Boy Scout Fallout

Opponents rally after Boy Scouts uphold gay ban

By Justin Snow
Published on July 26, 2012, 5:48am | Comments

Pressure is mounting on the Boy Scouts of America in the wake of the organization's decision last week to uphold a ban on out gay members and leaders.

Thousands have lent their names to multiple petitions opposing the 102-year-old organization's longstanding exclusionary policy and raised questions over how the organization reached their decision.

The ban's reaffirmation came after the recommendation of an 11-member committee that studied the issue for two years. The committee consisted of ''volunteers and professional leaders'' who represented ''a diversity of perspectives and opinions,'' according to a statement from the BSA.

BSA leaders have repeatedly refused to say who exactly the 11 committee members were, how they were chosen, or specifically how they reached their decision, except to say that their ''review included forthright and candid conversation and extensive research and evaluations – both from within Scouting and from outside the organization.''

Spokesman Deron Smith told the Associated Press that the BSA's decision to uphold the ban was based largely on support from parents and is "absolutely the best policy for the organization."

According to their website, the Boy Scouts do not ''proactively inquire about the sexual orientation of employees, volunteers, or members,'' but they also do not ''grant membership to individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA.''

It is worth noting that Boy Scout troops are supported by outside groups, with many receiving sponsorship from the Catholic Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Los Angeles Times reports that of the BSA's 2.7 million members, about 400,000 are Mormons and the Mormon Church encourages members to join the organization.

Zach Wahls

Zach Wahls

Although the announcement appeared to be an attempt to silence years of criticism leveled against the organization since the Supreme Court upheld the exclusionary policy in 2000, it has done anything but.

Eagle Scout Zach Wahls, who is the son of lesbian parents and became an Internet sensation in February 2011 after testifying in favor of marriage equality before the Iowa House of Representatives, has become a leading critic of the BSA's exclusionary policy. Eagle Scout is the highest-attainable Boy Scout rank.

''What we're seeing here are a few key players setting a policy for millions,'' Wahls told Metro Weekly. ''By using a secret committee of that few people they're able to set a policy like this. That's why they've had to use that tactic.''

Founder of Scouts for Equality, which lists more than 800 members, 600 of whom are Eagle Scouts, Wahls hopes to show BSA leadership where the next generation stands. He delivered almost 300,000 signatures to the BSA's annual convention earlier this year urging an end to the ban. In response to the secret committee's decision, Wahls has drafted a new petition calling on the BSA board, whose names are public, to vote on the matter instead of the secret committee. As of July 24, he has more than 135,000 signatures.

And Wahls isn't the only one using a petition to make a point. Jennifer Tyrrell, who was ousted as den leader of her son's Cub Scout troop three months ago because she is a lesbian, brought three boxes filled with more than 300,000 signatures supporting her reinstatement to the BSA's Dallas headquarters last week. Although a BSA spokesman met with Tyrrell, her petition was not accepted. She's garnered about 20,000 new signatures since then.

In explaining their decision to uphold the ban on gay members, the BSA has said it reflects the wishes of many parents with children in the organization.

''The vast majority of the parents of youth we serve value their right to address issues of same-sex orientation within their family, with spiritual advisers, and at the appropriate time and in the right setting,'' said BSA Chief Executive Bob Mazzuca.

However, the shroud of secrecy surrounding the decision and its timing has raised questions about the motivation behind the announcement.

Indeed, days before the organization's announcement, Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T and vice president of the Boy Scouts, and Jim Turley, CEO of Ernst & Young and a BSA board member, expressed opposition to the ban.

The decision also comes a little more than a month before the start of the Republican and Democratic national conventions during an election year when LGBT rights have been thrust center stage following President Barack Obama's same-sex marriage endorsement.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has expressed support for ending the ban in the past. During a 1994 Massachusetts Senate debate against Ted Kennedy, Romney said he supported the right of the BSA to determine their own policies but that he personally believes ''all people should be allowed to participate in the Boy Scouts regardless of their sexual orientation.''

Where Romney stands on the issue today is unclear. Requests for comment were not returned by the Romney campaign.

Responding to public outcry, Mazzuca and BSA National President Wayne Perry wrote in a letter to the editor published by The Washington Post that they do not have an agenda when it comes to LGBT rights and will not use their program to enter a social and political debate.

''We value the freedom of everyone to express their opinion,'' Mazzuca and Perry wrote, ''but describing us as intolerant because we set a membership standard as a private organization is inflammatory and makes civil discourse on this important topic impossible.''

However, some stand by the accusation that the BSA is an intolerant organization.

''They define themselves by their discrimination and by excluding gay people as immoral and unclean,'' former Eagle Scout James Dale told Metro Weekly. Dale, who sued after he was expelled from the organization in 1990 for being gay, was at the center of the 2000 Supreme Court case that upheld the ban based on the right to freedom of association.

''I don't think the Boy Scouts really have a place in society anymore,'' Dale said, adding that so many other organizations, including Girls Scouts of the USA and the Boys and Girls Club, have embraced LGBT youth.

''Teaching a young kid that they're immoral is immoral. [BSA leaders] are living in a time that doesn't exist anymore, when people didn't talk about sexuality,'' said Dale. ''They're going against the grain of history.''

Where the organization goes in the future remains to be seen, but activists are optimistic.

Stephenson, who has voiced support for diversity, is expected to take the reins as president of the board for the Boy Scouts in 2014 and has said change must come from within the organization.

With the BSA as one of the last youth organizations to still ban gay members, Wahls believes changing public opinion is on their side.

''Today the question isn't whether the policy will change,'' said Wahls. ''Today the question is when.''