Across the river in Potomac Falls, Denise Steele was stunned by Scouting’s decision to consider a change. Steele and her partner of 20 years, Jackie Funk, who live with their two children and Steele’s nephew, don’t trumpet their sexual orientation to anyone, but many of their neighbors know that they are lesbians.
Their kids’ teachers know, a few people at their church know and the scoutmaster of Troop 761 knew, because Steele asked him whether it would be a problem when she signed up to be an assistant scoutmaster. He assured her it would be okay.
“If you know us, you don’t know us as gay,” says Steele, 41, who works in IT but is between jobs. “We’re just Jackie and Denise.”
For six years, Steele was a parent volunteer and leader in her son Jackson’s Cub and Boy Scout units. She got involved when Jackson was in first grade, when parents were setting up a new den and there weren’t enough volunteers. Steele stepped up, teaching woodworking, plant biology and outdoor skills. No one mentioned her sexuality. She didn’t even know about the policy banning gays.
Then, two summers ago, when the boys were on a camping trip on Assateague Island, a fellow parent, also an assistant scoutmaster, saw Funk pick up Steele so she could get to work.
Skip Inabinett asked other parents who had picked up Steele. Informed that it was her partner, Inabinett called Steele and told her she was living in sin, needed to change her ways, and was violating Scouting’s rules.
The Bible, he wrote her in an e-mail the next day, “tells us to flee from sexual immorality. This is even more urgent given the culture in which we live that justifies sin and calls those who hold to God’s standard as intolerant and judgmental.”
Inabinett then informed the scoutmaster and other leaders that their troop had a lesbian leader who needed to be removed, according to his e-mails.
Reached at his office, Inabinett said he had “no comment on any aspect” of the incident or Scouting’s membership policy. In an e-mail to another parent, however, he explained his actions: “It is not being judgmental for Christians to hold to God’s moral standards and to hold others to his standards. God said that homosexuality is sin.”
Steele was removed from her position shortly after Inabinett’s complaint. Phil Holliday, executive pastor at Christian Fellowship Church in Ashburn, which sponsors Troop 761, said he had no comment on the issue.
“At a certain point, I said, okay, they’re a private organization and they can make their own rules,” Steele says. “But for a long time, I was really distraught. A grown woman crying about Boy Scouts! But it was a bond I’d had with my son since he was a Tiger.
“I live in an almost-entirely Republican neighborhood, but people here, because they like me and my partner, they overlook — no, they accept us for who we are. Why can’t the Scouts?”
Steele’s son, now 13, didn’t feel comfortable staying in a troop that had ousted his mother, so he switched to another one, which he loves — though he is sad that his mother, alone among the parents, was not allowed to join him as a volunteer at Scouting camp.
Jackson’s troop is always recruiting merit badge counselors, “begging for help,” Steele says. “I could be a counselor for at least seven badges, but I can’t sign up.”
The apparent shift in Scouting’s policy has given her hope she will be able to rejoin her son, hope that the one place where she has felt excluded will now meld into the rest of a life in which she has felt vastly more accepted during the past two decades.
That hasn’t happened yet, and Steele isn’t one to force the issue; her way of winning equality was to demonstrate that she was as good for the Scouts as anyone else — an approach aimed not at the people in charge, but at fellow parents.
In Silver Spring, the fate of Pack 442’s more in-your-face approach remains unresolved: the unit’s charter expired Thursday — without a charter, a unit is no longer recognized as part of Scouting and loses access to camps, badges, insurance and other programs — and its application for renewal has received no reply.
“Pack 442’s charter has been submitted for renewal,” Scout Council spokesman Aaron Chusid says. “We have no further comment at this time.”