By ISAAC CONSTANS
Capital News Service
LANSING — Michigan LGBT lobbyists are hailing the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to admit transgender boys as a momentous step in the struggle for recognition of equal rights.
“Boy Scouts of America’s decision to accept transgender boys is an extraordinary leap in the right direction for equality in our country,” said Angeles Valenciano, chief executive officer for the National Diversity Council, which has a chapter in Michigan. “We believe it is very commendable that they have chosen to create an inclusive environment for children from all backgrounds.”
On Jan. 30, the Boy Scouts decided that registering individuals based on the gender listed on their birth certificate was an antiquated practice. Instead, the new procedure will allow members to enroll based on the gender listed on their application.
The shift reflected in the Boy Scouts’ platform represented a win for transgender rights activists across Michigan.
“Kudos to the Boy Scouts of America,” said Jules Shellby, a licensed counselor in private practice at Oasis Health and North Michigan field coordinator for Transgender Michigan. “When I heard about the decision, I was in tears of joy.”
The breakthrough represented significant inroads for transgender activists. The Boy Scouts was not the first mainstream organization to embrace a self-identify policy, but it is one of the more traditionally oriented.
As a premier organization for youth involvement in the United States, the Boy Scouts have been scrutinized in the past for restrictive policies.
When the Supreme Court ruled that forcing the Boy Scouts to accept openly homosexual boys or men would violate the organization’s right of expressive association, activists turned to public mobilization.
National sentiment mounted in favor of allowing members of all sexual orientations and gender identities. In 2013, the 117-year-old organization permitted openly gay members, and the ban on gay scout leaders was removed two years later. Now, transgender members can join, as well.
“What happened to change the Scouts’ attitude, I think it came from grassroots organizing and pressure — from people saying, ‘Look, the Scouts need to change this,’” Jay Kaplan, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan LGBT project, said. “It wasn’t something that could be accomplished solely based on a legal argument.”
Representatives of the Boy Scouts of America Michigan Crossroads Council, headquartered in Lansing, could not be reached for comment.
Transgender Michigan, an advocacy, education and support alliance for the transgender community, has been pushing for change in both public acceptance and equal access across the state. Rachel Crandall, its executive director and co-founder, said the decision of the Boy Scouts has already provided tangible uplift within the transgender community.
“We really needed a boost,” Crandall said, mentioning that the recent election had unsettled a large part of the population. “Our whole community was feeling really negative, and for that to happen right now.
“I have had at least one person who mentioned that on a recent call to the helpline. And personally speaking, it really made a difference for me. It gave me a little hope.”
Yet, there are still a number of transgender people who feel shut out. While the Boy Scouts’ directive might have helped turn the corner, the transgender community acknowledged it had a ways to go before equality.
“Does it achieve absolute, complete, unequivocal equality for LGBT people? No, absolutely not,” Kaplan said. “There’s still many, many challenges. And to be honest with you, there remain many people who don’t know what it means to be transgender. So we have to continue providing education and information so people have that understanding. Because when you don’t have information–or accurate information–then you’re more susceptible to arguments that provoke fear with respect to transgender people.”
For instance, Kaplan said, gender-segregated activities still affect transgender students in Michigan.
“Let’s say a school has a homecoming king or queen, and not allowing transgender male students to either run or serve homecoming king,” Kaplan said. “And we see that with the bathrooms, as well.”
In addition to operating a hotline for transgender people, Transgender Michigan hosts meetings in local chapters that provide a chance for members to convene. Shellby said her chapter meetings in Traverse City give individuals a chance to reach out to people in similar circumstances. The group can be reached at (231) 944-8200.
Groups say they are are hopeful that the Boy Scouts’ decision signals a new era. Kaplan said that the most recent shift was not because of jurisprudence but due to “changing hearts and minds,” the same emotion that helped cast marriage equality into the national spotlight.
Crandall said that it is important for the Boy Scouts’ initiative to resound around the United States, paving the way for similar changes. Gender identity is of the utmost significance for children, she said.
“Well, if they’re accepted, it’s a real validation, right?” Crandall said. “If they’re refused, it really feels like it’s a total denial of who they really are. And trans kids, they go through a lot of rejection, and that’s one reason why the suicide rate is so high. (Acceptance) could really make the difference between life and death.”
By ISAAC CONSTANS