Why Scouting Ireland must support Marriage Equality

bandera-del-orgullo-gay

Steve Cull

The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children this week joined a coalition of organisations under the leadership of BeLongTo, Ireland’s national organisation for LGBT young people, to support a Yes Vote in the forthcoming Marriage Equality Referendum. The ISPCC is collaborating with Barnardos, Foróige, Youth Work Ireland, the Migrant Rights Centre, the Children’s Rights Alliance, Pavee Point, Headstrong and EPIC (Empowering Children in Care) who are all supporting a Yes Vote.

Can you spot a large youth movement that is missing from that list?

CONSISTENCY WITH OUR PRINCIPLES

Scouting Ireland has not yet taken a stance on the upcoming referendums in relation to marriage equality and to changing the eligibility criteria for the presidency. In this case I am most concerned with the former. The Scouting Ireland Constitution says that the movement is open to all without distinction of “origin, race, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or ability, in accordance with the purpose, principles and method conceived by the Founder, Robert Baden‐Powell”. The inclusion of sexual orientation came from a motion to National Council to bring Scouting in line with other organisations in this respect.

While the movement does not have a specific policy which references sexual orientation however, Scouting Ireland’s policy on Girls & Boys, Women & Men in Scouting Ireland says that it is “committed to the fulfilment of its educational purpose: to contribute to the education of young people, females and males, as equals and on the basis of the needs and aspirations of each individual and to the principles of equal opportunities and equal partnership between males and females, both within Scouting and in society as a whole.” Equality is then not alien to Scouting Ireland. While it has resisted having a broader equality policy, equality is a basic tenet of the Scouting movement. Our colleagues in the UK appear to be leading the way in terms of its message, gay young people and adults are part of the Scouting family and the Scout Association is happy to shout that from the rooftops.

If we can agree that Scouting Ireland truly believes in equality of all it members, then it is my contention that it then must join all of other significant youth movements in Ireland and support a Yes vote which will ensure equal marriage rights for all.

THE NON-POLITICAL MISNOMER

No doubt the first call of those who disagree with this position is to say that Scouting Ireland is a non-political movement and to campaign for a Yes vote would be a political gesture. Nothing, of course, is that simple.

Scouting Ireland has involved itself in the campaigns to keep Irish forestry in public hands, against online child abuse materials and in favour of Junior and Leaving Cert reform. Political figures opening national conferences has come to be expected. Ministers were invited to launch the Vision 2020 project and the Operation Lelievlet project. Steep government funding cuts were called an “attack on volunteerism and the positive development of our youth” on the front page of a national newspaper in April 2013. Policy stances and an alliance with particular ideals (public access to wild spaces, employment opportunities for young people not in education or training, youth development, marriage equality) are essential parts of a movement like ours which empowers young people to stand up for their beliefs.

Scouting Ireland is absolutely a political animal (but not party-political), and I’m not talking about its internal scuffles (“what scuffles?” I hear you say!). It is a movement which has significant influence in communities throughout the country and it is a movement which formulates policies to ensure that it fulfils its aim, the development of young people. So to say that Scouting Ireland should be quiet on this issue for fear of being “political” is not an argument which rests on solid foundations.

An interesting question must be asked at this point also – Was Scouting Ireland invited to join the BelongTo Yes campaign and did it turn down that opportunity? But that’s another story.

THE LARGEST YOUTH ORGANISATION IN IRELAND

So Scouting Ireland stays out of this debate, what are the consequences of that? The biggest consequence is the lost opportunity to stand up for the rights of gay members past, present and future. All the main political parties are supporting a Yes vote, as are all of Scouting’s competitors for all that lovely funding. If the government sees other organisations further to the fore in promoting equality, then that we certainly have lost an opportunity to show that our values are strong too. While that wouldn’t be close to the top of my list of reasons why Scouting Ireland must support a Yes vote, it should not be dismissed by volunteer decision-makers and by those staff members who we know exert significant influence over policy making.

We are not homophobic, we are not anti-equality, we are not abstentionist. We are inclusive, we are strong, we are equal and we stand up for what we believe in. That’s what makes us Scouts.

What about active members of Scouting Ireland who will be voting No, or who disagree with campaigning for Yes? The ISPCC notes on its website that respects the views of all its supporters but that it has chosen, as an organisation, to take a particular position. Scouting Ireland would be in the same position. When we don’t agree with a position, we don’t opt out – Scouts aren’t those kind of people. When the Patrol Leader decides that s/he’s going to mash the dinner potatoes on a summer camp, in conflict with your sage advice to fry them for camp chips, you are unlikely to storm off and loose your faith in her/him or the noble spud. The likelihood is that you will acknowledge that most of the patrol are in favour of a creamy mash and that while the PL respects your view, bold decisions need to be made sometimes in an a group. Strange comparison? Perhaps. What can I say, I feel strongly about potatoes.

The logic is, if we waited for every single member to agree then we would be waiting forever. We would not have realised the coming together of 2 Scout organisations on this island if we had waited for everyone to agree. In that particular case, some of the strongest proponents of a No vote have become the staunchest defenders of the new stronger movement.

So, who can make this decision? A brave and aware National Management Committee can, should and (in my view) must make this decision. It must do so sooner rather than later. If enough members (and their families even) contact the NMC and let them know the reasons why we must support Yes, then we can make a difference. It will meet this Friday before National Council. It could make the decision then.

THE (PINK) ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

The contribution of gay women and men to Scouting and Guiding in Ireland over the past 100 years has been immense. As local youth leaders, as supporters and as policy makers, the impact of gay Scouts and Scouters should not go unspoken, which it often does. Generations of “committed bachelors” made Scouting happen. That is not to speak of the gay girls and boys who participate in Scouting’s programmes in 500 communities throughout the country. A movement which believes that all its members are equal owes it to them to take stances, when appropriate, to assert that equality, in this case the ability to marry the person you love, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Young people who participate in our programmes are used to being told that “Scouts is gay”. Little do the bully boys know that it is. It’s gay, straight and everything in between. It views all of its members as equals, and so it should not be afraid to say that it believes that all of its members should have the exact same rights under the law to marry the person that they love. Simple.

Founding Director of BeLonG To, Michael Barron said recently “We have seven weeks to do right by our young people and ensure Ireland becomes a country where no young person has to suffer because of their sexuality.” It’s hard not to requote him, so I’ll give in! He has also said “too many LGBT young people experience difficult times growing up and know they don’t enjoy equal rights. If marriage equality is not passed, we reconfirm to them that their all too common experiences of homophobic bullying and rejection are acceptable in Ireland. This would be a devastating outcome. “ We have to do right by our young people, all 40-odd thousand of them who participate in Scouting, but we also have to do right by the lesbian and gay Scouters who are an irreplaceable and vital part of our movement and who have been crucial in making Scouting Ireland what it is today. That’s why I believe Scouting Ireland should loudly and unequivocally support a Yes Vote on May 22nd in line with its principles.

There is still time for Scouting to say YES!

More reading:

ISPCC confirms its support for a Yes Vote in the Marriage Equality Referendum
BeLonG To Unveils Nationwide Coalition of Youth and Children’s Organisations Supporting a ‘Yes’ Vote in Marriage Equality Referendum
#BeLonGToYES – Parents & Young People for Marriage Equality‏ & Launch Video

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