When you make Eagle Scout – the highest rank a youth can earn in the Boy Scouts of America – the adult leaders in your troop tell you, “This is just the beginning.” At the time, this is a frustrating thing to hear. You’ve completed up to seven years of work rising through the ranks, leading your fellow scouts and earning merit badges, and the adults – in typical adult fashion – are telling you you’re only getting started?
But on Monday night, when the Boy Scouts finally lifted its ban on gay adults, that phrase felt appropriate. This really is just the beginning. There is much work to do.
As the son of a same-sex couple from Iowa, and the co-founder and executive director of Scouts for Equality, I couldn’t be happier to see the Boy Scouts take this step. The group’s ban on gay adults and youth had been in place since 1978; the Boy Scouts had long asserted that homosexuality was immoral and had no place in Scouting. The group defended its right to discriminate all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the Boy Scouts in 2000. The change in policy means a gay teen who’s about to become an Eagle Scout doesn’t have to fear being thrown out of the organization when he turns 18. It means gay parents don’t have to worry about being removed from their son’s troop.
Monday’s vote was the culmination of three years of campaigning by Scouts for Equality staff and supporters, which were preceded by decades of work by the LGBT activists and straight allies who came before us. I co-founded Scouts for Equality in June 2012, after Jen Tyrrell, a lesbian den mother from Ohio, was thrown out of her son’s Cub Scout pack. Several weeks later, the Boy Scouts doubled down on its ban, saying it had completed a two-year review of the rule, and it wasn’t going to change. We worked with groups including GLAAD to call attention to the ban, and explained how it affected families like Tyrrell’s and stigmatized gay youth.
In the spring of 2013, our hard work paid off in one way: not even a year after re-affirming its ban on gay members at every level, amid pressure from corporate sponsors and a flood of media coverage of young people and adults who’d experienced the sting of discrimination, the Boy Scouts lifted its ban on gay youth. We all knew this meant that overturning the ban on gay adults was only a matter of time – it doesn’t make much sense to allow gay youth, only to throw them out on their 18th birthday.
Indeed, that scenario is exactly what ushered in the fall of the gay adult ban. Pascal Tessier was the first openly gay youth to become an Eagle Scout after the Boy Scouts lifted its gay youth ban. In April of this year, a little more than a year after making Eagle Scout, the Boy Scouts’ Greater New York Council hired 18-year-old Tessier, in defiance of the national ban. A month later, Boy Scouts of America President Robert Gates described the ban on gay adults as “unsustainable,” which put the organization on track for this week’s vote.
Among our supporters, the response to the decision has been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve already heard from hundreds of adults, both gay and straight, who are excited to get back into Scouting now that the ban is over.
But the real work for the Boy Scouts starts now. You can change a policy over the course of an hour-long board meeting; it takes much longer to change the culture of a 3.5 million-member organization.
That work will require, in no small part, the participation of thousands of Americans across the country who had been unwilling or unable to join the Boy Scouts or enlist their sons in the program until the ban was lifted. It will mean progressive faith groups who dropped their support because of the ban – like the Unitarian Universalists Association and the Union for Reformed Judaism – coming back to the Scouting family. It will mean the Boy Scouts of America drafting strong anti-bullying protections and recruiting gay adults onto the organization’s boards of directors and committees.
The hike to full inclusion will be long, and it will also be worthwhile. The Boy Scouts has been a cornerstone of our nation’s moral bedrock for more than a century. It enjoys a U.S. Congressional Charter – one of only 89 organizations in the country to have one – and was lionized by Norman Rockwell. An organization that represents what it means to be American must represent all Americans. This change takes the Boy Scouts one step closer to that goal.
As we work to rebuild this iconic American institution, I remember what my Scout leaders told me so many years ago: This is just the beginning.