A vote this week allows Boy Scout troops to decide whether to have LGBT leaders and the organization to have gay employees
News this week that the Boy Scouts of America had voted to change it policy about LGBT adults serving openly in Scouting was met generally with approval, but for many in the gay community, the victory was qualified at best.
This week’s vote “was progress, not a final victory,” said Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout raised by two lesbian moms who founded the nonprofit Scouts for Equality. There will still be discrimination in some areas, though. “Any discrimination sends a harmful message to kids,” Wahls said.
In May, Robert Gates — the former Defense Secretary who oversaw the implementation of the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and is now president of the Boy Scouts of America — told the organization that’s its policy on gay adult leaders was “unsustainable” and said he would no longer try to revoke the charters of Scouting units with gay leaders.
As recently as this spring, the Boy Scouts were still discriminating in employment. An Oklahoma Eagle Scout was offered a job at a summer camp as a merit badge counselor. When the camp director found out he was gay, the offer was rescinded.
The new policy still permits individual troops associated with churches to discriminate against LBGT adults. About two-thirds of all troops have such an affiliation. The national organization will also not discriminate.
That’s good news for Stevie Meng, who earned his Eagle Scout when he was 17 and now works for the BSA. He called the July 27 vote to allow gay adult Scout leaders and employes a relief.
“I’ve been in the Scouts for 20 years,” Meng said. “Now I’m not afraid of losing my job.”
Meng works a Dallas Scout shop, selling uniforms, badges and a full line of camping supplies. He has never talked about his sexual orientation at work or even mentioned his a partner to co-workers.
He was aware of the ban on gay Scouts when he was in high school. He had met someone who completed all requirements for his Eagle but never got the award, because his council wouldn’t sign off on it because he was gay. Meng was determined not to let that happen to him.
“If I keep my mouth shut, I can get that Eagle,” he reasoned.
So he didn’t tell anyone in Scouting that he was gay… and achieved Eagle Scout.
Despite the ban on gay employes, Meng applied for a job working in the Dallas Scout shop at Circle 10 Council headquarters on Harry Hines Boulevard, while he finishes his degree at North Lake College. Although his sexual orientation hasn’t come up at work, he’s friends on Facebook with one of the people he works with, so he assumes they know he’s gay.
But now his position is safe. He’d like to continue to work in the store for now and in the future, he’s considering a leadership position with a troop or pack.
For Jon Langbert, the decision is too little, too late; like Wahls, he calls the decision a partial victory.
Langbert was known as the “Popcorn Colonel” because he raised thousands of dollars selling popcorn for his son’s Highland Park Boy Scout troop. When parents of two other children learned he was gay, they complained. The troop leader asked those parents if they would step up and take over the fundraising position. When they refused, the troop leader wouldn’t remove Langbert. But the parents persisted and with the backing of Boy Scout headquarters in Irving, got Langbert fired from his volunteer position.
“I believe it’s the Scouts taking a nice step into the 20th century,” Langbert said about the vote.
Despite the change in policy, Langbert doesn’t think he and his son will rejoin the Scouts. That would involve finding a welcoming new troop and having a long talk with leaders and other parents to guarantee there would be no discrimination. He said he isn’t excited about doing that at this point.
“The whole experience left a bad taste in all our mouths,” he said.
Neither side seems particularly happy with the vote.
The Mormon Church, which sponsors the most Boy Scout troops in the U.S., said it was “deeply troubled” by the vote in a news release. The church had requested a delay in the vote, claiming members of the governing council were out of their offices in July and unable to vote.
“The Church has always welcomed all boys to its Scouting units regardless of sexual orientation,” the church claimed in its press release. “However, the admission of openly gay leaders is inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church and what have traditionally been the values of the Boy Scouts of America.”
Girl Scouts has maintained an inclusive policy for more than a century and that policy has worked well for it, according to Monica Contreras Gonzalez, director of marketing and communications for Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas.
“I can tell you that our membership is a cross-section of America with regard to opinions on religious and social issues and practices,” Gonzalez said. “We do not discriminate or recruit on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, national origin, or physical or developmental disability.”
The current push to change BSA policy toward gay Scouts and Scout leaders began in 2012.
When Jennifer Tyrrell, a Cub Scout den mother, was removed from her position because she was lesbian, she began a Change.org petition. After collecting 300,000 signatures, a group of LGBT Scouts and leaders delivered the petition to Boy Scout of America headquarters in Irving.
In 2011, Wahls testimony before the Iowa House Judiciary Committee about the state’s proposed ban on same-sex marriage went viral. In 2012, after his book My Two Moms was published, he organized Scouts for Equality and began working with others like Tyrrell who wanted change in the Boy Scouts.
Wahls spreads awareness among the public of the harm discrimination in the Scouts does and made an impact on the organization by pressuring companies to stop making donations to the Boy Scouts. LGBT discrimination violated their giving policies, he told them. Over a period of a few months, the BSA lost hundreds of thousands of dollars from companies like Intel, UPS and Merck.
While he would like to see all troops accept LGBT leaders, Wahls says Scouts for Equality plans to work with progressive faith groups and other sponsors to build good new alternatives. He wants his organization to be a resource to help those interested in Scouting find accepting troops and is trying to figure out how to monitor that.
By 2013, BSA leadership had changed from Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, to Wayne Perry, retired McCaw Cellular president. McCaw had been purchased by AT&T, a company with a long history of progressive policies toward the LGBT community. ExxonMobil is known for taking benefits away from Mobil employees it merged with
Exxon in 1999 and stubbornly refusing to add an LGBT nondiscrimination policy for 15 years.
The Boy Scouts lifted its ban on gay Scouts up to the age of 18 in 2013. But that meant someone could earn his Eagle Scout the day before he turned 18 and be removed from the organization the next day.
Gates experience introducing openly gay and lesbian troops into the armed forces may make him the perfect leader to oversee the Boy Scouts doing the same with openly LGBT employees and troop leaders. His term ends in 2016. The position of president will pass to Randall Stephenson, chairman of AT&T, who is expected to continue a smooth implementation of the new policy.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 31, 2015.