Seeking to be ‘morally straight,’ as the Boy Scouts' oath states, New England LGBT allies seek ways to resist the national organizations’ discriminatory policy against gays
Editor's Note: The following story is adapted from the November/December 2012 issue of Boston Spirit magazine.
by Scott Kearnan
On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.
— The Scout Oath
The date is not set yet, but the invitation went out.
A leader of Boy Scout Troop 6 in Brookline, Matthew Christensen, reached out to Greater Boston PFLAG (Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays) to speak to the membes of his troop.
“It make would make a lot of sense for what we’re trying to push, which is for scouts to be leaders in anti-bullying,” said Christensen in a recent phone interview with Boston Spirit. And, he said, it reinforces the idea of the troop being a “safe space.”
Christensen is walking a fine line. When the national office of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) announced this past July — less than a year after the US military successfully repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell — that it would reaffirm its longstanding policy that prohibits the inclusion of openly gay scouts and scout leaders, a policy first officially articulated in 1991, councils and council leaders across the United States had to decide how to respond.
In New England, where LGBT rights are mainstream, many local councils — which oversee local troops, like Brookline’s Troop 6 — are wrestling with the policy. Six area Boy Scout groups are listed as “supporting councils” on the website of Scouts for Equality, an organization that advocates for LGBT inclusion in the BSA.
But only one other council leader responded to interview requests from Boston Spirit: Sean Martin, from Boston Minuteman Council.
“The Boston Minuteman Council has a non-discrimination policy, adopted in 2001, that is straightforward and clear,” said council spokesperson Martin in a succinct e-mail. “It has been and will continue to be our practice.”
Boston Minuteman’s anti-discrimination policy was adopted in 2001 in response to Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, a Supreme Court case that upheld the BSA policy of banning openly gay members and leaders. The Boston Minuteman Council’s policy states that members of the council “pride ourselves on the diversity of our members” and will “pledge to respect all people and to defend the rights of others.” It further claims that “bias, intolerance, and unlawful discrimination are unacceptable within the ranks of the Boston Minuteman Council," and concludes by affirming that the council serves youth “without regard to color, race, religion, ethnic background, sexual orientation or economic status.”
Scouts for Equality founder and Eagle Scout Zach Wahls said that carefully crafted responses to the national policy, like Martin’s, are not surprising. “Supportive councils don’t necessarily want to talk to media or the national organization,” said Wahls, 21, the author of My Two Moms who first garnered national attention through a viral video that showed him eloquently addressing Iowa lawmakers about same-sex marriage. If local groups are seen as flouting the anti-gay policy, the BSA could revoke a charter.
Troop 6‘s Christensen considers that threat to be devastating. He said that people often ask why troops that disagree with the national policy don’t simply defect and continue on as unaffiliated community camping groups. He answers them by explaining that being affiliated with the Boy Scout facilitates access to certain opportunities for the kids and offers important liability protections for the leaders that wouldn’t otherwise be available.
On the other hand, “Adult leaders in our troop don’t want to be perceived as homophobes. We’re not. And we’re sensitive to what people in the community think,” said Christensen. He added that national BSA policy has been a hindrance to enrolling more scouts. Families in the community don’t want to be affiliated with an organization that is widely perceived as having bigoted, anti-gay policies, said Christensen.
The National Terrain
Here are a few recent incidents that have occurred in the wake of the BSA’s July decision:
• Greg Bourke of Louisville, Kentucky was forced to step down as a leader of his son’s Boy Scouts troop, after writing a letter to BSA executives protesting the policy and revealing he was gay.
• 22 year-old Eagle Scout Timothy Griffin was fired from a California Boy Scouts’ camp ostensibly due to dress code violations. But some say that was merely “code” for ousting him for being gay. “Specifically at issue were his painted fingernails and earrings, although one senior official said there were also complaints about his mannerisms and behavior,” a BSA official was quoted as saying in the Sacramento Bee.
The same month, 19 year-old Eagle Scout Eric Jones was fired from a Missouri Boy Scout camp after telling its director he was gay.
• Ohio mom Jennifer Tyrrell was forced out of a role as den leader in her son’s troop because she was a lesbian. She has since delivered a petition with over 300,000 signatures to BSA headquarters in Irving, Texas, and has become a highly visible activist, appearing at Pride events and the GLAAD Awards.
In many of these and similar cases, gay scouts and leaders actually receive substantial personal support on the local level. For example, a dozen camp employees resigned in protest of Griffin’s firing, and a council board member stepped down after Tyrrell was ousted. But regional scout councils often have their hand forced, and are threatened with revocation of a charter if they do not adhere to the national BSA policy.
Many local councils are determined to find ways to continue to work with the national organization even while signaling inclusion.
The Green Mountain Council in Vermont also adopted its own non-discrimination policy in 2001, which states that it “does not inquire into the sexual orientation of existing or prospective members, youth or adult.”
Some critics have suggested that this policy kind of policy only reiterates the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell approach of the national organization. Others suggest that bothering to create a local response to the BSA, however cagily worded it may be, is a winking signal of acceptance.
In fact, the recent reaffirmation of the anti-gay policy by the BSA has encouraged a new, assertive set of responses from Massachusetts scouting units this year.
In July, Boy Scout Troop 500 in Amherst sent a letter to a local paper that stated, in part, “We want to reassure you, our friends, neighbors and colleagues, that local Boy Scouts Troop 500 in Amherst does not support BSA’s policy … Troop 500 invites the participation of all interested 11-to-17-year-old boys and their parents or guardians without regard to sexual orientation.”
