Maplewood Scouts invite transgender boy to join them

Town’s Scouts open arms to boy booted from his pack

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — A Maplewood Cub Scout pack has offered to take in an 8-year-old transgender boy who made international headlines after being asked to leave his Secaucus pack due to his gender identity.

Cub Scout Pack 20 leader Kyle Hackler said he sent an invitation to Joe Maldonado and his family through the journalist who first wrote about Joe’s story for The Record, though he has not heard back from them yet. Hackler also alerted the Northern New Jersey Council of Boy Scouts to his displeasure over the situation, but he said Scout Executive Rebecca Fields told him he needed to contact the national Boy Scouts organization instead.

Hackler said he is now preparing a letter to the Boy Scouts of America requesting an inclusive policy for Joe and all other transgender boys like him. And while he doubts his statement alone will make a difference, the pack leader said he hopes his voice will be joined by legions of others so the transgender community is heard. According to a 2016 Williams Institute study, just 700,000 U.S. adults — or 0.6 percent of the population — identify as transgender.

“They’re a fringe minority of the population that’s not receiving equal rights,” Hackler told the News-Record in a Jan. 5 phone interview. “That needs to change, and the only way it’s going to change is for people not involved in the trans community to voice their concerns.”

Hackler’s pack became involved after hearing that Joe, who was assigned the female gender at birth but has lived as an openly transgender boy for approximately one year, had been rejected from Cub Scout Pack 87 last year. Joe’s mother, Kristie Maldonado, told The Record at the time that Joe had been accepted by his friends in the pack, so it came as a surprise when a Scouting official told her some parents had complained and that her son was no longer welcome to participate.

The Boy Scouts of America, the Cub Scouts’ parent organization, does not have an official policy as to whether transgender boys are allowed to join. But communications director Effie Delimarkos told The Record in a statement that a child’s birth certificate would be used to determine eligibility.

The Boy Scouts of America and the Northern New Jersey Council of Boy Scouts did not respond to the News-Record’s requests for comment. The Maldonados also did not respond to requests for comment from the News-Record.

The fact that Joe would be dismissed because of his gender identity disturbed Hackler, who pointed out that the decision runs counter to the Cub Scout values of being friendly, courteous and kind. He also does not believe Joe’s gender would be an issue for children who interact with him. He said his own 6-year-old daughter had no problem with Joe identifying as a boy, which the pack leader thinks says a lot about the way young people see the world.

“Hatred is a learned behavior,” Hackler said. “It’s not nature — it’s nurture. That’s the sad part about it. We should learn something from our kids.”

The root of the problem is people’s lack of understanding about what it means to be transgender, Hackler said. The pack leader, who said he has extensively researched the subject and is familiar with the trans community, said transgender boys like Joe think of themselves as males and react to outside stimuli as males would. Despite their biological attributes, he said, they are truly boys.

A number of scientific studies have backed up the idea that being transgender is not simply a phase. A 2015 study led by University of Washington psychology professor Kristina Olson found that a group of transgender boys and girls who took tests designed to let them unconsciously identify their gender had results consistent with those of cisgender, or non-transgender, boys and girls respectively. A 2013 study by psychobiologist Antonio Guillamon of the National Distance Education University and neuropsychologist Carme Junque Plaja of the University of Barcelona additionally found that brain structures of transgender people resembled the brain structures of their identified gender more closely than their biological gender.

Still, many socially conservative groups believe that transgender children are merely confused about their gender and actually suffer from gender dysphoria, a diagnosis recognized by the American Psychiatric Association that describes those discontented with their biological gender. A 2008 study by Madeleine Wallien and Peggy Cohen-Kettenis of the VU University Medical Center found that a majority of children diagnosed as gender dysphoric no longer had the condition after reaching puberty, though children who had been identified as extremely gender dysphoric still behaved as such when older. Another 2008 study published in Developmental Psychology found that only 12 percent of girls still were gender dysphoric as teens or adults when 60 percent were initially diagnosed as such. Yet, like the first study, those classified as extremely gender dysphoric remained so when older.

Meanwhile, the public perception that being transgender is a choice remains divided, as indicated by surveys taken during the debate about North Carolina’s bathroom law last year. A Pew Research Center study found that 51 percent of people believed transgender males and females should be allowed to choose which bathroom to use, while 46 percent said they should use the bathroom of the gender they were assigned at birth. On the contrary, a CBS/New York Times poll found that 41 percent of those surveyed felt transgender people should choose which bathroom to use while 46 percent believed they should use the bathroom of their biological gender.

