Boy Scouts End Longtime Ban on Openly Gay Youths
By ERIK ECKHOLM
Published: May 23, 2013
GRAPEVINE, Tex. — The Boy Scouts of America on Thursday ended its longstanding policy of forbidding openly gay youths to participate in its activities, a step its chief executive called “compassionate, caring and kind.”
The decision, which came after years of resistance and wrenching internal debate, was widely seen as a milestone for the Boy Scouts, a symbol of traditional America. More than 1,400 volunteer leaders from across the country voted, with more than 60 percent approving a measure that said no youth may be denied membership “on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.”
The top national leaders of the Boy Scouts, who pledge fealty to God and country, had urged the change in the face of vehement opposition from conservative parents and volunteers, some of whom said they would quit the organization. But the vote put the Scouts more in line with the swift rise in public acceptance of homosexuality, especially among younger parents who are essential to the future of an institution that has been losing members for decades.
The policy change, effective January 2014, is unlikely to bring peace to the Boy Scouts as they struggle to keep a foothold in a swirling cultural landscape, with renewed lobbying and debate already starting Thursday evening.
The Scouts did not consider the even more divisive question of whether to allow openly gay adults and leaders. This drew criticism from advocates for gay rights, who called the decision a breakthrough but vowed to continue pressing the Scouts to allow gay members of all ages.
Some conservative churches and parents said the Scouts were violating their oath to be “morally straight” and said they would drop out.
Still, for gay men who were forced out of scouting and for their allies, thousands of whom joined the push for change, the opening of membership was more than welcome.
“I’ve waited 13 years for this,” said Matt Comer, now 27, who had to leave his scout troop at 14 after he started a Gay-Straight Alliance at his school. Since the fourth grade, he said Thursday, he had dreamed of becoming an Eagle Scout and was crushed when he was denied the chance.
“Today we finally have some justice for me and others,” he said. “But gay youths will still be told they are no longer welcome when they turn 18.”
Leaders of the conservative faction predicted that lawsuits would soon force the Boy Scouts to allow openly gay leaders, and they accused the top leaders of ignoring the beliefs of their members.
“The fallout from this is going to be tremendous,” said Robert Schwarzwalder, a senior vice president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group, and a father of two scouts in Northern Virginia. “I think there will be a loss of hundreds of thousands of boys and parents.”
“This great institution is going to be vitiated by the intrusion of a political agenda,” he said.
After the decision was announced Thursday, John Stemberger, an evangelical leader from Florida who organized a campaign to block the change, said that like-minded groups and parents would meet next month in Louisville, Ky., to discuss creating what he called a new “character development organization for boys,” an alternative to scouting.
GLAAD, a gay-rights group that has campaigned for change over the last year, said it would keep pressure on the Boy Scouts over the leadership issue.
“We’ll continue urging corporate donors and public officials to withhold their support,” said Richard Ferraro, the group’s vice president for communications.
Several sponsors, including the UPS Foundation, Merck, the Intel Foundation, and many local United Ways and city agencies had already ended financing for the Scouts because the group’s policies violated their own nondiscrimination guidelines.
In a closed meeting of the assembled delegates here Wednesday night, the top three leaders of the Boy Scouts — Wayne Brock, the paid chief executive; Wayne Perry, the volunteer president who is a corporate leader from Washington State; and Tico Perez, the volunteer commissioner and a consultant in Florida — made a strong plea to delegates and dissenting board members to allow gay youths, saying the goal of scouting was to reach as many boys as possible, according to people who attended.
“This is not about what’s legal but what’s compassionate, caring and kind,” Mr. Brock reportedly said.
No similar proposal to allow gay adults was on the agenda, and the executives have said little about how they made the distinction. But in surveys this spring, many parents and volunteers around the country said they were against the idea of openly gay scout leaders.
The vote was a bittersweet one for David Knapp, 86, who spent much of his life in scouting as a boy, as a professional staff member and later as a volunteer with a council in Connecticut. He had tried to keep his sexual orientation a secret but one day in 1993, he said, two scout officials said, “We found out you are a homosexual,” and forced him out.
“I see this as a good step, but with a lot of misgivings,” he said of the limited opening to gays.
Some of the most conservative parents and leaders are already thinking of what comes next.
Allison Mackey of Hanover, Pa., has five sons — one an Eagle Scout, three now active in scouting and an 8-year-old who had planned to join.
The family has discussed the issue and reached a decision, she said: All the sons were willing to abandon the Boy Scouts if openly gay members are allowed.
“The Boy Scouts are something we’ve really enjoyed because they celebrate manliness and leadership,” she said. But, she added, she and her husband were “looking to encourage our sons in traditional Christian values.”
Personally, she said she would be disappointed to see her sons leave the Scouts.
“To stand by principles would be difficult,” she said. “But we’re going to have to say no. The organization is giving up freedom.”
In a meeting with reporters after the vote, Mr. Perry, the national president of the Boy Scouts, sought to put the rancor behind.
“We’re moving forward together,” he said. “Everyone agrees on one thing, no matter how you feel about this issue, kids are better off in scouting.”
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