The Boy Scouts of America on Thursday voted to lift its ban on openly gay children, in what LGBT advocates hope will be the first step toward bringing full equality to one of the nation’s oldest and most prominent leadership institutions.
The 1,400 voting members of BSA’s national council convened in Grapevine, Texas, for their two-day annual meeting to, among other things, vote on a proposal that ends the Boy Scouts’ policy of discrimination against gay youths. The new policy, which passed with more than 60% of the vote, still excludes openly gay adults from participation.
While LGBT advocates plan to continue their push for the BSA to welcome everyone, regardless of age and sexual orientation, those on the frontlines of the debate still see the inclusion of gay kids as an important achievement.
“We see this proposal as a first step to bringing full equality to the Boy Scouts,” said Rich Ferraro, vice president of communications at GLAAD, to msnbc. “I think we’ll see the ban on gay adults fall pretty quickly after this.”
GLAAD has been a leader in the national campaign to end the BSA’s ban on gay scouts and leaders since April 2012, when Jennifer Tyrell was ousted as her seven-year-old son’s den leader for being a lesbian. Since then, companies like Intel, UPS, and the Merck Foundation have suspended all funding to the Boy Scouts until its ban on gay members is lifted.
Ferraro said his organization would still recommend that these companies withhold funding until the BSA has full equality. But he’s advising families with gay children to return to scouting so that the organization can see their value.
“There was a lot of skepticism before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell [the military’s ban on openly gay service members] was repealed about the safety of military personnel,” said Ferraro. “There was a lot of concern that openly gay adults would be a threat to military cohesion. And that wasn’t the case. The same thing will happen with the Boy Scouts…[The organization] is going to be strengthened by openly gay scouts.”
Opponents to the proposal don’t agree. “Clearly, there is going to be a mass exodus,” said John Stemberger, an Eagle Scout and founder of the OnMyHonor.Net coalition, to MNSBC. “I don’t think it’s possible to be openly gay without being a distraction to scout law.”
For Stemberger, there is a big distinction between being gay, and being openly gay, he explained. “There are gay men in the program now. But they’re discreet. They’re not activists. They’re not out there waving the flag,” he said. “Look at the way the American gay culture has defined itself. Look at anything that has the word ‘gay’ attached to it…Whatever it is, you can guarantee it’s going to be inappropriate for children.”
Stemberger was joined in his opposition by the Family Research Council, whose senior vice president Rob Schwarzwalder wrote in an op-ed published last month by U.S. News and World Report that if implemented, the proposal would drive “hundreds of thousands of Scout families” to “vote with their feet and leave the BSA.”
Already, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has condemned the policy change in a statement: “The Boy Scouts of America has been built upon the values of faith and family for more than 100 years and today’s decision contradicts generations of tradition in the name of political correctness. While I will always cherish my time as a scout and the life lesson I learned, I am greatly disappointed with this decision.”
In February, the BSA leadership set out to conduct what it described in a statement as “the most comprehensive listening exercise in Scouting’s history” to respond to declining membership. While national polls show growing support for gay rights, the BSA’s survey of about 200,000 members, parents, and leaders showed overwhelming support for maintaining the ban. However, the survey did show that most parents of young scouts, as well as youth members themselves, were in favor of welcoming in gay members, reported the Associated Press.
“The change to the Boy Scouts of America’s membership policy is not the result of pressure from outside; it is the result of extensive dialogue within the Scouting family,” wrote Boy Scouts of America President Wayne Perry in USA Today. “Parents, adults in the Scouting community and teens alike tend to agree that youth should not be denied the benefits of Scouting. The resolution is not about adults; it is about what is best for young people.”
Perry added that “the resolution reinforces that Scouting is a youth program, and that any sexual conduct, heterosexual or homosexual, is contrary to the virtues of Scouting.”
Many opponents were concerned that allowing openly gay children into the Boy Scouts would alienate the group’s conservative partners, 70% of which are religious organizations, according to Perry. However, shortly after the resolution was released last month, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–which sponsors more the 400,000 children in the Boy Scouts–gave its stamp of approval. The National Catholic Committee on Scouting, which sponsors the second highest number of troops, neither endorsed nor opposed the resolution.
In a statement after Thursday’s vote, the Greater New York Councils said that its members were “pleased” with the BSA’s decision to allow openly gay children, but “extremely disappointed that the resolution did not include gay adult volunteers.”
“We will continue to work toward a fully inclusive national policy aligned with our own,” read the statement.
It is unclear exactly how the new policy will work, considering the ban on gay adults would hit scout members at 18, just as they’re going through the process of earning their Eagle Scout badges. On this issue, both supporters and opponents of the proposal agree that welcoming gay children and not gay adults creates confusion.
The new policy will take effect on Jan. 1, 2014.