History’s being made this month. Last week, President Barack Obama became the first president to use the term “gay” in reference to sexual orientation in an inauguration speech. And on Monday the Boy Scouts of America — which successfully fought against allowing gays into its ranks all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 — said it may reverse its policy next week.
Just last summer BSA had reaffirmed its stand to keep gays out. But it wasn’t a popular move. Membership in BSA is on the decline — and financial support is falling as well. The Merck Company Foundation, Intel Foundation, UPS and United Way have stopped or postponed donations due to the anti-gay policy of the 102-year-old organization.
Two members of the Boy Scouts of America national executive board: Ernst & Young CEO James Turley and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson have supported dumping the ban on gays in favor of inclusion regardless of sexuality.
Then there are the negative headlines: A lesbian mom was kicked out of her position as a den leader in Ohio. The Eagle Scout application of a California teen who came out was rejected. And last summer, a 19-year-old Eagle Scout in Missouri was fired from his job at a Scout summer camp after he announced he was gay.
Deron Smith, a spokesman for Boy Scouts of America, told me the decision to revisit the policy during a private meeting of the national executive board next week resulted from “a longstanding dialogue within the Scouting family.” As he explained, “Last year, Scouting realized the policy caused some volunteers and chartered organizations which oversee and deliver the program to act in conflict with their missions, principles or religious beliefs.”
Smith stressed that the board may consider lifting the national ban, but that it will remain up to the individual chartering organization whether to allow gays as members and leaders. Troops are sponsored by churches, civic groups and schools. BSA would not force any local chartering institution to accept gays.
That makes the national ruling something of a compromise. BSA’s basically giving local groups permission to make their own decision. Some troops have quietly accepted gays; Minnesota’s largest group of Boy Scouts, the Twin Cities-based Northern Star Council, has had an inclusive policy for 12 years.
Keeping it local makes sense to many parents and adult leaders. “I think it’s a good idea to leave it up to the local troop,” said Ken Mason, assistant scoutmaster of my son’s troop in Overland, Kansas, and the father of two Eagle Scouts.
“The individual troop has a much better sense of who has a positive or negative influence on the boys,” pointed out Glenn Carney, another assistant scoutmaster and dad of two Eagle Scouts.
But making the decision locally also puts a burden on the troop — and its volunteers, Kent Bredehoeft, Scoutmaster and father of two Scouts told me. “BSA relies on volunteers, and this puts the volunteers in a difficult political situation that, without clear BSA policy, takes away their attention from delivering the BSA mission.”
He questioned what kind of support the national office will give local troops “except to say it’s your decision.” Bredehoeft added that the decision will “be a very challenging one.”
Another dad, who preferred to remain anonymous, said as long as any Scout met the requirements, including being reverent and morally straight (that phrase was used before straight had a sexual connotation), his sexual orientation didn’t matter.
Just as reaction nationally is mixed, not every parent liked the idea of a change in policy, however. “I lost my ability to advance in scouting as a young man because of a scoutmaster who was a pedophile,” one dad wrote me in an email. “I am dead set against gays in scouting.”
Allowing openly gay leaders seemed tougher for some parents to accept. One mom, who prefaced her remarks with the belief that homosexuality does not equal pedophilia, still admitted she would worry about the safety of the boys.
“Most of BSA’s constituent parents view this as a safety issue more than a moral issue,” another dad wrote in an email. “I think BSA thinks the notion continues to exist among parents of elementary school age boys, making the decision whether to let their sons join an organization where there will be lots of overnight trips to isolated locations, in the company of relatively few adult leaders, that their sons are more at risk of being molested if those leaders include homosexuals.”
Certainly the reputation of Boy Scouts has been tarnished with reports of molestations and the court-ordered release of secret files, also referred to as the “perversion files,” that listed names of suspected child molesters. BSA has worked hard to protect boys in recent years; since 1987, two-deep leadership has been instituted (which, if followed, protects both boys and adult leaders). Any adult member of Boy Scouts is required to update Youth Protection Training every two years. And any evidence of sexual abuse of a Scout must be reported to the local police.
I hope the issue of allowing gays does not end up destroying the organization. As the mom of a 15-year-old who’s been involved in Scouting since kindergarten, I’ve seen the positive side of Boy Scouts. I’ve seen him develop responsibility and leadership skills. I’ve seen other boys grow and mature.
I asked some of the older Scouts in the troop what they thought of the possible change in policy; they didn’t see a problem. One Eagle Scout bluntly put it, “It’s [anti-gay policy] ridiculous….It’s terribly sad to see limited opportunities for others because of stupid and absurd reasons.”
Another Eagle Scout didn’t think sexual orientation should prevent anyone from the benefits of the Scouting experience, including obtaining his Eagle. But he also wondered how many churches across the country would revoke charters to an organization that allowed an openly gay leader.
One dad who sent me an email summed it up well, I thought, using the Boy Scout Law: ” ‘Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean and Reverent.’ Don’t see anything in there that excludes gays.”
Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Overland Park, Kan. and the mom of a Boy Scout who’s working on his Eagle rank. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.