Boy Scouts consider
lifting gay ban
by Chuck Colbert
In a surprising turnabout, the Boy Scouts of America is "actively considering" an end to its longstanding exclusion of openly gay boys as members and gay parents as scout leaders, according to NBC News, which broke the story Monday, January 28.
The policy change, a move that reportedly may come as early as next week, would allow local groups – religious, civic, or educational organizations – to decide for themselves whether to accept gay youth or leaders.
Confirming NBC's reporting, the Boy Scouts posted a statement on its website later Monday.
"The BSA is discussing potentially removing the national membership restriction regarding sexual orientation," said Deron Smith, director of public relations for the Boy Scouts' national organization.
Absent a national policy on sexual orientation, he went on to say in the statement, "The chartered organizations that oversee and deliver scouting would accept membership and select leaders consistent with their organization's mission, principles, or religious beliefs. BSA members and parents would be able to choose a local unit which best meets the needs of their families."
If the new policy is approved by the organization's board of directors at a meeting next week, however, "under no circumstances" would the Scouts "dictate a position to units, members or parents" nor would the "BSA require any chartered organization to act in ways inconsistent with that organization's mission principles, or religious beliefs," said Smith.
More than 100,000 scouting units are chartered by civic, faith-based, and educational organizations; and the various units deliver programming to BSA members, according to the organization's website.
Specifically, faith-based units account for more than two-thirds of all scout troops, with nearly a quarter of the units chartered to civic organizations. The remaining units, not quite 10 percent, are chartered by educational organizations.
Among the chartered religious organizations, the top three include: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, United Methodist Church, and Roman Catholic Church – all of which have stood historically against LGBT equality and therefore may well be inclined not to admit openly gay scouts and scout leaders.
The potential for local units, both religious and civic, to continue excluding gay youth and adult leaders in scouting is a concern for some LGBT leaders and advocates.
As Iowa Eagle Scout Zach Wahls, founder of Scouts for Equality, told NBC News, "So essentially, instead of forcing people to discriminate they're going to allow people to discriminate," he said. "Even though one is less bad than the other, we still need to make sure that local units are understanding how a ban on gay members negatively affects their unit."
Nonetheless, Wahls also told NBC News that the Boy Scouts were moving in the right direction but still had a way to go.
In the spotlight last summer, Wahls, who is straight, spoke on national television during the Democratic National Convention about being raised by two moms, his lesbian parents.
Evan Wolfson, president and founder of Freedom to Marry, voiced concerns similar to those of Wahls.
"The reported decision of the Boy Scouts to change their discriminatory policy on gay members is a reflection of how out of step the Scouts hierarchy had become with today's youth and the majority of Americans," he said in an e-mail.
"Changing the policy would be a step in the right direction, but while an 'allow discrimination' local option is better than mandatory national discrimination, it still sends a harmful message to both gay and non-gay youth. The right answer is to be open to all boys, without discrimination, period," said Wolfson. "Progress, but not good enough."
For his part, Herndon Graddick, president of Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, emphasized the positive.
"Scouting is a valuable institution, and this change will only strengthen its core principles of fairness and respect," he said in a statement.
Equally upbeat was Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign.
"The pulse of equality is strong in America, and today it beats a bit faster with news that the Boy Scouts may finally put an end to its long history of discrimination," he said in a statement. "Our nation and its leaders respect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens, and it's time the Boy Scouts echo those values."
And Mark Anthony Dingbaum, senior campaign manager at Change.org, praised pressure to end the Scouts' national anti-gay policy, calling the push "a huge victory for people-powered change."
But not everyone is pleased with the BSA's change of mind. Tony Perkins, president of the anti-gay Family Research Council, said in a statement posted on the organization's website: "If the board capitulates to the bullying of homosexual activists, the Boy Scouts' legacy of producing great leaders will become yet another casualty of moral compromise."
Meanwhile, the BSA's turnabout comes after a nearly yearlong effort by GLAAD and Scouts for Equality, along with petition drives at Change.org. In all, more than 1.2 million people have signed petition campaigns calling for an end to the discriminatory policy.
One change.org petition – initiated by Jennifer Tyrrell, a lesbian mother from Bridgeport, Ohio who was ousted as her 7-year-old son's Cub Scout Pack's den mother in April 2012 – calls for a reconsideration of "exclusivity against gay youth and leaders" and "an end of discrimination in an organization that is shaping the future."
Tyrrell's petition has attracted more than 300,000 signatures. Last July she delivered her online petition to BSA national leadership in Irving, Texas.
At that time, however, the Boy Scouts re-affirmed a policy of banning gay members. The Scouts cited a two-year study by an 11-member special committee formed discretely in 2010 that concluded that the "current policy remains the best interest of scouting," according to a BSA press release and Associated Press reporting.
Long an anti-gay group
For decades, the Scouts have maintained an anti-gay policy. Moreover, in 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, upheld the Scouts' right to dismiss a gay assistant scoutmaster, saying that as a private organization, it had the right to decide whichever values it wishes to communicate.
But over the years, pressure for change persisted and gained momentum.
"The Boy Scouts of America have heard from scouts, corporations, and millions of Americans that discrimination is wrong," said GLAAD's Graddick.
For example, two members of the Boy Scouts' board, James Turley, chairman and CEO of Ernst and Young, and Randall Stephenson, chairman and CEO of AT&T, had said last summer they would advocate a change in the Scouts' policy.
GLAAD and Scouts for Equality also succeeded in pressuring BSA corporate donors, including Intel Corporation, United Parcel Service, and Merck Foundation, to withhold funding until the Boy Scouts end its policy banning gay youth and parents.
Last fall, a Bay Area mother, Karen Andresen of Moraga, petitioned her local Boy Scout council to honor her son Ryan with an Eagle Award that was denied to him when Ryan came out as gay. An official Eagle Board of Review unanimously approved Ryan's application for Eagle, but a Boy Scout executive ultimately rejected his application.
Andresen's online Change.org petition has garnered more than 400,000 signatures. The petition asks leadership from Troop 212 and the Mt. Diablo Silverado Council "to reject the Boy Scouts of America's discriminatory anti-gay policy and to give Ryan Andresen the Eagle award he's earned."
Reached by phone, Ryan's father, Eric Andresen, said he was "cautiously optimistic" about the possibility of change in BSA policy.
"Let's hope it happens," he said. "I can't imagine being so public and then backing out. It's a good first step, not the whole thing yet, but a step in the right direction."
Andresen said his 18-year-old son Ryan, "would still like to be recognized for the work he has done."
"Ryan hopes that nobody would have to go through what he had to go through," said his father. "This [new policy] will help other scouts in the circumstances he's in," enabling them "to stay involved" in scouting.