victimize people
      today by revitalizing attitudes that are so clearly wrong and should be
      allowed to die out.
      • The Rt. Rev. Spong, a former Episcopal bishop of Newark, is the
      Belden Noble lecturer at Harvard University.
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