Just One Scout’s Story
I am an avid lover of nature, hiking, and the outdoors as many are. I love the verdant softness that surrounds the floor of a forest, the music of water playing among rocks and the feeling of it on the back of my neck after miles of walking. I love seeing wildlife that you’ll only see by chance, a black rat snake along a log, a bright orange salamander in a cave opening, or a heron picking it’s long legs along a marsh. All of these things I’ve seen and gotten to experience through my 12 years in scouting. Once while hiking with a few of the guys in my troop, we came across a waterfall beside a trail that had become larger because of a heavy rain recently. Large enough to take a break to take a shower in. Stripping down to just skivvies and cooling off underneath a barrage of ice cold water, like a natural water hose and then drying off on a hot rock in the sun is the sort of thing that Boy Scouts tries to provide for its youth. If there had been girls on our trip however, there would have been a second thought at least to stripping down without a worry, and this memory would not have been made.
In 2013, the Boys Scouts of America finally relented and allowed openly gay scouts after immense public criticism and financial pressures. In 2015, openly gay and lesbian leaders were also allowed to be a part of the organization, but troops can still choose to bar gay leaders on a troop level. Now, in 2017, they’ve allowed transgender scouts to be a part of the organization, as well they should, finally catching up to the GSA who already allowed transgirls into the GSA.
And yet, one group still remains left out of both organizations: Girls for the BSA and boys for the GSA. The BSA has long been the premier youth development program in the United States and is exclusively male on a youth level, although female leaders are allowed and compose one third of the BSA leadership. During my time as a summer camp counselor at my local camp, I worked with a number of women on the staff. The GSA is the same in reverse with a girls only program that allows for male leadership but includes a deliberate focus on women as leaders rather than men. A group of girls in California, alleging discrimination, were hoping to lift the BSA’s ban on girls at the youth level, appealing to the local BSA council to be allowed to join in November of 2015. The Girls call themselves the Unicorns, in the style of a patrol, a small group of youth within a Boy Scout troop.
Several of the Unicorns had tried Girl Scouts before but found the activities there lacked some of the challenging aspects of the boys’ troops. They would rather be lighting campfires and hiking than making crafts or selling cookies. Nikki Van Ausdall, A spokesperson for the Northern California Girl Scouts, didn’t agree with the girls, saying that, “Outdoor experience has really always been a hallmark of what we do. If they want to come back to join us we’d be thrilled to have them.”
I am a strong supporter of gay rights, transgender rights, and men’s and women’s rights alike. I understand these girls’ desires to grow their outdoor and leadership skills and I sympathize. I fear however that an organization that I love and has given me much may be severely damaged by this–and the Girl Scouts could be endangered, as well. I think that integrating girls into Boy Scouts would do more harm good. Separation is not the same as inequality.
BSA Vs. GSA
The highest achievement in the BSA is Eagle Scout. The highest rank in the GSA is the Gold Award. While the two are equivalent within the organizations, outside of them one has a much higher visibility. The rank of Eagle Scout within the BSA is a nationally recognized indicator of quality and of achievement and a major recruiting point of the BSA. I know 50 year olds who still list Eagle Scout on their resume and politicians who mention that fact in speeches that they give. Rex Tillerson, the recently appointed Secretary of State, was an Eagle Scout. I have often heard the complaint of the disparity between visibility and advantage that the title of Eagle Scout brings. Most people have no idea what the Gold Award is unless they are already within the GSA.
Many would argue that the BSA’s superior brand awareness bestows an unfair advantage on boys. One reason for that disparity is that the Girl Scouts of America does not have the same sort of emphasis on the Gold Award. The Gold Award is just simply not the centerpiece of the GSA, and the GSA doesn’t seem to put out that same sort of emphasis on a quantified experience. While the GSA has advancement in part by age, the BSA is entirely requirement based. I almost didn’t make my Eagle Scout because the age to phase out is 18. The day before I turned 18, I submitted in my Eagle Scout application. Whether it’s right or not, people will look at an award with automatic advancement as less tenuous, even if they have the same requirements as well.
The reverse of this is that the GSA sells cookies as a fundraiser. The BSA sells popcorn. Boy Scouts sell popcorn but because of the extreme cost of their product, troops often will primarily gather their funding through locally specific events or opportunities. A three or four dollar box of cookies is significantly more affordable than a 10 dollar box of slightly subgrade popcorn. Here is a link if you would like to look at a BSA popcorn order form, and GSA cookie prices. While Girl Scout cookie prices rose recently, they have a long way to go before matching their popcorn counterparts. Often BSA troops find their funding in other ways such as local fundraisers like selling yard supplies, significantly less attractive than Girl Scout brand cookies, or working as staff for events, as I did in my local town’s Arts and Crafts Festivals.
The BSA also has a much higher emphasis on donations to the organization and charitable giving from other scouts to scouts through the Friends of Scouting program. While the Girl Scouts accepts donations, there is a much lower emphasis on garnering funding through it. The BSA also pays its national organization much more than the GSA does and spends much more on what most would consider frivolous and ridiculous investments and moves. The BSA has grown a brand of excess and possible fiscal irresponsibility because of this. In 2009, the BSA employed Roy Williams as the fifth highest paid CEO in the country. In 2015, what was supposed to be the ultimate Boy Scout Camp, Summit Bechtel Reserve, is almost 260 million dollars over cost and another 100 million under in donations to pay for said camp. The camp was intended to be a replacement for Fort A.P. Hill, a military base that allowed the BSA use of facilities and helped facilitate the national jamboree for years. I attended the first jamboree at Summit Bechtel Reserve in 2013. This use of facilities by the BSA was called into question and so the BSA was asked to move because use of federal funds was being given to the BSA. Each of these is a question of choice. The GSA could choose to push more heavily for donations and for the Gold Award, and the BSA could push much more heavily towards selling a more affordable product and focusing money on a local level and towards scouts rather than a national one on executive paychecks.
