Above All, Judge Each Other: Trail Life USA

The future is looking a lot brighter for the LGBTQ community than it has in the past: from President Obama publicly endorsing same-sex marriage, to progressive shows like Orange Is the New Black and The Fosters finding huge success, to celebrities like Ellen Page and Wentworth Miller coming out so they can more sincerely fight for queer rights and be a symbol of hope for younger people struggling to exist.

But with each step forward there have also been more than a few steps back. States like Mississippi and Kansas have been working to pass laws that would allow Christian-run businesses to refuse service if it contradicts their religious views. Last year, two girls in a Christian sorority fell in love and were promptly forced out of their chapter, even though they were both devout in their faith and had held positions of authority within the house. And then there’s Trail Life USA, a new “alternative” to Boy Scouts of America that spells out their values quite plainly, saying that they “grant membership to adults and youth who do not engage in or promote sexual immorality of any kind, or engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the program.”

One of many slightly terrifying things about Trail Life USA is that its founder, John Stemberger, found it necessary to turn away from Boy Scouts of America even when the latter organization is still not entirely accepting. While they allow openly queer scouts, they do not allow openly queer troop leaders, and even this modified policy recently led to Disney cutting their funding to the BSA. This partial equality was still too much for Stemberger (and many other conservative Christians), however, and thus Trail Life was launched as a standard for what the BSA “should be,” according to many supportive comments on their official Facebook page.

In an interview last September on an anti-LGBT radio show, he explained that while he knows many boys “will experience some sort of gender ambiguity or confusion” as they grow up, it’s not the thoughts that are unacceptable. “What’s horrible,” he said, “is to have the society and school and even parents—which catamount to abuse, in my judgment—saying ‘Oh, he’s special, let’s… He must be gay, he must be gender-confused, let’s let him explore.’ I mean, that is just absolutely nonsense, and it’s an abuse to the child.

“We’re not gonna tolerate activists,” Stemberger added. “We’re not gonna tolerate somebody who’s, you know, here and queer, loud and proud, all of that nonsense. That is completely inappropriate in a program where there’s children.” Breaking news straight from Trail Life USA: it’s much healthier to raise young boys in a community that condemns people for and reduces them to their sexual orientations, criticizes parents for embracing their children for everything they are (God forbid), and promotes the rigid heteronormativty that so many queer people are trying to dissolve.

What’s even more troubling is that, according to Queerty.com, most of the Trail Life families homeschool their children. That means that most if not all of their fundamental social experiences take place within a conservative, closed-minded Christian environment, which is terrifying on multiple levels and could easily result in a devastating wave of kids who won’t know how to digest the identities of their peers. That’s just about the last thing we need, given the country’s widespread problems with bullying—a toxic force among kids and teens that’s been around for ages even without Trail Life to add fuel to the fire—but now we have even more adults, in positions of authority, publicly telling kids that their identities are invalid and unhealthy.

Despite more and more churches opening their doors to the queer community, with many Christians vocally supporting the LGBTQ* community (or even personally identifying as queer), and with Pope Francis asking “Who am I to judge?” in response to a question about his stance on homosexuality, there are still people all over the country who remain firmly planted in their anti-queer beliefs. The problem (among many) is that hearing judgmental and/or unaccepting words from powerful voices can be incredibly damaging, regardless of the recipient’s age or the speaker’s intent, and the people who say them need to be aware of the possible mental, emotional, and spiritual consequences.

Christianity is supposed to be about love, compassion, and inclusion, and though there are so many people live by that philosophy, it’s the critical, negative voices that often reach the most ears. Maybe if they would take a break from quoting Scripture and rallying to “protect” marriage, they would see how much they’re hurting not only the people around them, but their own faith as well.