A Good First Step, But Not Far Enough

Discrimination runs against the spirit of the Boy Scouts.

A Boy Scout uniform.

Zach Wahls is the straight son of a lesbian couple, an Eagle Scout and the founder of Scouts for Equality.

Last week, the Boy Scouts of America voted to end its decades-long ban on gay youth, while keeping its ban on adults – gay parents like mine – in place. It is difficult to overstate the importance of that decision. While it clearly does not go far enough, the vote showed that the 103-year-old institution still has capacity to change and grow.

Every single week, Boy Scouts gather across the country to participate in one of our nation's most effective youth development organizations. My former troop met on Monday nights at the First United Methodist Church, and we would begin every night by presenting the colors and then reciting the Scout Oath and Law. You've probably heard the Scout Law at one point or another: A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. These values sculpt boys into young men and into leaders. 

Some anti-gay activists opposed to lifting the ban have tried to argue that by allowing openly gay members would somehow jeopardize the program’s the timeless values. If our values are timeless, why wouldn’t we want to share them with all young men who are willing to cherish them and live by them?

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

Speaking as the straight Eagle Scout son of an openly lesbian couple who joined the Scouts when I was only six years old, I've actually seen firsthand what happens when openly gay individuals become Scouts and Scout leaders. When I eagerly asked my moms if I could sign on as a Cub Scout with our local Pack, they were deeply apprehensive. The ban was well known, and we lived at the time in a Midwestern town of fewer than 20,000 people. But after my moms approached the Pack, which was sponsored by a Presbyterian church, and asked if the fact that they were gay would be a problem, the other parents said there would be no issue. There were a few folks who remained skeptical, but after a year of Cub Scout meetings and camp outs, whatever anxiety existed was gone. It was clear to everyone in Pack 381 that, just like every other set of parents, the two moms just wanted a positive scouting experience for their son. 

And so scouting did what scouting does best: it brought out the best in everybody, instilling important family values and creating close friendships and strong bonds in our community. After our first year, my den (the group of other boys my age) had grown so large that we needed a second adult leader. Nobody batted an eye when Jackie, my "short mom," (my biological mom is 5'11" and definitively the "tall mom" in our family) signed on as our den mother—a "Mama Grizzly," as it were.   

Although anti-gay activists may try to convince you that the presence of openly gay members would have led to all kinds of doomsday scenarios, the parents in central Wisconsin knew better. A few years later, when our Pack needed an interim cubmaster while they looked for a long-term replacement, my "tall mom," Terry – an internal medicine physician with an MBA in management – stepped in and helped facilitate a smooth transition. After our family relocated to Iowa City, Iowa, the other parents in Pack 381 called ahead to our new unit to let them know that they should go out of their way to involve my moms, and Jackie again became a den mother. 

[Take the U.S. News Poll: Should the Boy Scouts Allow Gay Scouts and Troop Leaders?]

Call me crazy, but that hardly seems like the sign of a collapsing organization imperiled by parents like mine. 

In fact, the only thing that seemed to be harming the organization was its exclusionary policy. Since the Boy Scouts reaffirmed its ban on gay members in 2000, scouting has lost more than 25 percent of its youth membership. The group’s own internal research shows that a majority of active Scouts and of parents under the age of 50 support lifting the ban. External polling from ABC News and Quinnipiac University has shown that only about 3 in 10 Americans support keeping the ban in place. Those under the age of 29 overwhelmingly support the freedom to marry, among other rights, for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. For sheer pragmatic reasons – let alone the fact that excluding people is certainly not kind, courteous, or friendly – lifting the ban on gay youth and parents is clearly in the best interest of scouting.