As Boy Scouts End Gay Membership Ban, Fight For Inclusion Continues
The Boy Scouts of America's longstanding ban on out gay scouts ends Jan. 1, ushering in a new era for some members like Pascal Tessier, who will be able to earn Eagle Scout level. Activists call the change a "step forward," and vow to keep fighting.
The Boy Scouts of America will accept out gay members on Wednesday -- a major shift in the organization's policy that along with welcoming gay youth, opens the door for some gay members to end their silence and achieve its highest rank.
The change comes over six months after the BSA's Scouting's National Council voted to end the ban -- a policy that has kicked up intense criticism in recent years -- and clears the way for members like Pascal Tessier to become one of the first out gay scouts to reach the Eagle Scout ranking.
"It will be bittersweet," Tessier told BuzzFeed. "On one hand I am completely relieved to have this done and it's a huge accomplishment for me, but because the policy of the Boy Scouts is still to not allow [adult] gay leaders I feel like I have a lot of work to do."
Tessier, 17, a senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland, plans to finally complete the process of becoming an Eagle Scout sometime in mid-January, a ranking he was told wouldn't be granted to him under the anti-gay rule. Coming out gay and publicly protesting against the policy put Tessier at risk of being denied Eagle Scout ranking, which he has devoted much of his life to achieve.
"As time went on, I eventually came out because I had an opportunity to stand up and say, 'I am a gay scout, I'm about to get my Eagle and this policy should change, and I'm going to put everything done for the past five years on the line,'" he said.
Under the policy change, no youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone, according to BSA spokesman Deron Smith. However, in July, the Irving, Texas-based Boy Scouts reaffirmed its ban on allowing out gay members over the age of 18.
"This is a step forward, but the reality is that once a scout turns 18, they won't be welcome in the program," said Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout and executive director of Scouts for Equality. Wahls, the straight son of a lesbian couple, said the existing policy prevents parents like his from serving as leaders and puts out gay Eagle Scouts at risk of being barred from scouting after their 18th birthday.
"After turning 18, you are no longer considered a youth member," Wahls said. "Under both the previous policy and the new policy, adult members of the BSA cannot be gay." Because of this, Wahls -- like Tessier -- said there is still a lot of work to be done to make BSA more inclusive.
Because of these policies, several corporations have ended donations to BSA -- mostly recently, aerospace and defense giant Lockheed Martin. This sent a clear message to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who under President Obama, contributed to the end of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy banning out gay and lesbian soldiers, according to Wahls.
"Opening membership to gay youth is an [sic] historic first step toward full equality in the BSA, but we're not there yet," he said and pledged that his organization will continue to push for a fully inclusive membership policy in 2014. "For me, my Eagle Scout award was bigger than graduating from high school. It's something that teaches you leadership skills that will stay with you the rest of your life."
Participating in Boy Scouts involves a number of acts of public service and volunteer work, including the final project that leads to achieving Eagle Scout status. Tessier said his final project was to reconstruct a brick walkway, benefiting the Audubon Society. He expects the project to be evaluated by a local scouting board of review in the days around Jan. 15 and hopes to be awarded Eagle shortly after.
"It's going to be hard," Tessier said, looking forward to the moment when he finally makes it. "I feel more of sense of loss because once you turn 18 you can no longer become an Eagle Scout, regardless of what the policy is. It's just saddening to me that when I get my Eagle Scout, I'll look back on people who were very, very close to getting their Eagle but because they were gay were kicked out. So everything that they did was essentially for nothing and they were told by an organization that they love that they're not human, basically."
In the new year, Tessier looks forward to continue working to advocate for further inclusion, and contends that while just a step forward, the youth policy change will make gay scouts feel safer.
"In my area, there's not going to be much change because of how progressive the area is that I live in," he said. "But at the same time, I know that around the world, Jan. 1 is going to be a huge change for more conservative areas because it will make closeted gay scouts feel more safe. It will make people feel safe in general, whether or not they're a scout, which makes me happy because people won't have to be silent."