Boy Scouts of America vs. James Dale (opinion editorial)
Boy Scout Policy is Legal, but is it appropriate
Gary M. Watts, M.D.
As Co-Chair of Family Fellowship, a support group primarily for Mormon parents of gays and lesbians, I have been asked several times about my feelings surrounding the recent Supreme Court decision in the Boy Scouts of America v. James Dale case. As readers are undoubtedly aware, the Supreme Court overturned an earlier decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court that had found the Boy Scout policy of excluding gays from leadership positions in violation of New Jersey’s state public accommodations statute. The very fact that the New Jersey Supreme Court and four of the nine justices of the Supreme Court dissented from the majority opinion indicates the complexity of the legal issues involved.
On July 16th, A. Dean Byrd published an op-ed essay in the Salt Lake Tribune trumpeting his view that the Supreme Court’s decision was correct in affirming the Boy Scouts’ right of free expression and free association under the Constitution’s First Amendment. His essay has prompted me to respond and express my views publicly since they differ rather dramatically from his. I was not surprised by the decision. If I were a Supreme Court justice, I may well have joined the majority opinion since I believe forced membership is generally inappropriate. My concern with Byrd’s essay is not with the rightness or the wrongness of the legal decision but with his attitude that the Boy Scout policy of excluding gays and lesbians is not only legal but also justifiable and appropriate.
The great tragedy of the Boy Scout decision to me is that some will take it as justification for their ongoing prejudice and exclusion of gays. People may not understand that the court decision does not mean the court approves the policy, only that the Boy Scouts have a right to their policy. It will tend to perpetuate the myth that homosexuality is chosen, changeable and contagious. As long as people cling to that view, we will continue to see these efforts to discriminate and literally try to scare young people into hiding and being ashamed of their sexual orientation.
Our young people deserve better from us. When they are 14 or 15 they need to know that every school, every church, every community has young people growing up there who have same-sex attractions that are just there, that have nothing to do with sin. Gay people are very much like straight people. They are just as capable of moral behavior. The Boy Scout policy basically says that any openly gay person is a threat to young boys and can’t be trusted. That, my friends, is wrong and terribly misguided. There are some gay men that would not be good scout leaders, just as there are some straight men. To suggest that all gay men be automatically disqualified from leadership positions is an affront to them and to those of us who know them best; parents and family members of gays. We know our children – they are not a threat to anyone simply because of their sexual orientation.
Can you imagine what it is like in this state to be growing up here gay or lesbian . . . knowing that if you are a scout, and thousands are, that you are not wanted, that you would not be trusted to ever be a leader. Science tells us that these young people are just figuring out at that age or before that they are attracted not to the opposite sex, but to their own. Is it any wonder that these teenagers feel a need to hide their same-sex attraction, and that some of them develop feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem, experiment with drugs and alcohol and preoccupy themselves with suicidal ideation?
Byrd concludes his essay with the glib assertion that homosexuality is neither innate nor immutable. He believes that homosexuality is primarily a psycho-social phenomenon and supports efforts by psychologists and social workers to “repair” or “fix” these individuals with the ultimate goal of transforming them into healthy, heterosexually marriageable individuals. He has been the single, most influential person promoting change therapy in this region, which unfortunately has become the quasi-official position of LDS Social Services through its relationship with Evergreen International.
I say unfortunate for a variety of reasons. The great majority of attempts to change or significantly alter sexual orientation are destined to fail. The process itself is harmful to the individual and too often involves others who become involved in a relationship that is based on a false hope. Case in point: One of my neighbors in Provo, a man widely respected, found to his chagrin a few years ago that an LDS counselor who shared Byrd’s view in our community had persuaded a beautiful young woman that she could change her sexual orientation if she had enough faith. She unwisely married his son and within a few weeks the marriage had to be annulled.
Because my wife and I are Co-Chairs of Family Fellowship we know of these situations and scores more like them. We have documentation that some young men who have sought help from LDS Social Services have subsequently been referred to unethical counselors affiliated with Evergreen International and been subjected to experimental electric shock and ammonia therapy as recently as 1998. These individuals have been sworn to secrecy, been treated under assumed names by unidentified counselors, and in at least one case, threatened with excommunication if he were to leave the therapy after one week of treatment. Anyone who wants to can go to our Family Fellowship web page (www.ldsfamilyfellowship.org) and find there the evidence of this malpractice and the utter absence of support for the glib, easy promises of change offered by such therapists.
It is clear to me and most other professionals that whatever the causes, homosexuality is experienced honestly and involuntarily by gay people. Homosexuality is not chosen; it is discovered. Despite Byrd’s assertion that homosexuality is amenable to change, there is overwhelming scientific evidence that significant change is very rare. Readers should be aware that every professional organization dealing with homosexuals discourages change therapy and most believe it to be unethical and unprofessional. The only organizations that support change therapy are religion based. Readers should also be aware that there are no accredited graduate programs in the United States or elsewhere where professionals can go to be trained in how to change homosexuals into heterosexuals. If you go to our web site you can read the official statements of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and the American Psychiatric Association. These professional organizations all look at homosexuality not as deviant, not as sinful, but as a variant of normal.
It has been this way for centuries as any careful study of the matter will show. Such same-sex attractions are present throughout the animal kingdom as well and there is nothing mysterious about it. And people do not change. Mark it down, they DO NOT. If they are married and bisexual, as some of those are who these therapists are treating then, yes, they may be able to suppress their same-sex feelings and act on their attractions to the opposite sex, but this does not mean such feelings go away.
We parents have had enough of these empty promises and enough tormenting of our young people who need support not harassment. Utah is our community also. We grew up here and our children are growing up here and we need to join the modern world and throw off these unsupported therapies and therapists who are 20 years behind the times.
In recent weeks, we have seen evidence from within the Boy Scouts itself that some Scout leaders, parents and scouts themselves reject the exclusionary practices that led to the Supreme Court case. Some are beginning to recognize that blanket exclusion, irrespective of conduct or other qualifications, means that the Boy Scouts of America should more properly be called the Boy Scouts of “Some” Americans.
Following the Supreme Court’s decision, the Associated Press quoted a California Scout leader as follows: “The Boy Scouts, in a weird sort of way, have been outed. They are out of the closet. They are a bigoted organization. I know a lot of my friends are not going to keep their kids in scouting.” I’m hopeful that many fair-minded friends of scouting will raise their voices and begin now to work within the organization to see that any exclusionary policy is based on conduct, not on sexual orientation.
Gary M. Watts, M.D.
August 4, 2000
Dr. Watts is a Diagnostic Radiologist at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo, Utah.