With the wave of a sign at a busy Bethesda intersection Thursday, Pascal Tessier joined about a dozen classmates in a demonstration against an organization he says he loves but knows doesn’t fully accept him and could, at any moment, throw him out.
Tessier, a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, is a poet, an electric guitar player and an ice cream lover. He is also a Boy Scout and openly gay, which puts him at risk of being denied the Eagle Scout ranking he has long pursued.
“The best word would be devastated,” Tessier said of how he’d feel if that were to happen. “I’d also feel betrayed, because it’s an organization I trusted, and I put my heart into doing good for them.”
In advance of the Boy Scouts of America annual meeting next month, where delegates from across the country will vote on whether to lift the long-standing ban on gay Scouts and leaders, those in favor and against the change have spoken out passionately.
A coalition of 42 conservative groups, including the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the Family Research Council, bought an ad in USA Today urging the Boy Scouts to keep its membership standards. “How will parents be able to entrust their children to the Boy Scouts if they trade the well-being of the boys for corporate dollars?” the groups asked.
Petitions posted on Change.org by Zach Wahls, founder of Scouts for Equality, urge executives at AT&T, Intel, Verizon and UPS to withhold donations if the scouts don’t lift the ban. They’ve been signed by thousands of people.
But among the voices, few have as much to lose than a 16-year-old with braces who sat cross-legged on the couch in his Kensington home one recent afternoon.
Last year, a gay Scout in California, Ryan Andresen, was denied Eagle Scout status, the group’s highest ranking, even after completing all the requirements. And in Ohio, den mother Jennifer Tyrrell was forced to step down by her troop because of her sexuality.
Thursday’s demonstration, which was organized by students who belong to B-CC’s Gay Straight Alliance, took place at Wisconsin Avenue and East-West Highway, within walkable distance of the high school. It was also, not by accident, a mile and a half from the headquarters of the National Capital Area Council, which oversees 687 troops between Frederick and Fredericksburg and which will send delegates to vote in Texas in May.
Aaron Chusid, a spokesman for council, said Tessier has reason to worry about his status. “Under the current policy, if he is out about being gay, he is not eligible for being a member, which would make it impossible for him to complete his Eagle,” Chusid said.
At the same time, Chusid praised the teen for displaying the lessons that are taught in Scouting. “It’s easy to talk about being brave when it doesn’t cost you anything,” he said.
Tessier uses two words to capture his experience with the Scouts: “Life shaping.”
“I definitely wouldn’t be the person I am today without the Boy Scouts, which sounds cheesy, but it’s true,” he said. “It’s a big part of my life, and I love it. I love the camping. I love the people. I especially love the lessons I’ve learned, life lessons and survival ones.”
Even before he was old enough to join the Scouts, Pascal was taking part in the organization’s activities. Pictures in the family’s red-leather-bound photo albums show a boy with platinum hair standing in front of a fire during a camping trip for his older brother’s Cub Scout pack.
“Look how tiny he is,” said Pascal’s mother, Tracie Felker, flipping through the album. “He’s 4 here.”
A few pages later, a 6-year-old Pascal, T-shirt tucked into his jeans, is shaking hands with a boy who beat him at the Scouts’ annual Pinewood Derby competition.
A couple pages more, a 7-year-old Pascal, donning a full blue Cub Scout uniform and a yellow handkerchief around his neck, smiles wildly.
“For those who are against including gay youth in the Boy Scouts of America, they don’t see a continuum in someone’s life,” Felker said. They don’t see that little boys who think kissing anyone is gross discover only later who they want to be on the receiving end of that gesture. “What is it about that person’s character that suddenly makes them incompatible with the core values of the Boy Scouts? They didn’t change from being cute little Cub Scouts into being morally questionable adults. They’re still good guys. They still really care about the social good.”
When Felker and her husband, Oliver Tessier, who was also a Scout, enrolled their sons in the organization, they had no idea that both — yes, both — would later tell them that they were gay.
Lucien Tessier came out first. He was in 10th grade, and his mother overheard him talking on the phone to a boy in way he wouldn’t to a friend. Pascal came out two years later, in eighth grade, after his father noticed his Facebook status update change from “single” to “in a relationship.”
Each time, Felker said, she was shocked, mostly because she realized she didn’t know her sons as well as she thought. But she didn’t reject them.
“It was complete acceptance,” recalls Lucien, 20. “I told my parents one night and the next day everything was the exact same as it was the day before. That is the ideal reaction.”
Lucien, who is now a student at Northern Virginia Community College and works part time at a law firm, has achieved Eagle Scout status, which can’t be taken away. But he said he worries about his brother, who has completed almost all of the requirements needed to become an Eagle Scout.
Pascal said his decision to take part in the demonstration comes from realizing that many gay Scouts across the country are not as fortunate as he is. He lives in an accepting community and belongs to a Chevy Chase-based troop where many people know about his sexuality but don’t make an issue of it.
“I’ve never had any negative experiences with being gay,” he said. “I’ve never been bullied or had anyone tell me it’s wrong.”
That is, except for the Boy Scouts, whose policy was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2000. Many troops are sponsored by Mormon, Baptist and Catholic churches, which traditionally consider homosexuality a sin.
“Even if I do get banned from the Boy Scouts, I still think it’s worth it,” Tessier said. “I’d rather put myself out there than not.”
Several nights before the demonstration, he and his mother sat in the kitchen after dinner, brainstorming slogans for the signs the students would wave at passing cars. They wrote down one idea after another. On Thursday, in front of the Bethesda Metro station, teenagers in flip-flops and tennis shoes waved white poster boards that read, “Badges 4 Tolerance . . . Scouts Are Kind . . . Love Conquers Hate . . . A Scout Is Equal.”
They would stay there for more than an hour, handing out fliers and cheering when cars honked, before heading their separate ways, aware that only one among them had to worry about what might happen next.