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.
Perhaps above all, Scout leaders said, the vote was a reaction to a slow but steady erosion of Scouting’s reputation.
“To be a ‘Boy Scout’ — even that phrase is a metaphor for all that’s good,” said Jay Mechling, an American studies professor at the University of California at Davis who wrote a history of the Scouts. “It was this steady drip of things. Each time something happened, it kept nibbling at the Boy Scout brand.”
Ten days after the historic vote, the Scouting world is on edge. Leaders who took part in the vote have kept their identities — and positions — secret. Some who opposed the decision are planning alternative organizations that would be overtly Christian in identity and would keep gays out. And no one thinks the latest move is the final statement on who can be a Scout.
Scouting’s official statements into the 1990s described “homosexual conduct” as “inconsistent with the requirements in theScout Oath,” which pledges each boy to “do my duty to God” and keep “morally straight.”
“Homosexuals do not provide a desirable role model for Scouts,” said the Boy Scouts’ position on homosexuality in 1991. By 2012, that language had been changed to read: “We do not grant membership to individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission.”
When James Dale, a New Jersey Eagle Scout who won some of Scouting’s highest honors, turned 18 in 1988, he became an assistant Scoutmaster in a troop sponsored by a Methodist church. Dale, then a student at Rutgers University, became an officer at the campus Lesbian/Gay Alliance, which in turn got him mentioned in a news story about gays on campus.
After that publicity, the local council fired Dale because the Boy Scouts “specifically forbid membership to homosexuals.” Dale sued, arguing that the ban was unconstitutional.
But in an eight-year legal odyssey, Scouting prevailed. A New Jersey judge said the Boy Scouts of America was within its rights as a private, “quasi-religious” group with “a God-acknowledged moral foundation” to oppose sodomy and, therefore, exclude gays. And in 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 for the Scouts, saying the government may not force a private organization “to accept a member it does not desire.”
Although the Scouts were winning in court, the publicity surrounding those disputes “started the process of outing the Scouts’ discriminatory policy,” said Jon Davidson, legal director of Lambda Legal, which advocates for gay rights. “The consequence was that over time, more and more people decided, okay, you have the right to discriminate, but we don’t have to support that policy.”
Over the next decade, cities, schools and park districts concluded that they could not spend tax dollars on behalf of a group that was not open to all. In 1998, officials in Berkeley, Calif., revoked subsidies to Scouts who had been using a city-owned marina. Sixty-five miles away, in Davis, city officials announced in 1999 that because of the ban, Scouts should be stripped of their $1-per-year use of a historic downtown cabin.
Last month, after a five-year legal battle, a Scout chapter in Philadelphia agreed to leave a city-owned building it had used, rent-free, since the 1920s.
The Scouts fought back, winning some major battles. In 2006, Congress banned schools from excluding Scouts if other private groups were permitted to use their facilities.
But Scouting faced an even more existential problem: Its membership numbers were in steady decline, dropping by about a quarter over the past 13 years.
Worried, the Scouts commissioned studies that warned that most young parents were no longer “in our traditional target markets” and that the portions of the U.S. population that were growing were mainly “in cultures that are not traditionally BSA members. This trend will continue.”
“Most of these youth are growing up in communities where diversity is the norm,” the study said. “They . . . want and expect diversity to be a part of the activities and organizations they join. Many see a Scout as a white or Anglo person who is not comfortable with people from diverse backgrounds.”
In 2008, the Mormon community, at the urging of the church’s top leader, pumped money and manpower into a California campaign to ban gay marriage. When the Proposition 8 ballot initiative passed, many gay Mormons protested against their church’s role in the campaign.
Since then, church leaders have made an unusual public effort to ease the rift. Although it still considers gay sex sinful, the church last year created the Web site mormonsandgays.org, which says that sexuality is not a choice.
“That’s a 180, acknowledging this is biological,” said Greg Prince, a church historian who has brokered talks between Mormon officials and gay activists. “This reset the whole relationship.”
