The Boy Scouts of America Gets Better

(Appreciate this perspective from the co-founder of Scouts for Equality. Wahls gained instant fame as a voice for LGBT equality when he testified against a constitutional amendment on marriage at an Iowa House public hearing in 2011. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

One of the most powerful refrains to emerge from the LGBT rights movement over the last several years has been the slogan/mantra/guiding belief It Gets Better. One reason this idea inspires me is that nearly all of us can connect to it and understand it in a context that is relevant to our individual lives. And occasionally, we can watch it play out on a national level.

On Monday, the Boy Scouts of America’s National Executive Board voted 79% to 21% to end that organization’s long-standing ban on gay adult members. (The BSA ended its ban on gay youth members in 2013.) As the proud Eagle Scout son of a same-sex couple from Iowa City, the executive director of Scouts for Equality, and someone who’s been working on this issue for more than three years, I was elated. And there’s still more work to do.

The BSA’s ban was originally implemented in 1978, some thirty-seven years ago. In the ensuing decades, many advocates challenged the ban, including a lawsuit that was fought all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. In June 2000, SCOTUS ruled against James Dale, the assistant Scoutmaster from New Jersey who happened to be gay, in a 5-4 decision. (An interesting note: the Court’s only Eagle Scout at the time, Justice Breyer, dissented, ruled against the Boy Scouts.) The BSA v. Dale decision was seen by many at the time as the final word-that was that.  

At the time of that decision, my family had just relocated from Marshfield, Wisconsin to Iowa City. I was a Cub Scout at the time, and my Cub Scout Pack (the younger equivalent of a Boy Scout Troop) had called ahead to Iowa City to make sure that the leaders of my new unit got my moms involved. I was lucky enough to have lived in communities where the participation of my parents was a non-issue. Other children-and other openly gay adults like my parents-were not always as lucky. I was totally oblivious, however.

The first indication that something was up happened when my new Cub Scout Pack had to stop meeting at Weber Elementary School in Iowa City. I didn’t understand why we had to change meeting location beyond that it vaguely had something to do with my parents. I found out much later that what had happened is that after the Supreme Court decision, our school district had decided to server their ties with the Boy Scouts. After the Iowa City Community School District told us we had to leave, our unit was relocated to a church on the south side of town, even though my Cub Scout Pack had welcomed my family with open arms.

In April 2012-about a year after my testimony to the Iowa legislature inadvertently sent me into a mini-career of LGBT rights advocacy-a lesbian den mother from Bridgeport, Ohio was thrown out of her son’s unit. The removal of Jennifer Tyrrell re-ignited this issue at a national level in a way that we hadn’t seen since Dale. I’ve gotten to know both Jen and her son Cruz. After meeting Jen and Cruz in New York City while I was promoting my book (which I’d originally suggested to my publisher we name My Two Moms: Or Everything I Need to Know About Gay Marriage I Learned in the Boy Scouts) I knew that I had to get involved.

On June 6, 2012, I co-founded Scouts for Equality with Jonathan Hillis, another heterosexual Eagle Scout and the former national president of the BSA’s honors society. We knew that the road (or hike?) ahead was long, but that the Boy Scouts weren’t going to get better on their own. We knew that there were more people like Jennifer Tyrrell out there-people who could put a face on this issue and explain in plain, compelling terms why the Boy Scouts needed to change their policy.

Over the last three years, I’ve heard from dozens of people who have faced discrimination at the hands of the Boy Scouts of America’s ban on gay members. And despite the sad, disappointing stories I’ve heard from people have felt the dehumanizing humiliation of discrimination, those same people were unified in an unwavering faith that the Boy Scouts would get better. And now, after thirty-seven long years, the Boy Scouts have indeed gotten better.

There’s still work ahead. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard from parents who would have loved to enlist their kids in Scouting but who just couldn’t bring themselves to associate with what they saw as a homophobic institution. You can change a policy with a board meeting, but it takes longer to change a culture and even longer to heal a reputation.

And the Boy Scouts didn’t “get perfect,” they just took another step in the long hike towards equality and inclusiveness. It is, however, clear to me that the BSA is now an organization that is looking forward, not back-which is important to do when you’re out hiking. There will surely be some, perhaps many, people who leave the Boy Scouts because of this decision. I only hope that there will be even more who choose to return.  

  • thank you for posting this

    and more important, thanks for all your work on this issue.

    I will move this diary to the front page tomorrow morning.

    I didn’t realize Justice Breyer was an Eagle Scout.

  • While

    While the BSA took a step towards equality and fairness, an organization that taught young boys and men to be ready for anything (world proofing the child, not childproofing the world), its yet another  nail in the coffin for an organization that used to be.

    Meanwhile, membership at alternatives, trail life and others, is growing. In the infinite push to force others to be fair, when life will never, no matter how hard you try, be fair. I hope it stops at the BSA.

    and I truly believe you are naive to think parents weren’t associating with a homophobic organization, they were being polite. They didn’t want their children around a possible pandering homosexual. Yet pandering homosexuality is fair, unlike pandering religious values, competitive values, or American values.

    Don’t believe me? Look at the numbers for yourself and draw the actual conclusion.

  • Thank you Zach

    For all you’ve done, and all you continue to do.  I’ve been on vacation, so I’m just now seeing this, but I’ve been watching the news with interest.  I spent over 12 years as a Scout leader (Cubmaster, Committee Chair, Den Leader, Assistant Scoutmaster, District Training, etc.), I’m Woodbadge-trained, and my oldest son is an Eagle Scout who’s been to all the high adventure bases.  Our family took two vacations to Philmont so I could take more training. But I ran into certain people who didn’t believe in either equality or diversity, and so, when my younger sons decided that Boys Scouts wasn’t the program for them after the first rank, I decided to take a break. The Commissioners have tried to recruit me, but up to now my heart hasn’t been in it.  I’ve seen people unfairly excluded, and couldn’t shake that. You’re right – work still needs to be done. Not just on homophobia, but religious inclusion, and sexism, as well. I always believed that change would eventually come to the Scouts, it would just be slow (look how long it took to make Tigers an official rank! Only about 25 years as a “pilot” program…). I don’t know if I can go back, but I’m at least going to think about it.  I’ve got some food for thought.  Maybe some of those resistant people will head for Trail Life or Royal Rangers.  That would be ok. If nothing else, it might be something I could do when the boys graduate in a few more years.

    Thanks again for all you do. You’ve been an inspiration from the moment you spoke in the Legislature. (another place close to my heart)

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