History passed quickly in a Chevy Chase church Monday night.
During a regular meeting of Boy Scout Troop 52, the scoutmaster announced that a member had earned the coveted Eagle Scout ranking and invited the 17-year-old to receive a badge, and with that, Pascal Tessier was recognized as one of the nation’s first openly gay youths to achieve the Scouts’ highest rank under a policy that went into effect last month.
“It’s just really amazing, and it honestly hasn’t really sunk in yet,” said Tessier, a senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. “We didn’t know if it was going to happen at all.”
Tessier put his Eagle Scout rank on the line last year when he spoke to the news media about being gay and participated in a public demonstration in advance of a vote held by the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) to determine whether to lift the organization’s long-standing ban on gay members and leaders.
Ultimately, the council voted to accept gay youths but not gay adults.
Even as he celebrated Monday night, Tessier was well aware of how the partial policy change could affect him. He will turn 18 in August.
“It’s kind of a backhanded acceptance: We accept you for now,” he said. “It says to you you’re a monster of some sort.”
There is no way to know if any other openly gay Scouts have become Eagle Scouts under the changed policy, which went into effect last month, but advocates believe Tessier is the first.
“I don’t know of any other Scouts out there who have said, ‘I am gay and I defy BSA to kick me out’ — and Pascal has done that,” said Eric Andresen, whose gay son, Ryan, was denied Eagle Scout status in 2012 even though he had completed all the requirements.
Andresen, who is on the executive board of a group called Scouts for Equality, said his son, now 19, was treated so badly that he no longer talks about it.
“The fact that Pascal is now able to get his award is directly because of what Ryan unfortunately went though,” Andresen said.
Zach Wahls, who was an Eagle and is the executive director of Scouts for Equality, said his organization plans to continue pushing for the inclusion of gay adult leaders. Tessier’s achievement only helps the cause, he said.
“We certainly think this is a day to celebrate,” Wahls said. “As we see more Pascal Tessiers coming up though the program, getting their Eagle Scouts, other scouting parents and other scouting leaders who might be a little more conservative will see there is nothing to be afraid of, that Pascal is a phenomenal young man and people like him make scouting better.”
Deron Smith, a spokesman for the BSA, said that 55,000 young men earn the rank of Eagle Scout each year and that more than 2 million have done so since 1912.
“Our focus remains on working together to deliver the nation’s foremost youth program of character development and values-based leadership training,” Smith said in a written statement.
Tessier’s mother, Tracie Felker, said that she had mixed feelings when her son decided to speak publicly about the ban. The family’s photo album shows Tessier as young as age 4 at scouting events with his older brother Lucien, who achieved his Eagle ranking several years ago.
“On the one hand, I was very proud of him for standing up for his principles and especially for speaking up for those young people who didn’t have the support he had,” Felker said.
“On the other hand, I was also anxious that several things might happen — one, of course, that he would get kicked out, which would be a shame because he really wanted it,” she said. “He’d been dreaming about becoming an Eagle since he was 7 years old.”
Felker comes to the issue in an unusual position: Both of her sons are openly gay. Lucien came out to his parents in 10th grade; Pascal came out two years later, while in eighth grade.
Felker said the problem with the Boy Scout’s new policy is that it suggests something changes in her children once they hit 18.
“What no one really wants to talk about is the suggestion that gay adults are child abusers, and that is infuriating,” she said.
“It’s impossible to believe that the creme de la creme of the Scouts, just because they turn 18, are no longer suitable to participate in the programs,” Felker said.
Tessier said that his parents and troop have always accepted him and that he has only seen the support swell since speaking publicly on the issue.
Among the letters Tessier received were two from Eagle Scouts offering up their badges to him.
“It’s interesting to see how ready the world was for change,” he said.
Aaron Chusid, a spokesman for the Boy Scouts’ National Capital Area Council, which oversees troops from Frederick and Fredericksburg, said the area has not seen much change in enrollment or funding since the policy changed. At 77 percent, the retention rate remains one the highest in the nation, he said.
Chusid has not met Tessier, who, along with his parents and classmates, held a demonstration a mile and a half from the NCAC’s headquarters in April, but he commended his accomplishment.
“Here’s a Scout that is standing up in a very public way for what he believes is right, even though he knew it might cost him personally, and there is no better example of what we teach,” Chusid said.
To achieve an Eagle Scout ranking, a boy must meet several criteria, including earning 21 merit badges, completing a community service project and appearing before a board of review. Tessier’s board of review was on Jan. 24.
A formal ceremony will be held for him and fellow Eagles in June.
Troop 52’s scoutmaster, Don Beckham, who recommended Tessier for the Eagle ranking and presented him with his badge Monday night, called him “an exceptional young man.”
During the review process, Beckham said the board asked him: In 30 years, how would you feel about Tessier sitting in your seat, being a scoutmaster?
“You’ve asked me that question in other boards, and you know I wouldn’t bring you a Scout that wasn’t worthy,” Beckham said he replied. “In this case, I can tell you I hope more than anything that Pascal is in this seat in 30 years.”