Transgender Scout finds a home in Maplewood pack

Proponents, opponents sound off on recent BSA ruling

Photo Courtesy of Kristie Maldonado
Joe Maldonado, above, gets ready to participate in the Pinewood Derby with Maplewood Pack 20.

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The 9-year-old transgender boy who was asked to leave his Secaucus Cub Scout pack last year due to his gender identity is now a member of Maplewood’s Pack 20, following the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to enact a policy allowing transgender boys to join.

Joe Maldonado became the first openly transgender boy to join the Cub Scouts when he attended his first meeting on Feb. 7 at Clinton Elementary School. Since then, he has gone on a camping trip and visited the supermarket so the pack could compare food prices. He most recently participated in the Pinewood Derby, a Cub Scout tradition in which boys race wooden cars they craft themselves.

Overall, Joe’s mother, Kristie Maldonado, said Joe is having a wonderful time.

“He loves it,” Maldonado told the News-Record in a Feb. 27 phone interview. “He’s having a ball.”

Maldonado said Joe has received an outpouring of support since his story made international headlines, getting countless invitations to join other packs in addition to numerous letters of encouragement and even badges from past Cub Scouts who did not want him to feel left out. But she said Pack 20’s invite stood out because pack leader Kyle Hackler had contacted the Northern New Jersey Council of Boy Scouts to express his displeasure over the situation.

And while it would have been understandable if Joe and his mother had decided not to return to the Scouts after their negative experience in Secaucus, Maldonado was not going to let that stop them. She said her son should not have been dismissed from the Cub Scouts in the first place, regardless of what his birth certificate says.

“My child has been identifying as a boy for a long time,” Maldonado said. “He has every right, I think, to be in (the Cub Scouts).”

Hackler agreed that Joe deserves to be a Cub Scout, which is why he is happy that the boy is now a member of his own Maplewood pack. Though Joe’s gender identity has attracted worldwide attention, he said it has not affected Pack 20 since many of the boys in it do not even know Joe was assigned the female gender at birth. Those who do know do not care, he said, and neither do most of the parents. The pack leader said a few parents are displeased with Joe’s inclusion, but all have agreed to let Hackler run the pack as he wants.

In other words, Hackler said, Joe’s gender identity is really a “non-issue” for Pack 20. And that is exactly how it should be, he said.

“Joe is defined by more than his (gender) identity,” Hackler told the News-Record in a Feb. 24 phone interview. “He’s a little boy that likes superheroes, that loves the Scouts, enjoys being outside, likes hanging out with his friends — just like any other boy.

“Now,” he continued, “he’s just going to be just another kid in the pack.”

As much as Hackler supports the transgender community, even he did not predict how quickly the Boy Scouts of America would issue a policy allowing transgender boys to join, considering the organization’s track record. For decades the BSA did not allow gay Scouts or Scoutmasters, and in 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court even affirmed their right as a private organization to do so. It was after facing declining membership and the loss of corporate donations that the Scouts ended the bans on gay Scouts and gay Scoutmasters in 2013 and 2015, respectively.

But only a few weeks after the Maldonados went public, the Boy Scouts issued a statement acknowledging that its practice of referring to a child’s birth certificate to determine eligibility “is no longer sufficient as communities and state laws are interpreting gender identity differently.” As a result, the statement read that Cub and Boy Scout programs will now accept youth based on the gender indicated on their applications. Local councils will help find units that will best fit the child, the statement added.

The BSA even issued a statement regarding Joe specifically, which it sent to the News-Record.

“The Boy Scouts of America is pleased to welcome Joe and the Maldonado family back into the Scouting community,” the statement read. “Moving forward, the BSA will continue to work to bring the benefits of our programs to as many children, families and communities as possible.”

The policy’s creation was met with enthusiasm from many LGBT groups including Garden State Equality, which has done advocacy work on behalf of the Maldonados. Executive Director Christian Fuscarino told the News-Record that his organization is thrilled the BSA has enacted the type of policy Garden State Equality has called for ever since launching an online petition in support of Joe that garnered more than 2,000 signatures. Fuscarino said the policy is the right thing to do because transgender boys are simply boys deserving of the same opportunities as their non-transgender peers, no matter what others may feel.

“Anyone who is openly opposed to a young trans person has not had the experience of meeting one and realizing that they are just living their life like everyone else,” Fuscarino said in a Feb. 23 phone interview. “People are just afraid of what they don’t know.”