In August, Cub Scout Pack 79 in Marblehead adopted a “Policy of Acceptance.” The policy reads: “We openly reject the national policy put forth by Boy Scouts of America barring gay boys from membership and gay or lesbian adults from serving as leaders.” “As far as we’re concerned, it goes against everything scouting stands for,” elaborated Pack 79 den leader Matt Lloyd to The Marblehead Reporter.
And in September, more than half the parents of Cub Scout Pack 12 in Framingham signed a letter to the leaders of their region’s council stating that “We do not and never will discriminate on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation.”
Badges of Honor
While even supportive scout councils are dodgy about elaborating on their policies, plenty of individual scouts are more vocal about directing anger and disappointment at the BSA. Thousands have signed online petitions urging the national organization to again reevaluate its policy — nearly half a million through assorted Scouts for Equality petitions alone. But perhaps more dramatically, hundreds of Eagle Scouts — the elite, three-to-four percent of scouts who attain the highest rank within the organization — are mailing their badges back to BSA headquarters in a grassroots effort to show solidarity against the organization’s policy. Scouts for Equality lists about 300 “renounced Eagles” on its website. And a Seattle-based site, eaglebadges.tumblr.com, has sprung up to collect even more images of badges and letters, largely written by straight scouts, being sent to the BSA.
“Eagle Scouts are trained to think about justice, and to be thoughtful people,” explains Ben Howe of Somerville. The 26 year-old sent back his badge this summer. Howe, who is straight, said he discussed the act with gay Eagle Scouts he knows. While he said his gay Eagle Scout friends decided to keep their badges, he decided to return his.
“I was recently looking through my old handbook,” elaborates Howe. “The ideals expressed in it are very egalitarian, very liberal. I can see how it shaped my worldview.” But, said Howe, that worldview is at odds with the type of policy that the BSA has now reaffirmed. Howe knows that anti-gay sentiment may not be reflective of individual councils, “but I question whether the national leadership has the same values I’d want to be part of,” he explains. “I even wanted my kids to be involved in scouting, because it meant so much to me. But I’m not going to involve them in it, if things don’t change.”
Leo Giannini, who co-created the Scouts for Equality website with Wahls and grew up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, echoes Howe’s sentiments.
“I can’t stand for and be associated with an organization that was one of love, honor and respect for me, and in the same breath affirms this policy,” said Giannini, 24. He said that scouting provided an important sense of community with other boys that, growing up without a father, was difficult to find elsewhere. Giannini began working with Wahls and returned his Eagle badge because, he said, he can’t abide young gay scouts losing a sense of community he knows to be so important. “There are boys turning 14 years old and coming out every day. That’s a huge step for a young man to take,” said Giannini. “To think that they could potentially lose something so important in life, a place of connection, that’s brutal and intolerable.”
Encouraging social justice goes hand in hand with scouting values, said Giannini, even if you’re not part of the group being discriminated against. Giannini said he’s only received a few questions about why, as a straight man, he is so impassioned about the issue. “I initially expected more people to be asking, ‘Why are you doing this? You don’t have a dog in this fight,’” he admits. But he’s only received a handful of negative reactions since Scouts for Equality was launched, and he said most who discover he’s renounced his badge agree it is the right thing to do — whatever your sexuality. “I’ve only been asked ‘Why?’ once or twice. People look at as, ‘Of course you’re fighting against an exclusionary policy like this.’”
Space for Inclusion
While many Eagle Scouts are taking symbolic steps to pressure the BSA into changing its anti-gay policy, other allies are taking a different approach in addressing the issue.
“This is not about me trying to change a private organization. This is about discrimination in general,” said Glenn Kemper, a selectman in West Newbury. This summer Kemper proposed a ban that would prevent groups that discriminate from using town facilities. This would impact a local scouts troop, which holds meetings in a parks and recreation meeting. The ban is still being discussed. Kemper said the proposal is in line with similar guidelines that the town has in place for things like hiring policies. But it has elicited extremely strong reactions from the community. Kemper said he has received very positive feedback from those who say his proposal is a fair one. But he has also received vitriolic voicemails, and even death threats.
Still, a ban is a no-brainer, said Kemper, who is a straight, married father. “This isn’t about targeting the Boy Scouts. They’ve done wonderful things in this town, and that’s not debatable. … But I don’t think we should allow any organization that discriminated against any individual to use facilities funded by tax money.” Excluding gays should not be “the last acceptable form of discrimination,” he said.
Whether the West Newbury ban comes to pass remains to be seen. But a similar situation has already played out in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. This summer, lay leaders at St. Luke’s Episcopal Parish unanimously decided that a local Cub Scout pack could no longer use church facilities for meetings, due to the national BSA policy.
The decision was a matter of putting faith into practice, said rector Tim Rich, whose last position was as an assistant to Rev. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. “I had recently preached a sermon about what happens when you reach moments where the safe thing to do is not necessarily the right thing to do,” said Robinson. Shortly thereafter, the BSA publicly reaffirmed its policy.
“It opened a discussion. Could we in good conscience sponsor a troop that has an institutional policy of discrimination?” explains Rich. “In the gospel stories, Jesus cared for the people who were being excluded. He brought them in off the margins and said, ‘My love is for everyone.’” Rich said that while the scouts no longer use the facility for meetings, the parish still supports the good work of individual scouts who perform community service hours there.
Rich said he knows that some parishioners may have a problem with the decision, but that the reaction has been mainly positive. In fact, he said, the church may have gained a few new members as a result. “We’ve had visitors to the church fill out comment cards that say, we’re here because you are an inclusive community,” said Rich.
Meanwhile the BSA lost membership for eighth consecutive year in a row in 2011. Though its subcommittee may have reached a unanimous decision about the anti-gay policy, allies at large are showing themselves to be “morally straight” — but not narrow-minded. [x]
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