The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is kicking off its national meeting this week in Nashville, Tennessee, after a difficult year in which the organization took flak from all sides for its decision to welcome openly gay children, but not openly gay adults.
Membership has shrunk, businesses have dropped funding, and religious sponsors have condemned the popular youth organization for enacting a halfway policy of inclusion that offends practically everyone – whether you’re for or against LGBT equality.
Rather than descending on the national meeting, however, gay rights advocates this year decided to march over 2,000 miles away on Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle, Washington. The e-commerce giant includes the BSA in a list of nearly one million organizations that consumers can choose to donate to through the company’s charitable giving program, AmazonSmile.
On Wednesday, members of the gay rights groups, Scouts for Equality and GLAAD, hand-delivered a Change.org petition with over 125,000 signatures asking Amazon to cut ties with the BSA for as long as it continued to discriminate against openly gay adults.
That Amazon hasn’t already is somewhat surprising, given the company’s reputation as a strong ally to the LGBT community.
“Obviously, they’re known [at Amazon] for being very progressive and having great policies regarding LGBT employees,” Pascal Tessier, considered the first openly gay Eagle Scout approved under the BSA’s new protocol, told msnbc. “We’re asking them to change this one little thing; we’re not asking them to change who they are and what they represent.”
In the Human Rights Campaign’s most recent Corporate Equality Index, which measures companies’ commitment to inclusivity, Amazon netted a high score of 90. Two years ago, CEO Jeff Bezos donated $2.5 million to the campaign for marriage equality in Washington state. Furthermore, Amazon’s own participation agreement for its charitable giving program states that “eligible organizations” are those that “do not engage in, support encourage, or promote: intolerance, discrimination or discriminatory practices based on race, sex, religion, nationality, disability, sexual orientation, or age.”
Yet when it comes to AmazonSmile, the company is sticking by the BSA and other anti-LGBT equality groups, such as the National Organization for Marriage (NOM,) which campaigns against same-sex nuptials. Amazon says it relies “on lists published by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the US Office of Foreign Assets Control to determine if certain organizations are ineligible to participate.”
Neither the BSA nor NOM are classified as hate groups, but SPLC Co-Founder and General Counsel Joe Levin has criticized the Boy Scouts’ position on gay adults. Citing an msnbc.com article from last week, Levin sent a letter to Jeff Bezos on Wednesday, urging him to drop the BSA from Amazon’s program.
“There is no question that the BSA’s policy toward gay men qualifies as intolerant – by anyone’s standards, but especially ours,” wrote Levin. “We believe the BSA should not be eligible for AmazonSmile. And while we appreciate the fact that Amazon uses our hate group list to disqualify certain organizations, the lack of inclusion on that list should not be read as an endorsement.”
For a while, Amazon actually did list an SPLC-designated hate group – the Pacific Justice Institute – as an option on its program, but the company removed it after GLAAD pointed out the fact.
“If you look at [AmazonSmile,] it’s clear that they want this to be a grassroots-level program, and I totally understand that,” said Zach Wahls, executive director of Scouts for Equality and an Eagle Scout, to msnbc. “We just want them to follow their own policy, which explicitly states that money cannot go to organizations that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. And it’s clear that the Boy Scouts discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. It’s happening in Amazon’s backyard.”
Seventeen-year-old Tessier launched the Amazon petition last month, after the BSA ousted Geoffrey McGrath, a gay Seattle Scoutmaster, and revoked his church’s charter agreement. McGrath said at first he was “horrified” to learn of the petition because he and his husband “love Amazon.” But then, as McGrath told msnbc, he was even more horrified to realize that Tessier had been right.
“Amazon’s policies are really clear that they will not support intolerant organizations,” he said. “We’re just asking them to follow their own values and their own policies, because they’re good values and good policies. We’re asking them to make themselves proud.”
McGrath said it was an emotional day standing with Tessier on Amazon’s campus.
“It took me back 33 years ago to when I was 17 and had earned my Eagle Scout badge,” he said. “The world is a different place for that young man than it was for me. Even so, he had to look across the entire nation to find one gay Scoutmaster. And when he did, it was in the context of my being kicked out.”
So far, those hoping for a prompt change in the Boy Scouts’ policy have been disappointed with news coming out of Nashville, where the group’s leaders are currently gathering. The BSA’s National Executive Board has made the decision to lower the maximum age of youth in its programs to 18 years old, down from 21, NBC News reported. Eighteen had always been the cutoff for youth in the Boy Scouts, but the the eligibility age was higher for other programs under the BSA umbrella – like the Sea Scouts and the Order of the Arrow, the Boy Scouts’ National Honor Society, and the Venturing program. Lowering the cutoff to 18 years old means openly gay members have less time to participate in the BSA’s extended network before they’re labeled “adults” and subsequently forced out.
“For example,” said Tessier, “on my 18th birthday, I could’ve joined Venturing crew and still been openly gay. Now that they’ve rolled it back to 18, the policy negatively affects a much larger portion of the Boy Scouts of America.”
“It’s a step backwards, if anything,” he said.
Despite this change, Tessier and Wahls are both optimistic about getting a new BSA president at this year’s meeting, who, barring any unforeseen incidents, will most likely be former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. As a member of President Obama’s administration, Gates oversaw the demise of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT,) the military’s ban on openly gay servicemembers. Now, LGBT advocates are hoping he’ll do the same for the Boy Scouts.
“We don’t expect them to move backwards,” said Wahls. “As president, Roberts Gates will have the opportunity to make his mark on the organization, and we want to be respectful of him and the fact that he just got there.”
McGrath sounded a less hopeful note.
“Robert Gates is a very capable administrator, but he’s no friend of gay people,” he said. “He was directed to change [DADT] by the commander-in-chief. He wasn’t in favor of changing that policy, but he’s a good soldier – he implemented the change.”
“But this isn’t about Bob Gates and his ability to manage things,” said McGrath. “It’s about the policy direction that the board is giving him.”
For now, advocates are hoping that going after the BSA’s funding through companies like Amazon will help to force the board’s hand. If that strategy doesn’t work, however, more members may find themselves in McGrath’s position – forced to part with the organization that they’ve grown up with and love.
On August 5, Tessier will turn 18. Rather than disappearing into the shadows, he plans on applying to be an adult leader with the BSA – a decision he knows will probably get him kicked out. Regardless of all the controversy the last year has brought, however, Tessier says he’s “still very much in love with the idea of the Boy Scouts.”
“They can’t just ignore me on my 18th birthday,” he said. “I want show them that I’m not going away, so that things stay alive and the fight continues.”