Mitch Mayne, a gay Mormon who serves in the church’s San Francisco bishop’s cabinet, said the trauma of the Prop 8 debate, which divided families within the church, “blew the lid off the church’s approach to LGBT individuals. Your average Mormon on the street favors acceptance of all, and the church is coming to terms with that.”
Seventy percent of Scout troops are chartered by religious groups, and by far the largest sponsor of troops is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormon boys make up about a fifth of all Scouts. As a result, how the church approached gay membership was vital to Scouting leaders.
On April 25, a month before the vote, the Mormon Church announced that it was satisfied with the Scouts’ “good-faith effort”; as long as the Scouts continued to support abstinence and duty to God, Mormons would stay in Scouting.
The Catholic Church, the third-largest sponsor of Scout troops after Mormons and Methodists, gave no clear signal ahead of the vote. The National Catholic Committee on Scouting declined to comment for months. A few days before the vote, a leader of the committee said that he hoped parishes would be able to stay in Scouting.
In opinion surveys, Catholics are generally supportive of gay equality, although local church leaders have been divided on how to handle the ban.
Scouting’s leaders, sensitive to the views of religious sponsors, conducted surveys earlier this year and concluded that many religious groups were concerned “with homosexual adult leaders and not with youth.” Religious leaders predicted that scrapping the ban on gay youth and adults could result in membership losses of 100,000 to 350,000.
To some local Scout leaders, the fact that the national office undertook that research demonstrated that the organization was willing to alter its principles to improve the bottom line. “I simply cannot stay in an organization whose leadership puts a price on values for economic gain,” said Hugh Jacks, an Alabama Scout leader who resigned from his local council after the vote. “They say America’s changing and we have to change with the times. Well, America’s not changing, and biblical principles do not change.”
Those same biblical principles were the focus in Grapevine, Tex., on May 23 when the presiding bishop of the Mormon Church spoke to those who a few hours later would vote on whether to admit gay boys.
“The controversial moral, legal and policy issues that face this great organization,” Bishop Gary Stevenson said, “are deep and they are wide, and they will test the best in us.” The Mormons would accept the new policy, he said, not to signal that homosexuality was any less sinful but because the Scouts agreed that “any sexual conduct, whether homosexual or heterosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting.”
When Cozza first challenged the Scouts’ membership policy in 1997, he got death threats, angry tirades — and calls from gay teens thanking him for helping them see a place for themselves.
At school — he was in eighth grade when he launched his drive — “at first, kids made fun of me, but then, when they started seeing me get on TV, it became kind of the cool thing to do to stand up for rights,” he recalled. He never gave up hope that things would change, but he became frustrated by how long it was taking and now works as a real estate agent.
Across the country in New Hampshire, Mark Noel, an Eagle Scout who became a troop leader, lost that position two weeks after the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dale case. Ousted because he was gay, Noel launched theInclusive Scouting Network, which created a patch that Scouts could sew on their uniforms as a protest against the ban on gays.
Over the next decade, orders for the patch came in at an ever-faster pace. Last year, Noel distributed 12,000 of them, several times more than in previous years.
“The point was to break the false consensus, the idea that everyone who wears the uniform agreed with the discriminatory policy,” said Noel, who now lives in Prince George’s County.
Noel’s orders shot up after last November’s election, when both presidential candidates urged the Scouts to adopt a more-inclusive policy and voters in three states approved same-sex marriage. “That’s when the membership policy was doomed,” Noel said. “The Scout leadership realized how far out of synch their policies were with the rest of the country.”
Until 2007, a majority of Americans considered gay relations to be morally wrong, but since then, according to Scouting’s most recent study, attitudes have shifted markedly, with a consistent majority calling such relationships morally acceptable.
Scouting’s internal polling found that although six in 10 adult volunteers still supported the ban on gay Scouts, the opposite view now prevailed among Scouts and their non-Scout peers. Among parents in and out of Scouting, support for excluding gays dropped over the past three years from 58 percent to 42 percent.