But Hackler said his den leaders and Scout parents were all highly supportive of his invitation to Joe. In fact, it was not even his idea. He said a den leader had suggested it during a meeting, and everyone agreed that it would be the right thing to do.

They are not the only ones who feel this way. Andrew Lee, a parent speaking on behalf of Maplewood Cub Scout Pack 19, said his pack would also welcome Joe into its ranks if he wished to join. In the meantime, Lee said Pack 19 is interested in working with Pack 20 to push for a national BSA policy that would make Scouting inclusive for all boys. He said Scouting is a great activity that instills leadership and virtues in boys — no child should be excluded from it.

Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, who represents Maplewood in the New Jersey General Assembly, also believes discrimination has no place in the Cub Scouts. Thus, Jasey said she “couldn’t be prouder” of Pack 20 for taking a stand. The pack leadership is truly setting an example for both children and adults to follow, she said.

“By inviting Joe to join their pack they are not only expressing inclusiveness, but they are living it,” Jasey told the News-Record in a Jan. 6 phone interview. “What the pack has done with their invitation is to model the very best kind of behavior.”

Pack 20’s invitation has not been lost on those close to Joe’s situation, either. Christian Fuscarino, executive director of Garden State Equality, a New Jersey-based LGBT organization that works with Joe and his family, said his group has been “very moved” by the support offered by the pack as well as the numerous others who have reached out to the Maldonados. Fuscarino said it is nice to see so many people speaking out on the issue because Joe deserves to be treated the same as any other boy. And though he said it is “unfortunate” that adults would “ruin” an experience for an innocent child due to their own lack of knowledge about being transgender, he said Joe has proved himself to be “amazing” in dealing with this adversity.

“Joe’s an extremely strong and confident young individual who is showing bravery in the face of a disgusting situation that no young person should ever have to experience,” Fuscarino told the News-Record in a Jan. 5 phone interview. “It’s just frustrating that this young person just can’t live his life.”

Garden State Equality provided training for working with transgender youth to the faculty at Joe’s school after Joe’s mother asked the organization for assistance with his transition. As a result, Fuscarino said the boy has had a great educational experience. Now, the executive director said, his organization’s goal is to allow Joe to be with his Cub Scout friends again. So, like the Maplewood packs, he said Garden State Equality plans on pressuring the Boy Scouts to pass an inclusive policy for transgender children.

If the BSA consents, it would not be the first time it has reversed a controversial position. For decades the Boy Scouts did not allow gay Scouts or Scoutmasters, with the U.S. Supreme Court even affirming their right to do so as a private organization in 2000. But after facing declining membership and the loss of corporate donations, the Scouts ended the bans on gay Scouts and gay Scoutmasters in 2013 and 2015, respectively. The decision that did not mention anything about transgender Scouts, though.

Scouts for Equality, an advocacy group in favor of equal treatment for all Scouts and Scoutmasters, is another organization that hopes the Boy Scouts will pass an inclusive policy. Executive Director Justin Wilson called it “nonsensical” to expect transgender children like Joe to be accepted as boys in all aspects of life except Scouting. In addition, he said the cisgender children involved will benefit from befriending transgender Scouts.

“There’s value in learning that some people are different than you and that’s OK,” Wilson told the News-Record in a Jan. 6 phone interview. “We have Scouts of all faith backgrounds. We have gay and straight Scouts. We have Scouts of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. That really just adds to the experience that these boys receive, and so this is just an additional facet of diversity that is going to be beneficial for all boys in the program to learn.”

Wilson said Scouts for Equality is currently working on an action plan for bringing about a transgender policy, though nothing is ready to speak about publicly yet. He said he is optimistic a policy will come in the near future, pointing out that BSA President and AT&T executive Randall Stephenson was a strong advocate for reversing the policies against gay Scouts and Scoutmasters. Wilson added that the Boy Scouts will have to create a new policy since it currently doesn’t have one addressing transgender boys.

“Will (the BSA) introduce the first new discriminatory policy in many years into their organization, or will they choose the right side of history and open the doors and work to become more diverse and inclusive?” Wilson said.

Hackler is not as confident as Wilson that a policy will be issued soon, which would be bad for Joe. Even if he joined Pack 20, the pack leader said he could not be insured, advance or participate in any nationally-sponsored activity due to the BSA’s current stance. In other words, he said an inclusive policy will need to be passed in order for Joe to have the full Scouting experience.

But that will not stop Hackler from trying to make a difference.

“I need to bring this subject out in the open and make other people aware of what’s going on so other people will join the cause and make the playing field level for the trans community,” Hackler said.

Photos Courtesy of Kyle Hackler