The true beginning of the end of the BSA’s prohibition on gay leaders occurred in December of 2010 when Congress voted to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. In the summer and fall of the next year with certifications from President Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was officially dead and the beginning of the downfall of the BSA’s anti-policies. See, the U.S. Military was the last mainstream widespread ally of the ban on gay membership. The BSA could simply point to our armed forces and say “you aren’t calling them bigoted too are you” or “if it works for our military it works for us” That ended with the fall of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
Shortly after that the pressure began to build on the organization in a way it hadn’t before. There was pressure from big donors and big partners to drop the policy. More and more corporate donors began pulling their financial support, the policy was now costing them money. With the launch of Scouts for Equality, individuals both inside and out were given an organizing arm, prepared to pounce on the BSA when stories of moms getting banned or kids getting kicked out popped up across the country. No longer was the pressure from just liberal interest groups but mainstream America. The Boy Scouts of America were no longer representative of the mood of the country it claimed to represent.
In 2013 the organization announced it would be looking into it’s policy and it looked like the ban would once and for all be lifted. It seemed the most likely compromise would be one where each troop’s chartering organization could set its membership standards. This was the change so many had been waiting for, not an outright ban on discrimination but no requirement of it either. A conservative LDS Troop could still ban gay youth and leaders while a more liberal church could allow whoever it wanted. The organization did a survey and adjusted it’s policy. In 2013 it announced it would allow gay youth but keep the ban on gay leaders, a compromise so absolutely lacking in merit and values. It appeared to be just a compromise to appease the corporate backers and the right-wing supporters at the same time. The official message from the BSA was tone deaf and asinine, stating that gay youth should be allowed to join the organization because they were youth after all but by the time they reach their 18th birthday they better wise up and choose to be straight. The other underlying message remained that the BSA still considered gay adults somehow dangerous. The position was almost as repulsive as the original ban itself. The bright side of the decision is that it completely eroded the organization using Dale v. BSA as a shield; as I previously wrote, the factual underpinning of that case were undone with the policy shift.
If the BSA thought the compromise would get the public off its back, it was completely wrong. More negative stories hit the press as parents continued to get kicked out of the organization, the most sympathetic story lines involving lesbian mothers who just wanted to be a part of their sons’ lives. I joking wrote to some friends that the BSA, an organization that loves its ceremonies, would need an Expulsion Ceremony, to discard those out gay youth upon their 18th birthday. Sure enough, as gay youth were summarily kicked out for doing nothing other than turning 18, the American people once again shook their heads in disbelief. How could such an American institution be so tone deaf? One major tipping was recently when the State of New York announced it would be investigating the Boy Scouts for violating ant-discrimination hiring policies and the Greater New York Council announced it would be hiring an openly gay adult staffer for camp. Just two years after the great “compromise” solution of 2013, it’s clear that the policy did not help fix any of the problems the old ban invited.
It was only a matter of time that the entire ban would have to be lifted. I had some beers with a friend of mine last summer who had two about-to-be scouting aged. He had the conundrum of whether or not to sign his kids up for an organization that he loved but could no longer support. I told him to put his kids in, that the good of the organization outweighed the current bigotry (a bigotry largely standing alone in policy and not in the hearts and minds of the organization’s members) and that my guess is that the ban on adults wouldn’t last more than five years. Still, I was surprised when Robert Gates, Scouting’s current President, announced at the annual meeting last week that the ban on adults was no longer sustainable.
Nothing at the National Meeting is unscripted so those in the know, knew the speech was coming. You have to understand that the National Meeting is attended by those most dedicated volunteers and professionals and the members who attended were likely the very ones who voted for the compromise plan a few years ago. So his disappointing wording that we must live in the world around us and not the world we wish we lived in (insinuating he and the rest of the room would love to live in a world without gays) makes sense. It also makes sense that the speech was not an announcement of a change of policy but a frank confrontation to the group likely to vote to lift the ban next Spring, that will be the next time the group will take up and vote on the policy. My understanding is that Gates’s speech was well received in the group.
My guess is that we have just one year left of the ban and that the final policy will be what many thought we’d get two years ago. Units may decided their own membership standards. Where a conservative Catholic Troop may ban gays outright, the Gay and Lesbian Center can charter a Troop and let anyone in it wants. If it takes longer than a year, the organization is in for continued bad press, law suits, sponsors fleeing, and formal investigations. The organization can sustain any blowback from opening its doors to all much more than it can sustain being continually dogged by the public for their out-of-touch current policy. For many this has been a long drawn out and painful process, for others the change is too late to change their minds about an organization that has endured great losses as a result of its policies. For everyone, we’ll want to keep a close eye on the organization leading up to next year’s big annual meeting.