Robert Gates: Boy Scouts Should Drop Ban on Gay Leaders

The Boy Scouts of America's president, who as Defense secretary played a pivotal role in ending the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, announced the organization will not take any action against local chapters that allowed gay adults to be scout leaders. He called the current membership restriction unsustainable.

The defiant stance taken by activist local chapters of the Boy Scouts of America—most notably a chapter in the New York City area—could be enough to force the hand of the national organization on its ban of gay adult members.

The status quo in our movement’s membership standards cannot be sustained.

That is, at least, based on the comments made by former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the current president of Boy Scouts of America (BSA).

At BSA’s National Annual Business Meeting on Thursday, Gates suggested the organization’s official stance should change—and he did so by citing his own experience in overturning the decades-long ban on gays in the military.

“I must speak as plainly and bluntly to you as I spoke to presidents when I was director of the CIA and secretary of defense,” he said in his prepared comments [PDF]. “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 noted that the urgency of the issue made him go back on his promise to not bring up the issue again during his two-year term.

“We cannot ignore growing internal challenges to our current membership policy, from some councils—like the Greater New York Council, the Denver Area Council, and others—in open defiance of the policy, to more and more councils taking a position in their mission statements and public documents contrary to national policy,” he added.

While his remarks don’t formally change the BSA’s stance on the issue, they do add to the pressure on the group for a vote to do so. Two years ago, the group voted down the ban on gay youths as members, but kept the ban on gay adults in place.

Challenged By Defiance

The debate highlights a weakness in BSA’s current policy. One of the first openly gay Eagle Scouts, Pascal Tessier, made waves after he became an adult. As a freshman in college, he applied for a job as a camp counselor, and the BSA’s Greater New York Council hired him in April, in open defiance of the national group’s policy. Tessier retained the services of prominent lawyer David Boies, just in case the national group offered a legal challenge.

While Gates made no comments regarding whether the BSA would take action against Tessier or other LGBT adult leaders themselves, he did emphasize that he would not remove charters from groups that chose not to enforce the policy—despite his ability to do just that. He noted that “such an action would deny the lifelong benefits of Scouting to hundreds of thousands of boys and young men today and vastly more in the future.”

Scouts for Equality Executive Director Zach Wahls, a prominent LGBT activist, praised Gates’ statement and sentiment.

“This is another step forward for the Boy Scouts of America,” Wahls said. “I’m proud to see Dr. Gates chartering a course towards full equality in the BSA. While our work won’t be done until we see a full end to their ban on gay adults once and for all, today’s decision moves the Boy Scouts in that direction.”

Robert Gates, left, shown in 2010 en route to the National Scout Jamboree. (Cherie Cullen/Department of Defense)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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