The Scouts tested teens’ responses to several scenarios: A Scout is denied Eagle Scout status because he is gay. Unacceptable, said 74 percent of teens. A gay applicant is denied membership in a troop sponsored by a church that teaches that homosexuality is wrong. Unacceptable, said 64 percent of teens. A gay adult leader takes teen boys on a camping trip. That’s okay, said 52 percent of teens.
In summer 2011, President Obama announced the end of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy — an approach similar to the Scouts’.
“That was the other mostly male-dominated institution in America, and for them to welcome gay troops was a big cultural steppingstone,” said Aaron McQuade, a spokesman for GLAAD, formerly the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
After swift change in the government, in sports, in election results and public attitudes, pressure on the Scouts came next from corporate donors.
In 2012, a parade of major companies, including charitable foundations of Merck, Intel and UPS, said the Scouts’ ban on gays violated their nondiscrimination policies. The chief executives of AT&T and Ernst & Young, both members of the Scout national board, said they opposed the bans on gay youth and adults.
“I was reluctant to personally speak out,” said Ernst & Young’s Jim Turley. “That changed when the Scouts dismissed a den mother in Ohio last year because she was a lesbian. There was a lot of controversy, and rightly so.”
Within Scouting, the financial impact of the ban was becoming a difficult topic. Major donors to the Scouts were by no means monolithic. Thirty-three percent of major donors wanted to lift the ban, but 51 percent did not.
In an organization that took in $228 million in annual revenue, the loss of several million dollars in corporate donations would probably have been offset by additional gifts from supporters of the ban. But the drumbeat of corporate criticism and the loss of longtime donors such as some United Way branches did shift the conversation, Scout leaders said.
Defenders of the ban dismissed the corporate defections as mere political correctness. Many major companies “are terrified of being seen as bigoted and hateful and homophobic,” said Rob Schwarzwalder, a longtime Scout leader in Northern Virginia who is senior vice president of the Family Research Council, which advocates for conservative Christian policies in Washington.
But Schwarzwalder and other supporters recognized that they were losing the rhetorical battle: “It’s true that you cannot hear someone whose son is gay and had a terrible experience without feeling that that’s moving and compelling. But the reaction to these difficult stories should not be to say that any boy is welcome in Scouting.”
“We’re not going to put a 12-year-old boy in a tent with a 16-year-old homosexual,” Jacks said. “We’ll love any boy that has a problem, but we won’t put him in a tent with our sons.” (Scouting for years has made clear in training materials that there is no connection between gays and abuse of boys, “that same-sex sexual interest or same-sex sexual experience, in adults or youth, is NOT a risk factor for sexually abusing children.”)
Jacks and Schwarzwalder will leave Scouting, and they think many other conservative Christians will follow. “It’s heartbreaking,” Schwarzwalder said. “My sons are very loving and for all I know, some of their friends have same-sex attractions. But they’re not going to buckle on their principles. This is not about bigotry or hatred. It’s about Judeo-Christian principles.”
His 15-year-old twins, well on their way toward becoming Eagle Scouts, will leave before the new membership policy takes effect at year’s end.
The prospect of a large-scale exodus, another American institution cleaving over cultural and political divisions, saddens both sides, but across the ideological spectrum, there is consensus that Scouting’s policy on gays remains in flux.
Scouting spokesman Smith said that “there are no plans for further review” of the policy, but gay advocates and conservative Christians alike think an open door to gay adults is inevitable.
“There’s a clear double standard now,” said Noel, the Inclusive Scouting Network founder. “And that will drive more change, because people in Scouting are going to see good Scouts get kicked out right after they become Eagle Scouts, and people won’t accept that.”
“The leadership will take in the adult homosexuals next, and we will splinter greatly,” Jacks said. “The South, the West, the so-called Bible Belt will depart, and that saddens me because we will lose that mighty image of the Scouts as a maker of men.”