Trail to historic gay Boy Scouts vote started in the Bay Area

Pub date February 4, 2013
SectionPolitics Blog

This Wednesday, the Boy Scouts of America’s (BSA) Executive Board will consider removing the controversial ban on gay members and allow each individual troop to adopt its own policy on gay scouts. The board publicly reaffirmed the anti-gay policy just last summer, but recent pressure from gay rights groups, corporate sponsors, and Bay Area troops has forced the governing body to revisit the blanket prohibition on gay members.  

Opposition to the Boy Scout’s ban first surfaced in Northern California in the late 1980s when Tim Curran, an Eagle Scout and aspiring scoutmaster, sued the Mount Diablo Boy Scout Council for discrimination after being denied the position. Curran took the suit to the Supreme Court and lost. The court’s landmark decision in Curran v. Mount Diablo Council of the Boy Scouts of America continues to provide the legal justification for the BSA’s anti-gay policies.

Since the ruling, the San Francisco Bay Area has emerged as a key battleground in the struggle for gay membership in the scouts. Local troops often clash with the national organization over the ban and many local scout leaders publicly denounce the policy as discriminatory and hateful.

In October, openly gay East Bay scout Ryan Andresen was denied his Eagle Scout badge by the Mt. Diablo-Silverado Council due to his sexual orientation. Although officials with the council voiced reservations about denying Andresen, they are bound by BSA national policy that has long maintained homosexuality is inconsistent with the scouts oath to be “morally straight.”  

Andresen’s father resigned his position as an assistant scoutmaster, and Andresen’s mother organized an online petition which collected nearly half a million signatures protesting her son’s expulsion. The incident is sparking a widespread public debate about the Scout’s discrimination policy. Andresen appeared on national TV, and his petition garnered high profile support from California politicians like Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and US Sen. Barbara Boxer.

Andresen’s national profile and the publicity surrounding his case inspired outrage among local scouts and adult leaders. Steve Tennant, committee chair of Palo Alto Troop 57, said the parents and volunteers in his troop felt compelled to act. “We were all outraged and we immediately started thinking about how we could go about changing this policy,” he told the Guardian.

The controversy quickly galvanized parents and scouts throughout the Bay Area to more openly challenge the gay ban. From San Francisco to Palo Alto, parents and scouts penned public letters of protest decrying the policy and and urging the local Mt. Diablo-Silverado Council to reconsider Andresen.

Parents in Tennant’s Troop 57, located just a few miles from Andresen’s troop, unanimously adopted a non-discrimination policy both to voice solidarity with Anderson and to avoid potential discrimination in their own troop.

“It was just a matter of time until a kid in our troop faced the same situation as Ryan. I would rather resign my position than kick a kid out of the Scouts for being gay,” Tennant, whose two sons are currently scouts, told the Guardian. “Seeing the reaction of our parents and seeing the support for Ryan convinced me personally to stay involved with the Scouts,” he added.  

Eagle Scouts from Andresen’s district also mobilized against the ban. Trevor Wallace, an Eagle Scout from the nearby Troop 57, helped to organize meetings to pressure the Mt. Diablo-Silverado Council to allow Andresen to earn his badge. “My troop has been completely outraged by what happened to Ryan,” Wallace told the Guardian. “I got my Eagle Scout badge the same time Ryan was supposed to get his… discriminating against him like this is old fashioned and wrong.”

Michael and Andrew Dotson, a father-son scoutmaster duo who lead San Francisco’s Troop 88, echoed the concerns of Wallace and Tennant. “I want the boys to feel safe and be able to be open,” Michael Dotson told the Guardian. “Troop 88 would be very accepting of gay members once the ban is removed. And I hope it is.”

Andrew Dotson, a recent Eagle Scout who now works as his father’s assistant scoutmaster also opposes the ban. Growing up in San Francisco, he encountered plenty of gay scouts. But because of the national policy, the boys in his troop had to stay formally in the closet or risk expulsion. “I just don’t think that’s right,” he told the Guardian. “Scouting should be open to everybody.

Andresen’s case and the outpouring of support from other Bay Area scouts drew the attention of Zack Wahls, founder of Scouts for Equality, a national organization founded last summer to pressure the BSA Executive Board d to revisit the gay-ban.  

Wahls credits Andresen and his supporters with providing the necessary grassroots pressure to potentially change the national policy.

“It’s important to remember that only seven months ago, the Scouts were adamant that this policy was not going to change,” Wahls told the Guardian. “What happened in those seven months was that we harnessed online tools and worked with people like Ryan to highlight the negative impact this ban has on the local level.”

Wahl and Boy Scouts for Equality also targeted corporations and sympathetic members of the BSA board.  Over the summer, board members Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, and James Turley, CEO of Ernst & Young, announced publicly their opposition to the ban. Since September, several major corporate sponsors, including Intel and UPS, announced that they would rescind financial support for the BSA until the national organization lifted the ban.  

Ahead of the board meeting, BSA officials reiterated that lifting the ban would not force any individual troops to change their own membership policies. “The Boy Scouts would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members, or parents,” BSA spokesperson Deron Smith told the New York Times. “This would mean there would no longer be any national policy regarding sexual orientation.

For many scouts in the Bay Area, however, removing the national ban is just the beginning. The end goal is the adoption of a national non-discrimination policy. But given the Boy Scouts history of strident opposition to gay rights, reconsidering the ban is significant development. “I think a national policy will take time,” reflected Michael Dotson of Troop 88, “but this is a good first step.”