Scouts for Equality, an advocacy group in favor of equal treatment for all Scouts and Scoutmasters, is also satisfied with the Boy Scouts’ new policy. But Executive Director Justin Wilson said there is more that can be done. Specifically, Wilson said he would like to see the BSA initiate support programs for LGBT youth in the future, though he said his organization will let the Boy Scouts adjust to its new policy before calling for additional change.

In the meantime, Wilson said he hopes the BSA’s policy will show transgender boys it is OK to be themselves. And he thinks it will teach all boys some significant lessons as well.

“When the kids who are Scouts today grow up to be the leaders of tomorrow, I really hope they’ll bring these values of diversity and inclusion and tolerance with them into their adult life,” Wilson said in a Feb. 23 phone interview. “It’s an important lesson that even if someone is different from you, that doesn’t mean that you should treat them poorly or differently.”

Not everyone has approved of the BSA’s policy though. Indeed, many socially conservative and Christian groups have come out against the idea of letting transgender boys become Scouts, viewing it as a step in the wrong direction.

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, is one such group. Director of Policy Studies Andrew Walker said the commission firmly disapproves of the Boy Scouts’ policy since it only confuses young boys into thinking that gender is fluid when it actually is connected directly to their sex. To think otherwise is to participate in a “mass confusion” brought on by radical activists, Walker said. What society needs is more debate about this issue, he said, not an organization unwilling to take a stand.

“I would not allow my children to participate in an institution that is furthering a deception and, quite frankly, a harm to these children,” Walker told the News-Record in a Feb. 27 phone interview. “I would not have my children in an organization that has cowardly bowed to the larger purveying cultural narrative.”

Walker said transgender children actually suffer from gender dysphoria, a diagnosis recognized by the American Psychiatric Association that describes those discontented with their biological gender. He said indulging children in their gender dysphoria does a disservice to them because they simply cannot biologically be the gender to which they feel they belong. Instead, he said, those children should see counselors for help.

John Stemberger, founder of Trail Life USA, an organization that provides a Boy Scouts-like experience infused with Christian principles, also does not believe being transgender should be legitimized. Stemberger said that 10 years ago he knew a 6-year-old boy who thought he wanted to be a girl. But Stemberger explained to the boy at the time that God had created him to be a male, and he worked with his parents to provide further counseling. Today that boy no longer has doubts about his gender; Stemberger said this shows that being transgender is usually a matter of having aberrant thoughts, which a child can grow out of.

In addition, Stemberger said allowing transgender boys who are biologically girls to change and shower in close quarters to other boys at a campground invites possible abuse. It is simply inappropriate, he said.

“No one is served by this,” Stemberger said. “It’s ‘Boy’ Scouts for a reason.”

Clearly both sides of the issue feel strongly about their position, especially when they have studies to support them.

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 nontransgender 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 the brain structures of transgender people resembled the brain structures of their identified gender more closely than their biological gender.

Still, many skeptics point out that studies have shown a majority of those diagnosed with gender dysphoria as children no longer feel like the opposite gender when they get older. 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, although 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.

Regardless of public opinion, Joe’s mother said she is glad the Boy Scouts are now allowing transgender children to join so that no other boy will have to go through what Joe did. And she will continue speaking out on transgender issues, telling the News-Record that she sometimes talks with high school students who need guidance and counsels people over the phone. She said she also recently requested that the New Jersey Attorney General’s office investigate the Northern New Jersey Council of Boy Scouts for discrimination.

Rebecca Fields, the council’s Scout executive, did not respond to requests for comment before press time Feb. 28.

But for all the change that has come about, the stress of the past few months has taken its toll. Maldonado said Joe has gone from earning straight A’s in school to struggling so much that he needs a tutor. She had to leave her job to handle everything that has come about, and her husband lost many hours of work for the same reason. Additionally, she said some of the other parents at Joe’s school are now distant after discovering he was transgender through this situation.

Just as upsetting, Maldonado said Joe was exposed to the many hurtful comments their family received on social media.

“He didn’t know there was hate out there,” Maldonado said. “I sheltered him. I never mentioned it. Now he knows.”

Through it all, Maldonado said she is so proud of Joe for standing up for himself. She feels he will likely face many challenges growing up as a transgender male, but she said knowing he has the courage to fight for what he believes in makes her worry a little less about his future. And if there was ever any doubt about his ability to stick up for himself, she pointed out that one can simply look at what he has accomplished.

“He made a difference in the world,” Maldonado said, adding that Joe has proven, “No matter how old you are, if you feel (a cause) is right stand up for yourself. And that might encourage adults that ‘If a child could do this, I could do it.’”