In July, the UUA joined the United Church of Christ (UCC) and Scouts for Equality (SFE) at the 2017 National Boy Scouts of America (BSA) Jamboree to host the Friendly Cafe exhibit at the Duty to God and Country tent. The early days of the Friendly Cafe were indeed very Scout-friendly as hundreds of Scouts visited to hear UUA and UCC representatives share the histories of our faiths and our common ministries of justice in the world today. Themes of unity, justice, freedom, equality, dignity, and love were liberally used as virtues that dovetailed nicely with the Scout Law virtues of trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.
Disappointingly, our values were challenged by BSA Jamboree leadership. In 2016, the BSA and UUA reunited under the understanding that the BSA was a safe environment for the LGBTQ experience. Early on at Jamboree, it became clear that the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was perhaps a memorandum of misunderstanding. The UUA and UCC returned to Jamboree with the expectation that freedom of religion would be the basis for determining what we share about who we are and what we believe.
One the third day of Jamboree, our freedom was severely restricted as we were made aware that our Friendly Cafe was woefully too “friendly” to LGBTQ+ Scouts. In addition to our UUA and UCC banners and logos, our booths reflected LGBTQ+ welcome and inclusion with rainbow-colored balloons, sunglasses, and paracord. After a BSA inspection of our our booth we were asked to rearrange our multicolor sunglasses (reason: it too closely resembled the traditional gay pride rainbow). Similarly, we were forced to remove our multicolored paracord and burst select colors of our multicolored balloons. Removing these small but important representations of diversity and freedoms of conscience were conceded with reluctance, but when it came time to remove ordinary banners reflecting the highest ideals of diversity and inclusion, we took our stand.
When an official of BSA arrived at the predetermined time to ensure that we were in compliance, I stood my ground. I informed the BSA representative that his actions were inconsistent with our MOU. I informed him that I would not and that I could not remove the banners. That if he wanted the banners removed, he would have to remove them himself. I informed him that our booth promotes welcome and inclusion and has no official symbols or emblems of LGBTQ+ pride and equality. I instructed the BSA representative to return to whomever sent him and inform them that we will not and that we cannot remove our banners. Doing so would put us in violation of our religious freedom and commitment to the Scout Law. The BSA representative was as resolute in his mission to censor the Friendly Cafe as I was in my mission to resist on the side of love for the sake of justice, diversity, and inclusion. Shortly afterward, the Duty to God and Country tent was shut down for the day. The issue of banners and anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment would have to wait another day.
Later that evening, the UUA, UCC, and SFE convened to discuss our shared values, who we are, and what our space represents at the Jamboree. My view is that civil disobedience is the most effective and immediate path to justice. Authoritarianism concedes nothing. The only way to advocate for justice and equality and ensure the full dignity and inclusion of LGBTQ+ Scouts is to speak truth to power. Today’s truth is that the values of the UUA, UCC, and SFE are in full compliance of the Scout Law. I will not and I cannot remove any signs that represent full welcome and inclusion of all Scouts, namely those who identify as LGBTQ and gender non-binary. These values are consistent with the MOU signed by the BSA and UUA. As such, I refuse to concede to the bigotry, fear, and hate that has caused the BSA to behave beyond the Scout Law, namely to be friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, and brave during a time when our country needs these most.
The following day, the UUA and UCC leadership met with BSA executives to discuss an amicable resolution. The BSA accused us of being willfully provocative by portraying controversial public figures on our diversity and inclusion signage, seemingly to undermine the status quo. We requested that they specifically name what was problematic so that we can replace them with anonymous images. That request went unanswered and the signs remained with their original design throughout Jamboree.
Otherwise, despite this critical threat to LGBTQ+ diversity and inclusion by BSA officials, the UUA's presence at the 2017 National Scouts Jamboree was well received by the Scouts. The Friendly Cafe Diversity Wall was flooded with responses to the question, "What does diversity mean to you?" Many queer Scouts voiced their appreciation for representation of their identities. Youth traumatized by the un-presidential Trump address received pastoral care through the empathetic presence of UUA, UCC, and Scout for Equality. While the BSA Memorandum of Understanding is a big first step, it is clear that many more steps are needed to trail blaze the path toward full acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQ and gender non-binary Scouts and Scout leaders into the antiquated culture of Boy Scouts of America.
"A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled." ~ James Baldwin
(Portions of this blog post were originally shared on Scouts for Equality Facebook Page - 7/22/17)