GRAPEVINE, Texas — The Boy Scouts of America’s lifting the ban on openly gay youth Thursday came 12 years after I received this charge:
"Change will only come from the inside."
It came from a silver-haired man who wore his Boy Scout uniform. Despite a lifetime of service to the Boy Scouts of America, he had been kicked out a few months prior for being gay. He exhorted me not to leave the organization.
He told me this as we stood in protest in Copley Square outside the BSA’s 2001 national annual meeting, held in Boston. I had in one hand a rainbow sign that said “Den Mothers for Inclusion,” and in the other hand my blue-uniformed 10-year-old Cub Scout son. I was heavy-hearted at the Supreme Court decision the year before allowing the BSA to ban gays from membership. We were an outdoors and craft-oriented family and my son loved Scout activities, which I had introduced him to. But how could I allow him to participate in an organization that would discriminate against our gay and lesbian family members and friends?
The silver-haired gentleman provided a startling new way to look at the issue. He said, “If people like you who support people like me do not stay to press change from within, it will never happen. The Supreme Court has assured that. If a boy who begins as a 7-year-old Cub Scout realizes he is a 13-year-old gay teen, who will he turn to if there are no sympathetic adults?”
On Thursday, some of that change came in the vote by the 1,400-member national board, of which I am a member. It was hardly all that I desired; the BSA will for now continue to ban gay adult members, and will not officially allow local councils and troops to set their own policies accepting gays. I believe that is just as wrong as banning gay youth. It would be silly if it were not so sad to consider the plight ahead for boys who work so hard to become Eagle Scouts, many of them just before their 18th birthday, only to be told a few months or weeks later that they are no longer welcome.
But given the passions and rancor, which included riding past a mile of “no” protesters on the way to the national meeting, it was more than a cup half full. For all of the resistance, forces have been unleashed that are leading ultimately to more changes to come. Before the vote, many people spoke to the national meeting about the need for change. They included:
- An African-American man told of being in a segregated troop in the South in the 1950s. “They learned to accept us and we will learn to accept gay Scouts,” he said.
- A Jewish man spoke of being a religious minority, how much he appreciated being accepted by the majority, and how that made him sympathetic to the difficulties faced by being a sexual minority.
- Two college-age youth members, the National Venturing President and the Northeast Region Venturing President, reported that their peers, the youth membership, “did not care” if another Scout was gay and strongly urged inclusion.
- A Mormon woman reported that in discussions with her 12-year-old grandson, a Scout, that he did not mind at all tenting with a gay Scout. “After all, Grandma,” he said, “Gay people are everywhere you know.”
- An adult Mormon Scout leader from upstate New York spoke of the devastating impact the exclusionary policy was having on his council’s ability to fund-raise. If this resolution failed, his council would have to sell substantial properties. He begged his colleagues from more conservative regions to be mindful of the economic impact their votes would have on those trying to promote Scouting in more liberal areas.
- A Scout leader reported on a conversation he had on the plane ride to Texas. He sat next to an Eagle Scout who was a Navy submariner. The Navy man reported on his recent experience with the military’s removal of the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy that banned gays from serving openly. Immediately after the policy was lifted, four men on his submarine came out as gay. A submarine is very close quarters. In fact, they have a tradition they call “hot beds.” On submarines, the crew works in shifts, and each bed is used by several men in turn, as they get off their work shift and get a chance to sleep. There was not one ripple of discontent or controversy when the four gay men came out. He felt if the military can handle this change, surely the BSA can as well.
- A Philadelphia lawyer reminded the group that “each child is made in God’s image.”
It is clear these forces now extend well beyond the liberal confines of Cambridge, where I serve Scout Troop and Venture Crew 56 and where we all wore rainbow knots to show our support for inclusive Scouting. Defending Scouting in the face of outdated social bigotry has become untenable in all but the most conservative reaches. Too many leaders like me all around the nation were wasting countless hours every September trying to convince prospective new families — often in vain — to stick with a program that is a terrific builder of character and respect for the outdoors, in the hopes that it would become truly inclusive. Even among some families that did join, the national policies fed into larger fears that the Boy Scouts were more a myopic, militaristic, and moribund group than a character-building, outdoors-respecting, 21st century organization.
As most people know, the dam between bigotry and modern times broke over the last year with incidents such as the kicking out of lesbian Cub den leader Jennifer Tyrell in Ohio and the denials of Eagle Scout rank to California’s Ryan Andresen. With several Fortune 500 corporations saying they would no longer fund the Scouts, with “don’t ask, don’t tell” ending in the military, and with President Obama publicly saying it was time for the Scouts to end discrimination, today’s vote would have been a disaster for Scouting had it gone the other way.
But we are still left with a headache. Today’s vote was like a dose of aspirin that eased the severity but does not yet cure the disease. But I am heartened that in the most unsuspecting places, I see even more change coming. The next move should be to let local units fully drop the ban if they wish.
My best example comes from my many trips to the BSA’s Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, either as an adviser to four youth mountain treks or other trips for adult training and teaching. In those trips I have met scores of adult leaders from all over the nation, including many from the so-called bible belt of Southern and Midwestern America.
The mountain treks involve 10 nights of backpacking and in the evenings adults gather on porches in the backcountry for private time away from the youth. Several Scoutmasters and Venturing advisers told us over and over again, even if they personally supported the gay ban, that it was time to drop it because it was killing youth membership and corporate fundraising. With youth membership now under 2.7 million from 5 million in the 1970s, and with Cub membership, the biggest single segment of Scouting, falling the fastest, Scouters from states like Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas told me it was better to adapt to the times and allow gay members rather than risk a national collapse of Scouting by keeping gays out.
That sentiment was reflected by a 2-to-1 margin Thursday.
Somewhere out there, I hope the silver-haired gay scout reads this. You were right. Change can happen from the inside.
Michelle D. Holmes is an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health. As an officer of Boston Minuteman Council and the Northeast Region of the Boy Scouts of America, she held one of the 1,400 votes at this week’s national BSA meeting. Her youngest son Tano Holmes is an Eagle Scout.