Getting Down to the Problem
Girls are concerned that they are unable to engage in activities within the GSA that boys get to do, a totally valid point. It’s frustrating, even infuriating, to belong to a group that doesn’t fulfill your needs or fire up your passions. For what it’s worth, boys within the BSA can, and do, have the same concerns–they don’t usually get opportunities to work on large art projects, write, or interact with more science focused activities. These aren’t problems with the national organizations, however, but a problem on a local scale. And the solution lies there as well: kids who have needs that aren’t being met should reform their own local troops or start a new one that provides the activities they desire. There is nothing in the GSA that prohibits intense obstacle courses or backpacking or rock climbing. And on the other side, there’s nothing against spending a troop meeting crocheting a scarf or learning to paint in the BSA. This problem and responsibility is not with either organization on a large scale but on those groups of individuals interested and willing to create that environment within their own troops to pursue their individualized interests. That’s why troops are allowed to have so much autonomy in how they operate; this allows them to create an environment that best serves the needs and interests of their local members.
The most major concern that I have, however, is that intermingling the two organizations, to effectively homogenize them both, would raise a host of problems that would actually make each worse rather than better. The foremost among these is that in a backcountry environment, a certain level of privacy is broken down. In a coed environment, youth of a certain age are not the most mature. It’s very easy to think of a multitude of situations in which embarrassment, awkwardness, and antagonism come into play that could easily have been avoided. Not to mention that the age range we are talking about is not particularly forgiving. Why place kids in a situation that very easily may force them into uncomfortable situations where they don’t even understand themselves yet? In the backwoods of a hiking trail that a group will be hiking for five days with minimal privacy, embarrassment is an easy thing to come across. Heck, kids mess each other up over the color of their clothing, the type of notebook they have, and the food that they eat. Let alone who what’s going underneath. This brings up a similar vein of questioning. If girls are allowed in the BSA, should boys be allowed in the GSA? Coming from a shared experience, there will most certainly be youthful trolls who will join either organization across the current lines, simply to disrupt.
A Double Double standard?
If girls were allowed to the BSA then it would only be a short hop to boys being allowed to join the GSA and for that there would be a much larger outcry. People react different to a boy joining a women’s organization than a girl joining a male organization. The image of a six girls in a group of 30 boys vs the image of 6 boys in a group of 30 girls are for better or worse very different. Membership in both the BSA and the GSA would decline if the organizations were to open up to both boys and girls, or to effectively merge to allow both at once, because of the number of people who would feel uncomfortable with their children being in an environment either entirely or predominantly of another gender. Jennifer Masterson, a scout leader in the same region as the California Unicorns says, “I have sons… Would I want a girl sleeping in my son’s tent? No.” There are many parents that wouldn’t feel comfortable and so would decline to allow their children to participate in overnight events, the core of scouting’s more enjoyable experiences, or would not permit their children to attend at all.
Fixing the Problem with Scout-like Action
One alternative that I mentioned before is that these five Californian girls may want to consider forming their own local troop with a focus on more adventurous outdoor activities. In a constant era of women’s empowerment I would also say that these girls should be proud of their own all girl organization and work to improve it rather than try to leave it. I myself got fed up with Boy Scouts and left for an entire year because I didn’t like the structure of the organization and of my troop. After a year however I came back and worked to remould it as I would like to see it made and became a more active part in leading the BSA than the passive one I had before. The solution to problems is almost always becoming more actively involved, rather than packing up and walking away. They might also try joining or starting a local Venture troop. Venturing is a co-ed scouting program run through the BSA that allows both boys and girls within one group. My last suggestion is that the BSA should look into expanding the Eagle Scout award to all Venturers regardless of gender while still keeping the BSA an entirely male organization on a youth level. That way girls would have access to the advantage that an Eagle Scout award bestows while still maintaining the comfort levels of all involved. This would also allow more freedom for girls and boys to choose whether they would rather be involved in a co-ed scouting program or a singular gender program.
I understand the frustration with scouting as a whole, in particular the BSA, and I understand the wishes of individuals to form the most inclusive organizations with the best opportunities possible for youth. The problems that they raise, however, would be better serviced by work within the organizations, often on a local level, rather than major changes and restructuring of the organization. The BSA and GSA could both deal with a great deal of cutback in the red tape and bureaucracy, but that’s a different issue. This article is not intended to divide youth or to make separations of prejudice. Neither is it intended to propose that there should be anything other than complete equality between men and women. Rather I want to protect two organizations that have done tremendous amounts of good in the world from unnecessary harm or problems.
My grandfather was an Eagle Scout, many friends that I still talk to years later on a weekly basis, I made through scouts. Some of these friends were not in fact boys or in Boy Scouts but Venture Scouts, Girl Scouts, or were Boy Scout camp counselors. I love the BSA as an organization as I love all scouting organizations. Finding solutions to the valid concerns that people bring up while still maintaining the integrity of an institution can sometimes be a tricky proposition, but is never impossible and can produce results that make an organization infinitely better as well as service youth better. While in the future scouting will be a much different picture then the one I know, the intelligence, ingenuity, and pride of scouts of all ages and genders will promise a bright future.
Troop: A local unit of Girl/Boy Scouts sponsored by a particular organization
Patrol: A small subsection of a troop that operates both independently and within the Troop
GSA: Girl Scouts of America
BSA: Boy Scouts of America
Venturing: A Co-Ed scouting program run through the BSA