Eagle Scout Zach Wahls, 20, of Iowa City, Ia., talks after delivering a 280,000 signature petition to the Boy Scouts of America’s Annual Meeting in Orlando, May 30, 2012. Wahls, the son of gay parents, is seeking the Boy Scouts to change its policies towards homosexuality and to reinstate Jennifer Tyrrell, a den mother to her seven-year-old’s Cub Scout pack from Ohio, who was forced to resign for being a lesbian.
The Boy Scouts of America reaffirms its commitment to their own version of “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it comes to gay members and leaders, those most expected to support the decision did so, and those most expected to oppose did the same – no real surprises in either case. The surprise, and I would say the wonderful surprise, is by two very influential BSA national executive board members who have publicly spoken about their opposition to this conclusion without breaking from the organization.
Ernst & Young CEO James Turley and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, both advocates for full and equal inclusion regardless of sexuality, will likely continue to argue for that policy even in the face of this new affirmation of the current policy.
As a statement released by AT&T said, “We don’t agree with every policy of every organization we support, nor would we expect them to agree with us on everything. Our belief is that change at any organization must come from within to be successful and sustainable.”
I don’t know that change from within is the only way to go, or that there isn’t also a useful role for outside agitation for the change that is sought. In fact, history tells us that there is. But it also tells us that the combination of the two is typically the most successful and durable approach to creating positive change. And in this case, the history to which I refer is none other than that of the Boy Scouts of America.
America’s first “Negro Boy Scout troop” was founded in 1911, but not until 1916 would there be a troop which was officially recognized by the Boy Scouts Council, and even then it was a racially segregated troop and fights continued about the “propriety” of black Scouts wearing the tan uniform. Struggles over the place of African-American boys and young men in scouting continued, not surprisingly especially in the Deep South, right up through the 1970s.
In other words, scouting mirrored the struggles faced by the rest of the nation. And that is precisely where the organization is on the issue of full inclusion of gay members and leaders today. The real question is what lessons can be learned from that past – lessons that will serve both individual scouts and the scouting movement?
For starters, we see that Scouts has been a fairly conservative organization – one that followed social trends rather than lead them. That has been, and continues to be, both strength and a weakness.
While pushing for many good values, including those that may seem “old fashioned” to many, Scouting has championed the value of service, moral strength, commitment to community and to family. That same conservatism has also made the organization slow to appreciate how broadly those categories can be understood without any loss of integrity.
Past experience indicates that with time, the organization is likely to become more, not less, inclusive. Given that, it would be helpful for people to follow Turley and Stephenson, and think about what could be done to encourage the organization to ask how it might become more inclusive of gay people without violating what it sees as its mission. In fact, they could come to appreciate that such inclusivity might actually help them to fulfill that mission. That is very much what happened with the integration of black scouts.
Ultimately, Boy Scouts of America is a private organization and they have the right to construct their membership rules as they see fit. They have the right to be wrong. But one hopes that they will not simply bask in that right, ignoring their own history in the process — doing that, will simply reduce a truly wonderful organization to an ever-shrinking club which is increasingly relevant to itself only.
In fact, like all great organizations, the Boy Scouts will maintain their vitality and their relevance not by simply protecting the status quo, nor by doing whatever is asked of them even by those with whom they disagree. They will accomplish the most by learning from those with whom they disagree and by incorporating those lessons, and those from their own organizational history, in ways that respect their past while embracing is presidential lessons for the future