Thursday’s news that Pascal Tessier, the first known openly gay Eagle Scout, was hired as an adult leader to work for the Boy Scouts of America marks a new milestone in the march toward LGBT equality. But is that a cause for celebration? No, not by a long shot.
I still remember when a close friend of mine was kicked out of Boy Scouts for the “crime” of being gay. The year was 1997. At the time, my friend, who I’ll call “John,” was a program director with me at our local Boy Scout summer camp. John had a distinguished tenure in the group, earning prestigious awards and the respect of his fellow Scouts. That all ended when John confided his sexual orientation to our camp director. Rumors about John soon spread like wildfire, and what was a private confession became horrifically public. Homophobic slurs and jokes proliferated, and many said that John didn’t deserve to be in Scouts. In their rampant prejudice, many speculated that because John was my friend that I too must be gay.
After camp ended, John was promptly kicked out of the Boy Scouts. According to them, he was an immoral predator, unfit to be a member or to serve in a leadership role. This was their conclusion despite John being one of the most highly decorated Scouts I’ve ever known, and being loved by his students.
As an Eagle Scout and former adult leader in the Boy Scouts, a question I’ve asked myself since then is whether the Boy Scouts has really changed.
The Boy Scouts opening membership to gay youths, which the group did over a year ago, certainly has the feel of going in the right direction. I was ecstatic when I heard the announcement and even happier when I heard about Tessier being hired. Then I was slapped with a cold, hard dose of reality. Pascal Tessier, my friend John, and other LGBT people are still banned from serving in leadership roles in the Boy Scouts.
When asked if there had been any change to the Boy Scouts’ policy regarding LGBT leaders, BSA spokesman Deron Smith said, “There isn’t.”
That echoes sentiments voiced by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates when he said during his first speech as president of the Boy Scouts last year that he would “oppose any effort to reopen this issue” of changing the Boy Scouts’ policy.
So is Tessier’s hiring a milestone? Definitely. A sign of impending change worth celebrating? Absolutely not.
I truly wish that weren’t the case. I have many fond memories of growing up in the Boy Scouts. I haven’t forgotten the joys of hiking, camping, and learning new skills. Nor have I forgotten the Scout Oath, which taught us “to help other people at all times,” or the Scout Law, which taught us to be “helpful, friendly, courteous, kind.” These are the kinds of values we should all teach our children, regardless of their sexual orientation. But by continuing its ban on LGBT adults, the Boy Scouts of America is teaching a very different lesson today.
On his 18th birthday, Tessier published an article in Time lamenting that he was being tossed out of Scouts and being treated like a predator. Other adults, people with busy lives who made it a priority to volunteer their time in service of our nation’s children, have also been kicked out for the “crime” of being lesbian, gay, or bisexual. That is not helpful, friendly, courteous, or kind. And even with the Boy Scouts admitting openly gay youths, its exclusion of LGBT adults teaches our children by example what the organization really thinks about them — and what they should think about themselves.
Lessons like these contribute to the institutionalization of homophobia, and they have had a devastating effect on our nation’s children. A nationally representative study of students in grades 7 to 12 found that LGB children are more than twice as likely as their heterosexual peers to have attempted suicide. A 2013 National School Climate Survey found that over 74 percent of LGBT students were verbally harassed, and 36 percent reported being physically assaulted. As a result, 30 percent missed at least one day of school in the past month, and grade point averages for LGBT students ranged from 9 to 15 percent lower than for other students. That is the impact of teaching hate. And we as a nation have let it go on for far too long.
As a private organization, the Boy Scouts might have the right to enforce exclusionary membership policies. But as someone who’s dedicated over a decade of his life to scouting, I think it’s time for a new lesson. It’s time for the Boy Scouts opens its membership to LGBT adults once and for all. Only then can they claim to have anything to teach our children.
DASHANNE STOKES is an Eagle Scout, writer, commentator, and civil rights activist. Follow him on Twitter @DaShanneStokes.