Dr. Robert Gates, former CIA Director, former Secretary of Defense, and now Boy Scouts of America President, addressed the annual BSA business meeting May 21, where he urged change to the national policy to ban gay adult leaders (transcript here). In his remarks, Gates cited the rapid change in the views of the public, the upcoming Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, and declining membership as reasons to end the current policy.
“…I must speak as plainly and bluntly to you as I spoke to Presidents when I was Director of CIA and Secretary of Defense. We must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be. The status quo in our movement’s membership standards cannot be sustained.”
Gates told the assembled leadership of the BSA that he would not move to revoke the charters of the Greater New York Council, nor the Denver Area Council, among others, who have openly defied the national organization and allowed openly gay leaders to be a part of their troops. He said doing so would only serve to
“deny the lifelong benefits of Scouting to hundreds of thousands of boys and young men today and vastly more in the future. I will not take that path.”
BSA is urged by Dr. Gates to take control of it’s future now, rather than allow possible legislative or court action determine their policies.
Gates urged the attending leadership to change national policy, permitting local Councils to set leadership requirements. Most Scout troups are sponsored by churches, some of which have no qualms about gay men serving as leaders. Others may want to continue their prohibitions on gay leaders, but, in Gates’ view, should have the option to decide for themselves. Some troops are sponsored by non-religious organizations, and would also be able to determine their own standards for leadership positions. (Such groups could also end the current ban on atheists serving as Scout leaders, another growing concern of non-discrimination advocates.)
In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled the BSA was a private organization, and could set membership requirements as it saw fit. This confirmed the Scout’s policy of banning any boy who identified as gay from becoming or remaining a Scout, and of prohibiting or removing any adult leader who was gay. On January 1, 2014, BSA dropped the ban on gay boys being Scouts, but maintained the adult ban. This had the curious, and indefensible, effect of telling young men, many who achieved Scouting’s highest honor of Eagle Scout, that it was no longer acceptable for them to continue in Scouting as adult leaders. Large national donors began publicly withdrawing as sponsors of the Scouts, and declining to continue their monetary donations. Between those funding cutoffs, and a declining membership as people expressed their own personal dissatisfaction with the gay bans, the BSA is experiencing a crisis. As Gates said, this is not sustainable.
Pressure is building on the Boy Scouts of America to end a policy rooted in prejudice and ignorance. They should follow the leadership evidenced by the Girl Scouts of America, who have no bans based on sexual orientation for their members or leaders. GSA is in the forefront of this issue, and even leads in issues of transgender youth.
The Boy Scouts of America has a long path to follow to bring itself into the 21st century. Some of the more intransigent and religiously conservative members will have difficulties adjusting to the new realities, but if they want the positive aspects of Scouting to endure, they and the rest of the BSA need to adapt to the social, moral, and legal realities of the times. Discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity will not be policies that ensure Scouting remain a strong presence in the United States. The general public, which the BSA purports to serve, will no longer allow it.
The disappointing aspect of Dr. Gates’ speech was not that he urged the BSA to change, but the reasons he gave. He did not stand for changing the policy as the moral thing to do, but merely as the acts required to insure the survival of the organization. The positive effects on boys was almost an afterthought. He missed a chance to be a strong moral leader to the BSA and Americans in general on the issues of discrimination and acceptance. Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth to deeply, I suppose we should be happy for baby steps.