All eyes will be on the Boy Scouts of America next week when members of the National Council vote on whether to partially lift a ban that LGBT advocates have sought to remove for at least a decade.
On May 23, 1,400 members of the National Council will gather at the National Annual Meeting in Dallas and take action on the pending resolution, which would allow all youths to participate in the Boy Scouts regardless of sexual orientation.
However, the resolution leaves in place the rule prohibiting openly gay adults from participating as leaders in the Boy Scouts. Further, the proposal maintains youth adhere to a “duty to God” and behavior consistent with the highest level of good conduct.
Zach Wahls, a 21-year-old activist and Eagle Scout — who gained notoriety for speaking on behalf of his lesbian parents before the Iowa Legislature — is the leading voice for a group called Scouts for Equality that is urging the Boy Scouts to adopt the change.
“The resolution that the Scouts are voting on clearly is not fully adequate,” Wahls said. “It still sends, I think, potentially harmful messages to the youth — both gay and straight — about discrimination being OK. That being said, I think it’s absolutely a step in the right direction, which is going to get started going down their path of evolution, as it were. And we all kind of know where evolution goes.”
Wahls said Scouts for Equality for the last two-and-a-half months has been mobilizing grassroots supporters across the country to talk with parents, scout leaders and scout masters about support for changing the gay ban.
“That really can only happen within the scouting community,” Wahls said. “It was through those conversations our incredible grassroots volunteers on the ground that we were able to identify and have conversations indirectly with huge amounts of voting members.”
In February, amid heightened calls for the organization to end its gay ban, the Boy Scouts started a review process to consider the impact of a change. Part of the review consisted of a questionnaire sent to members asking them if they’re OK with certain hypothetical scenarios involving gay scouts and whether they support or oppose lifting the ban.
The decision to partially lift the gay ban in the Boy Scouts may be an attempt to mollify religious groups affiliated with the Boy Scouts. According to the organization’s website, seven in 10 units in the Boy Scouts are chartered to faith-based organizations.
In response to a request for comment from the Washington Blade, the Boy Scouts provided an organizational statement maintaining the issue of allowing openly gay scouts to participate in the organization is a complex one.
“Scouting’s review confirmed that this remains among the most complex and challenging issues facing the BSA and society today,” the response reads. “Even with the wide range of input, it is extremely difficult to accurately quantify the potential impact of maintaining or changing the current policy. While perspectives and opinions vary significantly, parents, adults in the Scouting community, and teens alike tend to agree that youth should not be denied the benefits of Scouting.”
According to recent polls, a majority of the American public wants the Boy Scouts to lift its gay ban. A Washington Post/ABC News poll published on May 9 found that 63 percent back the idea of allowing gay youth to participate while 56 percent oppose the continued ban on participation from gay adults.
Asked whether he’s confident the resolution will be approved, Wahls replied, “As a Boy Scout, our motto is ‘Be Prepared.’ So we’re prepared for any kind of outcome, but we are feeling really, really good about where we are.”
But anti-gay activists are also at work urging the Boy Scouts to maintain its policy prohibiting out youths from participating. An organization called On My Honor is leading these efforts. It didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment.
Ending the gay ban in the Boy Scouts is a goal that the LGBT community has long pursued. In 2000, a case known as Dale v. Boy Scouts was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court by Evan Wolfson, now president of Freedom to Marry. He maintained New Jersey’s enforcement of its non-discrimination law to prohibit the Boy Scouts, as a place of accommodation, from banning gay scouts wasn’t a violation of the First Amendment. However, the court determined in a 5-4 decision that current policy for the organization was constitutional.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) has emerged as one of the most high-profile voices in opposition to lifting the gay ban. Last week, as reported by Right Wing Watch, the former Republican presidential candidate appeared on a Family Research Council webcast urging the Boy Scouts to resist the “flavor of the month” by changing its policy.
“The fact is, this is a private organization,” Perry said. “Their values and principles have worked for a century now, and for pop culture to come in and try to tear that up because it just happens to be the flavor of the month, so to speak, and to tear apart one of the great organizations that have served millions of young men — to help them become men and become great fathers — that is just not appropriate.”
Wahls responded to Perry’s position by saying the Texas governor is entitled to his views, but they’re at odds with the American people.
“It’s a free country,” Wahls said. “Gov. Perry can offer his opinion. It doesn’t change the fact that a strong majority of Americans want to lift the ban, and keeping the ban in place is highly detrimental to the future of scouting.”
CORRECTION: An initial version of this article mischaracterized attorney Evan Wolfson’s attorney argument against the Boy Scouts gay ban in 2000. The Blade regrets the error.