The Girl Scouts promise to teach children self-worth. For Stormi, a 9-year-old Girl Scout in Herrin, Ill., that lesson came about despite an unfriendly neighbor.
Stormi, who is transgender, ventured out into her neighborhood to sell cookies with her foster mother, Kim. Three blocks from their home, a man answered the door and, after her pitch, told her that “nobody wants to buy cookies from a boy in a dress,” BuzzFeed reported.
Kim moved Stormi’s cookie sales to an online portal hosted by Girl Scouts of the USA. She also recounted the incident in an online forum for parents of transgender children. Within days, Stormi had sold more than 3,000 boxes of cookies, including sales to customers in Canada and Australia. She also received dozens of letters of support.
“This is something I have been trying to instill in her for years,” Kim told BuzzFeed. “How worthy she is; who she is is OK. For her to be able to read all these messages that people are sending from around the world to support her, the love is just overwhelming.”
Transgender issues are not new to the Girl Scouts. In 2012, the inclusion of a 7-year-old transgender girl into a Denver, Colo., troop sparked a national call to boycott Girl Scout cookies. Last summer, a troop in Western Washington returned a $100,000 donation because of a stipulation that it could “not be used to support transgender girls.” The troop set up an Indiegogo account instead – which GSUSA promoted nationally with the hashtag #forEVERYgirl – and raised over $338,000.
“If the child is recognized by the family and the school/community as a girl and lives culturally as a girl, then Girl Scouts is an organization that can serve her in a setting that is both emotionally and physically safe,” GSUSA policy reads, saying that placement of transgender scouts is handled “on a case-by-case basis.”
The incident comes at a time when the country’s other premier scouting organization, the Boy Scouts, has been struggling to find its own way on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues. Most notably, the Boy Scouts lifted its ban on gay Scouts in 2013 after a long and very public debate, reaching a compromise allowing troops to decide whether to admit gay Scout leaders in 2015.
On the specific issue of transgenderism, the official website does not mention transgender youth; individual Scouting chapters have told news organizations that they rely on participants’ birth certificates when deciding who may join.
But more broadly, as the US has undergone sweeping changes regarding attitudes toward gender and sexuality over the past decade, those changes have played out in different ways in the two venerable youth groups.
Both were started in the early 20th century by two friends, but they have had different trajectories since their founding, experts say. One adopted essentially progressive policies from the get-go – teaching girls Morse Code and woodcraft eight years before women won the right to vote in the United States. The other harked back to old-fashioned values and a more traditional view of masculinity.
“Girl Scouting still values much of what it valued 100 years ago, but the difference is Girl Scouting has very clearly changed with the times,” says Stacy Cordery, a history professor at Monmouth College in Illinois who has written a biography of Girl Scout founder Juliette Gordon Low.
The Boy Scouts were founded by Robert Baden Powell, a British veteran of the Boer War, who created the group in response to what he saw as the physical frailty British troops exhibited in the war. He also gave his blessing for Low, a suffragist and his friend, to a form the “Girl Guides” (the name was soon changed to Girl Scouts).
Ideological differences were apparent almost immediately, says Mary Logan Rothschild, a professor of women’s studies at Arizona State University who has researched the Girl Scouts since the 1980s.
“In some very fundamental ways the Boy Scouts was always backward-looking. It harkened back to a time when men were men, when they were apt in the woods, when they were muscular and strong,” she says.
For Girl Scouts, however, “all the things they were doing were not backward-looking, but forward-looking. These were new things for girls: to be adept at making fires, marching, and doing all these outdoor things.”
Interestingly, despite their divergent paths, both groups have more in common than badges and uniforms: Both have been steadily losing members. Membership for both organizations has dropped from peaks of around 4 million to 2 million.
From the beginning, the Girl Scouts pledged to be “non-sectarian in practice as well as in theory.” While one of the organization’s most popular badges early on was the “laundry badge,” Rothschild says, it also had an “airplane badge” in 1912, just four years after the Wright Brothers completed the first controlled human airplane flight.
The Boy Scout’s oath, meanwhile, calls for scouts to “do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” Patriotism and the physical and moral development of scouts remain bedrock values.
Religion is closely tied to the Boy Scouts: some 70 percent of troops are affiliated with faith-based groups, including the Methodist Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The Boy Scouts officially ban atheists and agnostics.
That emphasis on conservative values has made it difficult for the Boy Scouts to adapt to changing US social mores fast enough for progressive critics, while some on the right have lamented the lifting of the ban on homosexual scouts, seeing it abandoning conservative values to kowtow to political correctness.
But supporters point to studies that show that scouting helps build not only character but respect for others. A study performed by two professors at Baylor University in 2012 found that when compared to non-scouts, Eagle Scouts “were significantly more likely to indicate they have built character traits related to work ethics, morality, tolerance and respect for diversity,” according to a 2015 opinion piece in Seacoast Online out of Portsmouth, N.H.
Experts like Dr. Cordery see the integration of lesbian, bisexual, and transgender girl scouts as a natural extension of that group’s history of inclusiveness. In 1956, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. described the organization as “a force for desegregation” after it pushed to integrate scouts.
The GSUSA has also formed special troops to serve girls living on poverty, serving time in detention centers, or at risk of domestic violence, The Atlantic reported.
“When I started [my research] I didn’t expect to find what I found,” Rothschild says. “It’s my profound belief, based on academic research, that they really have fundamentally different visions.”