Many within the Boy Scouts of America ( BSA ) are excited to see the national organization lift its ban against gay troop leaders, but some rights-advocates say that BSA needs to require troops under the auspices of religious organizationsto whom the rule does not applyto accept that requirement as well.
BSA voted, on July 27, to change the rule. It had already voted in 2013 to accept gay scouts within its ranks.
Among those pleased to see the 2015 change implemented were officials from the Northeast Illinois Council ( NEIC ) of the BSA, who had tried on three occasions to put through resolutions at the national level, according to NEIC Immediate Past-President Patrick Heneghan, who had a large part in spearheading the proposals. He said discussions began within the councilwhich covers the territory north from the Chicago-Evanston border to the Illinois-Wisconsin border, and heads west about 15-20 miles from Lake Michiganin 2012.
"Many people were vocal about stepping up and making our opinions known. There wasn't any question about what would be the collective opinion of the board," Heneghan said. "...Once it became known that scouting was reevaluating its opinion on gay people, both youth and adults, it [became] the launch of our involvement."
The council presented a resolution in 2013 to the national board. "By then, there were many voices presenting a wide array of views, including those advocating for the status quo, many advocating for change, some more vocal than others on both sides of that spectrum. We were among the more vocal ones. Many of our board members physically appeared at the annual meeting in 2013 and, in open mikes, expressed the view articulated in our resolution."
That year the national board relaxed the restrictions on gay youth, which Heneghan characterized as a "small step." But he said NEIC members were excited to see that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who oversaw the dismantling of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," was named BSA's president.
"I had known for a number of years that he's a guy with enormous credibility in all quarters within scouting," Heneghan said. Another resolution, this one concentrating on adult members, was submitted in 2014. It was tabled, and Gates said publicly that he would not be revisiting the issue.
"That was very disappointing and deflating for many of us," added Heneghan.
But in May, 2015, Gates gave a speech wherein he said it just might finally be the right time, foreshadowing the vote a few months later. He first spoke of multiple legal challenges to the ban, then added that BSA cannot "ignore the social, political and juridical changes taking place at a pace over this past year that no one anticipated. I remind you of the recent debates we have seen in places like Indiana and Arkansas over discrimination based on sexual orientation, not to mention the [then-] impending U.S. Supreme Court decision this summer on gay marriage. …We must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be. The status quo in our movement's membership standards cannot be sustained."
Heneghan said that the original ban could be attributed to a religious view of homosexuality that was not even universal among churches. His own sons are members of a troop overseen by a church that's part of the United Church of Christ, which has long been accepting of the LGBT community, for example. "It's a religious debate. Fast forward to the aftermath of the decision, and what's in the papers? It's about the religious consequences to this decision and the uncertainty about what these organizations will do."
Shortly after the July 27 vote, Human Rights Campaign ( HRC ) officials called for a more universal ban on discrimination by BSA in a statement: "Today's vote by the Boy Scouts of America to allow gay, lesbian and bisexual adults to work and volunteer is a welcome step toward erasing a stain on this important organization," said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin. "But including an exemption for troops sponsored by religious organizations undermines and diminishes the historic nature of today's decision. Discrimination should have no place in the Boy Scouts, period.
"BSA officials should now demonstrate true leadership and begin the process of considering a full national policy of inclusion that does not allow discrimination against anyone because of who they are," Griffin added.
Writer and activist Peter McGraith, who was half of the first same-sex couple to be married in the United Kingdom, and whose son is a BSA member in the organization's Transatlantic Council, was skeptical of the resolution, since so much power is left in the hands of church-based councils. He said the new rule was missed opportunity for a "difficult but cathartic debate that needs to happen."
Suggesting that BSA was mostly concerned about staving off legal issues than an outright ban on discrimination, McGraith added, "The leadership has pandered for so long to religious groups. It has to accept that some groups want to leave."
He maintained that the resolution "has been about [BSA] holding control of leaderships standards while appearing to be in keeping with standards of the outside world. … Religion does not own the virtues that scouting is about, and gay men and lesbians are not devoid of the those values."
One aspect of the new rule McGraith found especially troubling was that BSA would legally indemnify troops that kept the ban in place, effectively putting the organization on the hook for the court costs. But he said he was not pessimistic that the ban couldn't be completely overturned. "Even those who engineered this vote will be made to see that this is only a stopgap. BSA has to face down the antigay chartered organizations."
Heneghan, for his part, said he was "excited at the prospect that new units could be formed. They might be formed by LGBT community centers or interest groups, who have members who say, 'You know what? I was a part of the program [when younger] and I loved it, and I regret that I couldn't be part of the program all these years.' … That would be awesome, because they'd be entitled to be a safe and secure chartered organization, as long as they fulfill the qualifications of any scout leader in any chartered organization."