Where trans youth are left to fend for themselves
There are no formal policy barriers for trans youth in Scouts BSA. But the story of a scout in Texas shows how it's still a steep challenge to find and join an inclusive troop.
Xander just wants to be one of the boys.
The 14-year-old from Texas, who requested I only use his first name1, has been in Scouting of one form or another since kindergarten. He started off in the Girl Scouts, where his mom served as the troop leader and he found his stride in hiking and outdoor activities.
“On the trail hiking with his backpack,” Xander’s mom said, “He just became a different person. I couldn’t shut him up.”
Eventually, Xander left the Girl Scouts to test out a girl troop of Scouts BSA. It was around this time that he was starting to identify as nonbinary and use they/them pronouns. Xander said a few others in the small troop were also part of the LGBTQ+ community. But right after he arrived, the pandemic hit and all of the troop’s activities went virtual, limiting the opportunities to really get to know the other scouts.
It wouldn’t be much longer before Xander moved on, anyway. He went to the troop leader’s home to sign up for a campout and noticed a Trump sign on the lawn. He later found out the troop leader’s wife was active on the social platform Parler, known for being a “a hub of Trump-backed conspiracy theories.”
And so the search was on for a new troop, but it wouldn’t be simple. Xander, who now indefinites as trans-masculine, wanted to join a boy troop. And his struggle to do so represents a fundamental challenge for trans and gender-nonconforming youth in the program: Although Scouts BSA is now co-ed, and trans youth are not barred from joining, troops are still separated along binary gender lines.
“I think that it can be hard especially for people who don’t identify as one or the other to have to pick. For me personally, I was able to just pick boy, but I think for other people that would be harder to do,” Xander said.
Trans and gender-nonconforming youth like Xander are left to traverse a patchwork of “girl troops” and “boy troops” where levels of inclusion vary based on the local scouting leadership, and can be difficult to discern.
"It’s really ridiculous to limit people. It seems pointless to have them separated,” Xander said. He pointed out that two other BSA programs, Venturing and Sea Scouts, have long had co-ed units without issue.
Xander’s mom first turned to a community group on Facebook to ask if anyone knew about trans-inclusive troops locally, but didn’t have much luck.
One boy troop that Xander tried to join came recommended as inclusive by a family friend. But the troop’s leader said Xander’s membership would violate the program’s youth protection policies. That made no sense to Xander and his family — his father and brother had long been involved in Scouting, too — but they decided to drop it and move on.
Xander eventually ended up at the troop sponsored by his family’s church, where his dad is an assistant scoutmaster. Joining there was no simple matter, either. They had a litany of meetings to make sure Xander would be accepted and supported, both by church and troop leadership.
Now that Xander has settled in with his new troop, he wants desperately to fit in with the other boys. He’s not out as trans to the other youth, and he doesn’t plan to be.
“I don't think that’s necessarily super relevant,” Xander said. And he worries that if the other boys know, they’ll treat him differently.
I asked Xander why, in the face of so many barriers, he worked so hard to find his place in Scouts BSA.
“There’s so much you can do within scouts, and there’s so much you can learn and be a part of. It’s not necessarily a transphobic organization,” he said.
He thrives on camping and backpacking trips — his troop is planning a trek to Northern Tier, a high adventure base in Minnesota — and finds the rank advancement motivating and exciting.
He plants to stick with it and work his way toward Eagle Scout. He doesn’t have much choice anyway; mom says earning the program’s top rank is a requirement in their household.
Xander is not out as trans to the youth in his scout troop, and prefers to keep it that way. I spoke to Xander over Zoom in an interview with his mother present.