In 1980, the Boy Scouts learned that Eagle Scout Tim Curran was gay and rejected the 18-year-old’s application to be an assistant Scoutmaster. For the next 17 years, Curran fought the organization he loved, arguing that the Scouts’ discrimination because of sexual orientation was unconstitutional. He got nowhere.
In 1997, a 12-year-old Scout in California wrote a letter to his local newspaper “because I want people to know that the Boy Scouts of America is a great program but it won’t allow gay kids or grown-ups in scouting.” Steven Cozza, who is not gay, couldn’t understand why his favorite counselor at his church summer camp, who was gay, was not allowed to be a Scout. Cozza went on to run Scouting for All, an advocacy group that pushed to change the membership policy. It agitated for a dozen years and got nowhere.
Late last month, the Boys Scouts of America broke with 103 years of practice and announced that openly gay boys would no longer be banned from troops nationwide, although gay adults will remain excluded. The vote, which stunned many Scout leaders across the country, followed decades in which Scouting had portrayed the forces for change as a radical movement that sought to undermine the Boy Scouts’ role as a steward of traditional religious and family values.
Scouting’s pivot, which came 10 months after an emphatic reaffirmation of its exclusion of gays, has supporters and opponents of the change struggling to understand what happened and scratching their heads about the future. Was the Boy Scouts’ decision a case of following popular opinion, chasing donations, searching for increased membership or scurrying to catch up to shifting demographics? And after more than three decades of scorched-earth opposition to change, why did the flip happen now?
Scout leaders, gay activists, religious conservatives and historians of Scouting point to five key factors to explain the shift: a dramatic turnabout in public opinion about the morality of gay relationships and same-sex marriage, a groundswell from corporate leaders insisting on equal access for gays, shifting attitudes inside the two largest religious denominations within Scouting, a steady decline in troop membership and a sense that Scouting’s image had morphed in the public mind from Mom and apple pie to an exclusionary group with a narrowing appeal.
In written answers to questions from The Washington Post, Boy Scouts of America spokesman Deron Smith said the move to a new policy was prompted by “changes in society,” “calls for change” from Scouts, alumni and groups that sponsor troops, and “legal challenges and funding restrictions.”
As has happened in other American institutions, Scouting discovered that its members knew and loved gay people. Longtime Scouting officials described meetings at which fellow leaders shared stories of gay relatives or friends coming out, or spoke of gay teens and the strains they face. And Scouting’s internal polls showed huge increases in the number of teens and young parents who saw a contradiction between the membership policy and the Scouts’ stated values of honesty and fairness.