DALLAS, Texas — On May 23, the Boy Scouts of America’s (BSA) national leadership council passed a new policy allowing gay youth to become Scouts. The measure, which does not rescind Scouting’s ban on gay adults and non-theists, comes after a year-long campaign for equality in Scouting by GLAAD (formerly known as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) and other organizations, including Scouts for Equality, the Inclusive Scouting Network and Change.org.
Sixty-one percent of the BSA’s 1,400-member National Council voted in favor of including gay Scouts. The new measures will take effect on Jan. 1, 2014.
The membership change had stoked controversy on both sides of the issue. Change.org collected 1.8 million petition signatures urging a change in BSA policy. On My Honor, a national group opposed to the policy change, had galvanized its supporters, as well.
Supporters of the policy change praised it as victory but said more work must be done.
“Now is the time to begin the next phase of this fight and bring down the final wall of BSA discrimination,” Truth Wins Out Executive Director Wayne Besen said in a statement. Besen has described the decision as a compromise that “reinforced the most vile stereotypes and misconceptions deliberately peddled by anti-gay activists” because of the Scouts’ decision to keep the ban on gay adults.
Those who supported the policy change have described it as a “small step in a much longer journey for Scouting,” according to Inclusive Scouting Network co-founder Mark Noel.
He added, “Supporters of inclusive Scouting will not rest until this institution is safe and equal for all people. Discrimination on any level is unacceptable.”
Personal stories shared
One Scout who stands to profit from this change is Pascal Tessier, a 16-year-old openly gay Scout from Maryland who was denied his Eagle award due to the BSA’s previous ban. Tessier’s brother launched a petition on Change.org to press the BSA to lift the ban and allow his brother to get his award, getting over 128,000 signatures.
“Obviously, for gay Scouts like me, this vote is life-changing,” Tessier said. “Finally, Scouts are no longer forced to choose between upholding the Scout Oath and being open and honest about who they really are.”
Jennifer Tyrrell, a lesbian mom from Ohio, was removed last year from her post as a Cub Scout leader in her son’s pack.
“I’m so proud of how far we’ve come, but until there’s a place for everyone in Scouting, my work will continue,” Tyrrell said in a release.
GLAAD spokesperson Rich Ferraro echoed Tyrrell’s call to action.
“Today’s vote is a significant victory for gay youth across the nation and a clear indication that the Boy Scouts ban on gay adult leaders will also inevitably end,” said Ferraro. “GLAAD will continue this work with those committed to equality in Scouting until gay parents and adults are able to participate.”
Like Tyrrell, Greg Bourke, an openly gay father, was also removed from a leadership position in his son’s Boy Scout troop. The youth policy, Bourke said, “is definite progress.”
“But even with this approved membership change,” Bourke added, “gay adults like Jennifer Tyrrell and myself will continue to be banned from serving in the Scouts, even in units with our own children. There is no other word for that except discrimination.”
The movement to change the Scouts’ membership policy was led by a coalition of groups, including GLAAD, Change.org, Scouts for Equality and the Inclusive Scouting Network.
“Scouts for Equality is honored to be a part of the movement that has achieved a tremendous victory towards the fight for equality in America and we are proud to call ourselves Scouts,” Scouts for Equality co-founder Zach Wahls said in a release. “We look forward to the day where we can celebrate inclusion of all members and are committed to continuing our work until that occurs.”
Locals respond to Scout decision
Local LGBT advocacy groups and local Scout councils and supporters both responded following last week’s membership decision.
In Charlotte, Mecklenburg County Council Scout Executive Mark Turner called for unity as the new policy is implemented.
“Delivering outstanding Scouting programs for the youth of Mecklenburg County is our highest priority,” Turner said in a statement. “The Mecklenburg County Council will continue to offer Scouting to all youth and families that wish to participate. The outcome of the membership policy resolution will not deter the council from moving forward with plans to achieve this objective.”
He added, “The Mecklenburg County Council will support this decision of our volunteer leadership and encourages our members, families and supporters to stay focused on that which unites us, reaching and serving young people to develop them in strong leaders and help them grow into good, strong citizens.”
Turner’s views were echoed by other Scout leaders in the state.
“We know that this decision will not satisfy everyone in the eight counties of the Old Hickory Council,” Old Hickory Council Executive Steve Wilburn, of Winston-Salem, told The Winston-Salem Journal. “However, our area is blessed with thousands of wonderful adult volunteers who are dedicated to providing youth with the very best Scouting experience. Others in our communities support the character building, leadership skills, and citizenship training that are the hallmarks of the BSA.”
East Carolina Council Executive Ray Franks said his council will keep its focus on “serving more youth, building character and teaching the values represented in the Scout Oath and Law through a faith based program.”
The new policy, which does not rescind the ban on leadership by openly gay young adults and adults, does not change the Scouts’ faith-based membership and leadership requirements.
Carolina LGBT groups were quick to praise the victory and to push for further changes.
“Without a doubt, today marks a historic moment for fairness and equality in scouting,” Equality North Carolina Executive Director Stuart Campbell said in statement. “Equality NC applauds the Boy Scouts of America for taking a step in the right direction by lifting the ban on gay kids. Scouting is an important institution for millions of kids and young adults, and all children, regardless of sexual orientation, should have an equal opportunity to benefit from that experience. However, the BSA’s policies still leave behind gay Eagle Scouts who turn 18, and gay and lesbian scout leaders and parents who simply want to volunteer their time and share their experience, and they should be given the opportunity to do so.”
“The LGBT Center of Raleigh applauds the BSA for their vote to allow LGBT youth into their program, but it does not go far enough,” LGBT Center of Raleigh Executive Director James Miller said in a statement. “By maintaining their ban on gay and trans individuals from becoming scout masters, this action is merely a first step on the road to equality.”
Since the decision, a handful of opponents have said they will leave Scouting, including Charlotte Scout leader Skip Alexander, who is a former counselor at a Christian and “ex-gay” therapy group.
“There were people there today, myself included, who have put on our boy scout uniform for the last time,” Alexander told WCCB Charlotte. “I could no longer in good conscience recommend the scouting program to a young cub scout or boy scout.”
On My Honor, a national group opposed to the policy change and affiliated with the Family Research Council, has said it will meet next month to begin discussions on forming a faith-based youth alternative. The Family Research Council has been listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Others have said they will continue to support the organization. Greensboro City Councilman Zach Matheny, whose 12-year-old son is in Scouting, applauded the decision. He told The News & Record that he talked to his son, who said he is has gay friends. Matheny said his son doesn’t see sexual orientation as an issue.
“It hasn’t really fazed him,” Matheny said.
— Editor Matt Comer contributed to this report; he is a co-founder and board member of the Inclusive Scouting Network and has been active in advocacy work on the BSA policy initiatives.