Michael recently told me he is gay. A high school junior, I’ve known him and his family for many years. Hardly anyone is surprised by his announcement. What is surprising is what a non-event his coming out has been.
I asked Michael how his classmates reacted. “Most of them just kind of shrugged,” he said. “Actually, it’s made things easier. People seem to know who I am now and just accept that.”
Sexual orientation is just not a big issue for most young people today.
That’s probably why there has been such a warm public reception for NBA center Jason Collins, the first active major pro sports athlete to announce that he is gay.
The seismic shift in public attitudes about homosexuality is mostly due to generational changes.
The Pew Center for People and the Press released a report in March revealing that 70 percent of people born after 1980 support same-sex marriage, about twice as many as those born before 1964.
That spells big trouble down the road for organizations that have made sexual orientation a defining issue.
A case in point is the Boy Scouts of America.
Later this month, the National Council will vote on a proposal to alter its membership criteria. The crucial change is the addition of this sentence: “No youth may be denied
membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.”
The BSA is stuck between a rock and a hard place.
If they vote the proposal down, they put the future of the organization at risk. Children born today are being raised by parents who largely regard sexual orientation as a matter of social diversity like race or gender and will not participate in organizations they perceive as intolerant.
If they pass the proposal, they put the present of the organization at risk. A large percentage of the BSA donor base comes from a generation that regards homosexuality as immoral and does not want to support an organization that encourages it.
It is difficult to “reason out” of a quandary like this, because most people’s attitudes are based on emotion. Reasons are typically used to bolster and defend an emotional response, not create it.
Nevertheless, the reasons people give for opposing the change are revealing.
Many longtime supporters of scouting fear that changing the criteria for membership will have a drastic effect on the culture of the BSA. That fear is based in part on a false perception of the number of gay youth likely to join the scouts.
A Gallup survey conducted in 2011 revealed that most Americans estimate that 25 percent of the population is gay or lesbian. In reality, the percentage is closer to 3 percent. When you combine that percentage with the fact that many young men don’t figure out their sexual orientation until high school or college age, it’s easy to see that the proposed change in membership criteria would likely have a negligible effect on BSA culture.
Another concern is that allowing gay members might put youth at risk of sexual abuse. But the worry has no basis. When the BSA consulted leading national experts on this question, their consensus response was that “same-sex sexual interest or same-sex sexual experience, either in adults or youth, is not a risk factor for sexually abusing children.”
For most of us, our moral attitudes are shaped by personal connections. If we know someone who is gay or lesbian, we are much more likely to be tolerant of their lifestyle, even if we do not agree with it.
Michael is not a concept — he is a person. I care deeply about him. I want him to have all the advantages that a loving family and strong social network can provide. I want him to discover his passion and develop the skills and habits that lead to a productive, fulfilling life. Organizations such as the Boy Scouts are designed to do just that.
As Jason Collins said in an interview last week: “It doesn’t matter that you’re gay ... It’s about working hard, it’s about sacrificing for your team. It’s all about dedication. That’s what you should focus on.”
If the Boy Scouts of America want to help kids like Michael, they need to focus on that as well.