This is a big week for gays on both sides of the Atlantic. By the time you read this, the House of Commons will have voted to permit gay marriage, despite an angry revolt by a large number of Tory MPs; and in Texas the Boy Scouts of America may also have voted (less certainly) to lift its ban on ‘open or avowed’ homosexuals joining the youth movement. In both cases, the reforms are being presented as reflecting popular enthusiasm for ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ and tolerance of diversity (little evidence though there may be of this) while at the same time showing tolerance of people lacking such enlightenment. So in Britain, churches are being promised immunity from legal discrimination claims if they refuse to marry same-sex couples, while in the United States the Boy Scouts movement, if it lifts the nation-wide ban on gay membership, will continue to allow local scout organisations to do as they please.
The Boy Scouts of America has for decades successfully defended its right to ban atheists, agnostics and homosexuals from membership on the grounds that they would violate its fundamental principles, enshrined in the Scout Oath and Law. Even the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that the Scouts, as a private organisation, can set its own membership standards. This has not, however, prevented Barack Obama from weighing in this week on the side of reform. Asked in a television interview whether he thought the Boy Scouts should be open to gays, he replied, ‘Yes,’ and went on, ‘I think that my attitude is that gays and lesbians should have access and opportunity the same way everybody else does in every institution and walk of life.’
Against him stands the Republican Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, who was once such a keen scout that he has even written a book enthusing about the movement. He told a scouts’ gathering the other day that the movement was a key reason why he joined the US Air Force and later sought public office, and that the failure of society at large to adopt its values was a cause of teenage pregnancy and a reason why youths grew up to be ‘men joining their fathers in prison’. He said that he hoped that the Scouts would stay faithful to their traditional values and wouldn’t bend to the whims of ‘popular culture’. But as with gay marriage in Britain, where even gays have not been clamouring for reform, there doesn’t appear to be much popular pressure in America for change to the Boy Scouts’ constitution. The pressure seems to be coming instead from corporations and charities that sponsor local Scout units, some of which have already stopped financial aid because they believe their non-discrimination requirements are being violated.
Because of his Eton, Oxford and Bullingdon Club background, David Cameron is suspected of hypocrisy in his championship of gay marriage. But one reads that he really does believe in it and isn’t just pretending to do so in order to ‘detoxify’ the Tory party’s image. But either way, it’s not going to help the Conservative party, which relies for its electoral appeal on common sense, good management, and an instinctive resistance to change. If Cameron is trying to model himself on Barack Obama (or Nick Clegg), it won’t work here. His vigorous promotion of the cause of gay marriage not only antagonises grass-roots conservatives, on whom he will largely depend for re-election: it also goes down badly with the electorate at large, of whatever political leanings, to whom it seems a frivolous, time-wasting diversion from the urgent problems facing the country, rather like the last Labour government’s futile campaign to force through a foxhunting ban.
There must be ways of according people their human rights without creating a political maelstrom. Let same-sex couples call their civil partnerships ‘marriages’ if they want to, and let no one complain. Let gays join scout movements on the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ principle, adopted by President Clinton for gays in the American armed forces, and let them not kick them out unless, as would be the case with everyone, they break the movement’s rules. Let governments, above all, try to keep out of such painful controversies. And let them beware of too much zeal in imposing ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ when these are so often unachievable. If it’s unfair that the heir to the throne should be a boy, even if he has an elder sister, is it not unfair that the second, or third-born child should not have a chance to be monarch too, or that you or I shouldn’t either? Most things are unfair in some respects, and it’s just a matter of deciding which kinds of unfairness are acceptable, even desirable, and which are not.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 9 February 2013