I was reading this New York Times article about girls who want to join the Boy Scouts, and was smacked upside my butch skull with nostalgia. I was a Girl Scout for three years or so as a young kid*, and although I liked many aspects of it, I always wanted to join the Boy Scouts instead. It wasn't fair: the Boy Scouts learned how to start fires, tie knots, and survive in the wild. I highly doubted that they had to sing as many songs as we did, and I was certain they weren't required to sell cookies. Their uniforms did not include skirts or tights, and they got to be named after animals (cubs! eagles!) while we were named after flowers (daisies?) or food (brownies?). Something about Boy Scouting seemed competent and tough, while something about Girl Scouting seemed a little... girly. There was lots I liked about being a Girl Scout,** but the differences between the genders echoed other differences between what a girl was "supposed" to be and what a boy was "supposed" to be. At that age, I did not need gender differences reinforced.***
Two components to the gender restrictions on scouting are worth separating for the sake of discussion. One, which was my childhood beef, is the differences in activities, uniforms, and other aspects of scouting. This could be solved simply by allowing all-girl troops into the Boy Scouts (and, we might assume, all-boy troops into the Girl Scouts). For most activities (which are within-troop only), this would maintain the gender separation so near and dear to many people's hearts. As a kid, this would have been fine with me. And there is some evidence that suggests single-sex activities benefit girls, in part because it makes them see other girls in a variety of roles: a girl is the strongest one, the fastest one, the one who's best at math, etc.
Still, this second component--the idea of gender separation itself--is problematic. Any time one group enjoys social status over another group (e.g., race, gender), separation between the groups creates an inherent status difference. What message are you sending to girls and boys every time you separate them from each other? To me, you're emphasizing a distinction society has already overblown. When girls and boys aren't allowed to tie knots, start fires, or sell cookies side by side, what are kids supposed to glean from that? And you're foreclosing opportunities for opposite-sex friendships, which are already all too rare.
Of course, there's also the obvious importance of mixed-gender groups for trans or other gender-nonconforming kids, but mixed-gender troops would have advantages even if all the kids in question were cisgendered heterosexuals.
I'm writing about this more to start a conversation than anything else. While it's tempting just to say that any gender separation is wrong, I recognize that it's more complicated than that. I hope some readers will weigh in on this. Did any of you want to join a group you weren't allowed to as kids because of your sex or gender? Do any of you have kids who are dealing with this now? Is the bigger problem that Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts do different activities, or is the bigger problem that both groups restrict one sex from joining?
* I joined again for a couple years in high school, but that's a different story because my tiny troop consisted of three other like-minded young women and we basically did whatever we wanted, including camping and public service stuff.
** My mom was one of our troop leaders. She is VERY big on being a "survivor" (in the life sense, not the lost-in-the-woods sense), and also very big on creative expression. So I think because of her, our scouting activities tended to be cooler than many troops'.
*** Thus far, I have not experienced any age at which I have needed gender differences reinforced. But I'm only in my 30s, so I'll keep you posted.
(By the way, the Girl Scouts have let in trans girls. I don't know whether the Boy Scouts let in trans boys. And if anyone's curious, here's an article from the Advocate about some LGBT-relevant differences between the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts.)
Really looking forward to hearing your thoughts.