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The Boy Scouts of America announced that LGBT adults will no longer be banned from membership in the organization on Monday.
The move came after years of activism on the part of both gay youth and adults who either “aged out” of scouting permanently once they turned 18, or were forbidden from taking on leadership roles even if their own children were in the Boy Scouts.
In June 2012, Eagle Scouts Zach Wahls and Jonathan Hillis launched the group Scouts for Equality after a lesbian den mother was kicked out of her son’s scouting troop and subsequently circulated an online petition that quickly received more than 300,000 signatures.
One month after Scouts for Equality formed, the Boy Scouts of America announced that it would continue to ban gay adults from the organization.
“We were very flattered,” joked Wahls in an interview with the Daily Dot. Wahls said the reaffirmation of the ban was a direct reaction to the activism of his group and of Jennifer Tyrell, the fired den mother.
Wahls said the ban had become “unsustainable” and that for every story of discrimination that found its way to Scouts for Equality, there were “dozens that don’t make it to us.”
One story that made national news was that of two brothers, Pascal and Lucien Tessier. Pascal became the first openly gay Eagle Scout last year at age 17, nine months after the BSA voted to drop the ban on LGBT youth scouts. But older brother Lucien had to leave the Boy Scouts, ironically, after the ban on gay youths was dropped—because at 21, Lucien was now a gay adult.
This year, Pascal Tessier was hired as a scout leader in New York despite the fact that he had turned 18 and was technically banned. But it was cases like the Tessiers, and the scouting advocates that supported them, that ultimately pressured the BSA to adjust.
“Due to the social, political, and legal changes taking place in our country, and in our movement,” said National President (and former Central Intelligence Agency chief) Robert Gates in a video posted to the BSA website Monday, “I did not believe the adult leadership policy could be sustained.”
Gates cited the potential for endless lawsuits as a major driving force behind the change.
Gates clarified that religious-based charters would continue to be able to select adult leaders based on religious beliefs and other shared standards.
“Scoutings members and parents will continue to select local units chartered to organizations with similar beliefs that best meet the needs of their families,” said Gates, clarifying that individual charters will still be able to exclude adults based on sexual orientation.
A majority of Boy Scouts troops, said Wahls, are chartered to churches, schools, and other third-party organizations. That’s part of why the scouts have traditionally held on to conservative beliefs.
“The Boy Scouts have had to walk a line that allows them to continue,” Wahls said.
If scout troops still have the right to discriminate, then, what has changed?
Turns out, a lot. Gay scout leaders will no longer lose membership in the national organization—so if they aren’t accepted by one group, they can move to a more liberal troop or even start their own. Specifically LGBT-oriented organizations, like LGBT community centers, alternative schools that draw queer youth, and gay-affirming churches like United Church of Christ will be able to start their own scouting troops.
Some of those gay-friendly troops have existed for some time. One meets in Brooklyn at Greenpoint Reformed Church, a UCC affiliate run by a married lesbian couple with two children. One of those kids, John, has been a scout for the past year.
“LGBT parents of boys who are scouts can now officially volunteer, which is big,” Pastor Ann Kansfield told the Daily Dot, with a nod to the surreal experience of being a gay parent of a Boy Scout—and a minister of the church that charters a scout troop—who was until now unable to be directly involved.
In 2014, the Brooklyn district council of the Boy Scouts gave Kansfield a community service award for the hunger outreach and other programs intiated by her church. That was when she discovered that the Brooklyn council did not support the ban on gay adult members.
“I was like, are you guys going to get into trouble for this? And they said they were very aware of the work the church does for equality,” Kansfield said. “In my speech I said that telling the stories of boy scout troops that are open and affirming is what we have to do.”
Those stories are only just beginning. Wahls said that Scouts for Equality planned to help charter some new troops now that gay adults—many of whom have been involved in scouting their entire lives—are welcomed back into the fold.
As for Girl Scouts, well—it just isn’t an issue. The Girl Scouts of the USA has never fully banned lesbian adults or children, and in 2011 even released a statement making clear that transgender girls were welcome in scouting. Wahls said some of the policy differences between boys’ and girls’ scouting had to do with organizational structures: Girl Scouts are an independent national entity while Boy Scouts is inextricably tied to churches. But that’s not the only difference.
“Women are way better at this stuff than men,” said Wahls. “A lot of homophobia is rooted in misogyny.”
Now that the “gay issue” has been put to rest, BSA leaders can get back to doing what the love most: scouting.
“For far too long, this issue has divided and distracted us,” said Gates, “Now it’s time to unite behind our shared belief of the extraordinary power of scouting to be a force for good in the community and in the lives of its youth members.”
Photo via Orange County Archives/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Mary Emily O'Hara is an LGBTQ reporter. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, NBC Out, Daily Dot, Broadly, Vice, the Daily Beast, the Advocate, Huffington Post, DNAinfo, Al Jazeera, and Portland's Pulitzer Prize-winning newsweekly Willamette Week, among other outlets.