Ryan Andresen is pictured in this undated handout photo received by Reuters October 5, 2012. The mother of Andresen, a gay California Boy Scout denied an Eagle award because of his sexual orientation is fighting to overturn the decision before he turns 18, the cut-off age for the organization’s highest honor.
Ryan Andresen is the young man who fulfilled all of the requirements entitling him to the rank of Eagle Scout, Boy Scouting’s highest designation, only to have his lifelong dream denied. Well actually, Andresen failed in at least one area, according to a statement by a spokesman for Boy Scouts of America, and that is why he was not awarded the much sought after rank.
Ryan Andresen is openly gay and thus disqualified not only from receiving the award he earned, but actually disqualified from membership in the Scouts because, according that same spokesman, he “does not meet Scouting’s membership standard on sexual orientation.” In addition, he explained that the teenager “does not agree to Scouting’s principle of ‘Duty to God.’”
Andresen has said that he is “definitely not an atheist, and does believe in a higher power,” so it seems that not only does Scouting policy demand that one be either heterosexual or closeted, but assumes that if one is openly gay, they are by definition neither believers nor bound by any notion of duty to God. That’s a pretty big leap, regardless of what one thinks about BSA’s policy regarding scouts’ sexual identity.
The assumption made by Boy Scouts of America that being openly gay means that one does not believe in God, indicates that the organization is not only committed to the importance of faith in helping young men achieve their full human potential, but actually believes that for that faith to count as faith, it must reject homosexuality. While BSA’s position on gay Scouts is not new, this newly staked out theological claim is, and it marks the organization as increasingly narrow about a whole range of issues, not just those related to sexual identity.
I spoke with the teenager and his mom Karen Andresen by phone to discuss these and other issues relating to the events surrounding his pursuit of Eagle status, and subsequent denial of its award. It was a fascinating and moving conversation, though it left me with any number of unresolved questions about what actually happened in this case, and how complicated such situations are for all of those involved.
Andresen makes a wonderful first impression – coming across as both wise beyond his years and possessed of genuine warmth and sensitivity. Despite being deeply hurt over having been denied his award, he was quick to point out that he still feels very positive about what has transpired.
He spoke about the value of his final qualifying project on bullying, even if it didn’t help him to get his badge. He spoke about how being denied, gave him the opportunity to tell his story, and to meet with role models including Ellen DeGeneres who welcomed Andresen on her television program, and Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout who fights for the full inclusion of gay Scouts.
Andresen’s mom also sees some real up sides to this whole story. She spoke about the resulting publicity will “move Boy Scouts of America”, and she pointed out that “change comes slowly”, which is something she really appreciates.
Karen Andresen is right about change being a process, and even when it feels like it’s the result of a sudden breakthrough, there is almost always a long chain of events which lead that “sudden” event. For that insight alone, not to mention her son’s ability to see that for which he can still be grateful, it was an honor to speak with them and to share their observations. That said, some questions remain for me.
His mother described the “terrible pain of seeing her son denied what he dreamed of and was entitled to”. And while I certainly understand that pain, I can’t help but wonder whether he really was “entitled” to the award. I say that not because I support BSA’s policy – I don’t – but because however objectionable the policy is, it is theirs to uphold.
Although having been quoted repeatedly as saying that his troop leader had promised Andresen that “they would get by the gay thing,” Andresen admitted to me that his troop leader never said that to him. But whether those words were exchanged or not, it means that he did know that to get the award a lie would be necessary.
Andresen also told me that his troop leader never actually told him that he refused to sign off on his final Eagle project and recommend him for the rank. The leader conveyed that decision through his father, who is also a leader in scouting.
Andresen didn’t know, his leader didn’t tell. What really happened here?
I never got a fully satisfying answer to that question, but not because it seemed like Ryan was hiding anything. I think it has more to do with the fact that it’s really hard for people to speak honestly about their differences regarding sensitive issues, especially those relating to sexual identity.
Decent people, as Andresen clearly is and it seems his troop leader is as well, generally want to be both welcoming of others with whom they disagree, and also maintain their integrity. Unfortunately, they often find it tough to do both.
Andresen told me that he remained in Scouts despite his deep commitment to the importance of coming out and their total objection to it, because it was also “very important” to get his award. He wanted the affirmation of the organization, even if it was not fully accepting of him. His troop leader was in a similar bind.
According to Andresen, his leader is a really good guy – “deeply religious” and someone who is quite close with members of his own family who happen to be gay. He probably found it very hard to admit to Andresen that he was genuinely torn between his commitment to Andresen, his ability to relate lovingly to gay people, his religiosity which precludes gayness, and his desire not to lie by signing off on something in direct contravention of BSA policy. In fact, his inability to speak directly to Andresen about this indicates just that.
Gay Scouts need to accept the inevitable disappointments of staying in an unwelcoming organization, if they choose to do so, and take comfort that their continued presence will almost certainly contribute to a future change of organizational policy. Leadership needs to be proactively clear about the limits of their flexibility, and owes a personal conversation with those who run afoul of those limits.
The pain in this case was caused not only by BSA’s policy, but by poor communication. While the policy may not change, or change as fast as some of us hope, the need for greater openness and honesty, both with ourselves and with others, can be implemented immediately.
NOTE: As of this writing, over 404,000 people have signed a petition posted on change.org