A Pioneer Six Years On

James Dale recalls his challenge to the Boy Scouts and his own growth as a gay man

June 28th marked the sixth anniversary of the United State Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in favor of The Boy Scouts of America against James Dale, a former Eagle Scout, who sued the institution after they expelled him for being an “avowed homosexual.” Dale, now 35, and working in advertising, reflected on his role as an advocate, how things have changed since the court decision, and what he sees in today’s gay youth.

CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: How have things changed since the ruling in 2000?

JAMES DALE: One of the most exciting things about this case and the public conversation about the issues before, during, and after has been the change in America’s awareness. My 12-year membership in the Boy Scouts was revoked in 1990 and the Supreme Court ruling was in 2000. That ten-year period saw major changes in LGBT civil rights in this country. Since then, the Boy Scouts have been defined by their discrimination which is a big change given the All-American position they held in our society. One of the things I learned after this case was that we adapt as we go along. Had someone told me then when I lost before the Supreme Court by one vote that the issue would have continued and that in public opinion it would be the Boy Scouts that would lose, I wouldn’t have believed it.

CM: What remains most vivid and emotionally resonant for you about that whole period of your life?

JD: It was an incredible decade for me. A lot of people-whether my parents or leaders in the gay community-didn’t immediately see the viability of my case and of the issue and thought it wasn’t necessarily the time to take on this battle. Ultimately, ten years later, whether it was the pastor of my parent’s church or whoever, the American consciousness around things had really changed. You don’t have to be a Boy Scout or in the military or want to be married to recognize the importance of the debates we raise that impact major American institutions.

CM: Since the ruling, the Internet has emerged as a major new global institution that has had a tremendous impact on gay youth. Have you reflected on that?

JD: It’s certainly allowed more space for a lot of youth and adults to be more comfortable in taking one step out of the closet. I’m not a Luddite, but of course there are benefits and costs. The Internet has also contributed to the crystal meth crisis with gay men, so it has some damaging effects, too. Overall, I think its positive impact is in helping people to feel less isolated and alone. Another take away on the Boy Scout case is that in 1990, people just were not talking about gay youth or the needs of gay teens. That’s definitely something that is more the consciousness of the country now.

CM: You were 19 when all this started. If you were 19 in 2006, do you think things would have played out differently?

JD: I don’t know. Those things happened in a specific time and place. Honestly, the Supreme Court then wasn’t as conservative as it is today. I’m not a legal scholar by any stretch, but regardless of whether the conservatives are in power or controlling the courts, our issues continue to resonate with people. I would hope that now things would be different. The first judge in my case quoted scripture and called me a sodomite. Most people thought at that time that we didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell, but we walked away having put forth a really strong defense of our case. I’ve talked to lots of people who said they never thought about this issue before and that they’ve decided not to have their son in the Boy Scouts because of the case.

CM: What’s it like to be a national gay poster boy and be everywhere in the media for a while and then to return to private life?

JD: It has its benefits and its costs. It wasn’t something when I went through it that I put much thought into. It wasn’t an aspiration as much as something that happened. You play the hand you’re dealt. It’s easy to be defined by one dimension, or issue, everyone is more complex than that. When one part of your character or story is focused on with a great deal of attention, it can throw you off balance, and I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to put the whole picture back together again and not to focus exclusively on my sexual identity or my case with the Boy Scouts.

CM: What are you doing now?

JD: In my professional life, I’m working for an advertising agency. I’m renovating my house in the country. And spending a lot of time with friends and family.

CM: You said you don’t play the same role in terms of advocacy that you did then.

JD: One of the main things I’ve focused on is recharging my batteries. Being part of a Supreme Court case takes a lot out of you, a lot of mental energy. It wasn’t that every day I was sitting down with my lawyers and working out legal strategy, but the case did define my personality and who I was. It’s been important for me to look inside and figure out who I am and what makes me tick, instead of reacting to other people’s impressions of me.

CM: Some of the things that you’re talking about relate to James Dale’s particular story but can be generalized to gay people’s experience more broadly. What have you learned in your own journey about the development of gay people?

JD: The more I speak to younger gay people, I can see that their value system is a little different and that’s a great thing. They might have a more well-balanced sense of themselves and their place in society. I’m not saying being gay is a walk in the park for young people now, but a lot of our youth are more able to be both young and openly gay which wasn’t a norm by any stretch of the imagination for my generation and gay people older than me.

For me, from 19 or so, every job was completely defined by my sexuality. I worked at a lot of gay places and now for the first time in my life, I’m working at a pretty dominantly heterosexual environment. Recently, I was working with this one client, and she just assumed I was straight, she didn’t know that I sued the Boy Scouts, or this or that, and at another point in my life I would have immediately interjected my sexuality into the dynamic. It was interesting how it played out and the assumptions people make. Ultimately, I’m not one to hide my sexuality, but in this particular situation, we were at dinner with my boss and I didn’t want to say, “I’m gay!” and put her in an uncomfortable position. It’s kind of weird to work in an environment now where I’m not known or assumed to be gay. I’m mean, there are Republicans in my office! I never had to deal with any Republicans!

CM: I wonder if you have an opinion about the price families pay when a member asserts an identity that isn’t consonant with society at large?

JD: At a different point in my life, I would have said, it’s about the individual completely. I don’t back away from that at all. For queer people, it’s often a big life challenge to be true to yourself, but there is also the cost to the team and the family.. I don’t choose to define myself as a victim. I want to work against injustice and hold peoples’ feet to the fire, but I also don’t want to find myself in a position where I’m totally ghettoized and I’m always the victim.

CM: What’s a challenge you see on the horizon for gay people now?

JD: In 2000, I was speaking at a Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund brunch down in Washington DC. I was expressing my optimism about our future, but also describing some of the challenges we face. As an example, I talked about the Democratic Party that as an organization is barely advocating for our rights and certainly not pushing things forward. I threw a challenge out to this room full of big gay donors to the DNC, saying that we need to demand more. I said it’s easy to be complacent with a place at the table, but then not have a voice at the table. Representative Barney Frank spoke after me and said I had rose-colored glasses on and that it wasn’t realistic to push the Democratic Party at that time.

If there’s one thing I’m most thankful for following the Supreme Court decision, it’s the opportunity to go to classes and colleges and talk with the next generation of gay people who are going to go out there and fight the fight. I see my job as helping to inspire them to live to their full potential, to coach them essentially and say, hey, here was this experience I had, I could have walked away from this bitter and nasty and angry because something was taken away from me and I should have won–and I didn’t.