The ambivalence of Cub Scout parents as Scouting excludes gay adults

Oliver Tessier, left, holds a sign as he protests with others for equality within Boy Scouts of America in Bethesda on Thursday. His son, Pascal Tessier, was also at the demonstration. Pascal is a scout and is gay. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Oliver Tessier, left, holds a sign as he protests with others for equality within Boy Scouts of America in Bethesda in February. His son, Pascal Tessier, was also at the demonstration. Pascal is a scout and is gay. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

We are finishing up our fourth year in Cub Scouts, my oldest son and I. From the start, I have carried the guilt that he is enrolled in a national organization that is openly anti-gay. But that was balanced by the opportunity for my son to spend time with his friends outside of school, maybe learn some useful stuff, take fun field trips and go camping with his friends. The policy that banned gay kids and adults from Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts was never discussed.

But it’s back out in the open again. Pressured by gay rights groups and boycotted by corporate sponsors who called the policy discriminatory, the Boy Scouts of America last week took the step of admitting gay youths but not gay parents and adult alumni, of which there are many. This offended people on both sides: Those who wanted full gay participation, and those who wanted no gay participation. The opponents of gays, in particular, are talking about mass withdrawal from Scouting.

There are plenty of photos floating around of young Scouts and their parents holding signs opposing gays in Scouting, mostly from more conservative parts of the country and some Christian groups. But in increasingly liberal Northern Virginia, a number of parents are firmly on the other side: In favor of gay participation, troubled by a policy that doesn’t go far enough, and already deeply involved in the group with our own kids.

Clockwise from left, Boy Scouts Eric Kusterer, Jacob Sorah, James Sorah, Micah Brownlee and Cub Scout John Sorah hold signs at the Save Our Scouts Prayer Vigil and Rally in front of the Boy Scouts of America National Headquarters in Irving, Texas on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. With its ranks deeply divided, the Boy Scouts of America is asking its local leaders from across the country to decide whether its contentious membership policy should be overhauled so that openly gay boys can participate in Scout units. The proposal to be put before the roughly 1,400 voting members of the BSAs National Council on Thursday, May 23, 2013 at a meeting in Grapevine, Texas, would retain the Scouts long-standing ban on gays serving in adult leadership positions. (Richard Rodriguez/Associated Press)
Clockwise from left, Boy Scouts Eric Kusterer, Jacob Sorah, James Sorah, Micah Brownlee and Cub Scout John Sorah hold signs at the Save Our Scouts Prayer Vigil and Rally in front of the Boy Scouts of America National Headquarters in Irving, Tex., in February. They were urging the scouts to maintain a policy that prohibits homosexuals from membership, as scouts or adult leaders. (Richard Rodriguez/Associated Press)

The Scouts stand for public service, family values and faith in God. They grow all three of those tenets in the youths a little more each year, nurturing productive, positive citizens. We thought these were good things for our boys. Our Cub pack and Boy Scout troop in particular are sponsored by a great church and run by smart, compassionate, fun people. We don’t want to exclude anybody.

So while every church, Cub Scout pack and Boy Scout troop, has to figure out what they’re going to do, so do the Akelas — the parents, the individual leaders of our growing individuals. I batted this around with several Northern Virginia Cub Scout dads over the weekend. Are we still in this for the long haul? There’s at least one more year of Cubs for some of us, and then maybe five more years in the Boy Scouts.

None of the dads I chatted and e-mailed with were happy with the new policy. “In some ways, the new policy is more ignorant than the old,” said Bruce DeCleene, a neighbor with one son in the Cubs. “I could understand the old one as something rooted in a religious belief, and not necessarily in prejudice. I suspect the new policy is founded instead in a fear that homosexuals are more likely to be adult predators or otherwise somehow dangerous (spreading homosexuality like a disease?). I am disgusted by this ignorance.”

DeCleene added that he isn’t necessarily angry about the Scouts’ policy, because there is “still a lot of ignorance and prejudice” in the world, but “I feel a little guilty that I am not taking a more active stand on behalf of my homosexual friends.” I too worried about that, and asked a gay friend about it. She said she understood the practicality of having a place where boys can be boys, but could never put her own son in Scouts.

Jerry Coleman, who has two boys in the Cubs, said, “Being Catholic, I guess I view Scouting like church. I don’t subscribe to all the teachings, but it serves a purpose for the kids to help give them a moral compass. Speaking of kids, they’re what this is really all about. My kids care about sports, video games and who sells the best burger. They are oblivious to this debate and I don’t think they’d care either way if I brought it up.”

I asked Paul Robinson, who has one son in Cubs, about discussing it with his nine-year-old, and he said he did. “The way I explained it to him,” Robinson said, “was they could substitute ‘gay’ with ‘black’ and all of a sudden, you can’t participate in Scouts. [Paul is African American.] How would that feel?” I tried talking about it with my nine-year-old a few months ago, and he didn’t want to hear it.

Robinson raised the issue with our pack leaders last summer, and they assured him that our pack was “an example of inclusivity.” Still, he said the ban on gay leaders was “offensive and my personal dissatisfaction with the Boy Scouts of America will not go away until the gay leader ban is lifted.”

But so far none of us is ready to leave in protest. DeCleene analyzed it the best. “I think it would be as wrong for me to judge scouts by this one issue as it is for them to judge some parents for the same issue,” he said. He said he hadn’t discussed the matter with his son, but when he does, “I will explain it as one chapter of a broader narrative of progress, because I firmly believe that the next policy will not tolerate discrimination of any kind. I don’t know when that change will come, but it will.” History, and the momentum behind this first change, indicates he’s right.

Should we vote with our feet, or be patient and wait for the inevitable change? Should we support scouting as it suffers losses from anti-gay groups, and maybe also from those who feel it hasn’t made enough change? The message seems to be that a boy is fit to be a scout if he is gay, but once he turns 18, he is no longer fit. And how do we justify our continued participation to our gay friends?

Your thoughts welcomed below. To see the Boy Scouts of America’s research on the issue prior to last week’s vote, go here.

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.
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Tom Jackman | May 24, 2013