In a dramatic reversal of remarks he made during his first speech as president of the Boy Scouts of America last year, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week that the organization’s controversial ban on gay adults is “unsustainable.”
“The country is changing, and we are increasingly at odds with the legal landscape at both the state and federal levels,” Gates said. “And, as a movement, we find ourselves with a policy more than a few of our church sponsors reject, thus placing Scouting between a boy and his church.”
By finally reopening the discussion about LGBT adults in scouting, Gates is making the right move. Welcoming gay scouts until they are 17 years of age, only to condemn them as predators the minute they turn 18, helps no one. As former Attorney General Eric Holder said, that kind of discriminatory thinking “only preserves and perpetuates the worst kind of stereotypes” of LGBT people.
Gates’s statements received high praise from Scouts for Equality, an advocacy organization that raised over $50,000 of crowdfunded money in an effort to compel the Boy Scouts to call a vote on changing the policy at this year’s annual meeting. “This is another step forward for the Boy Scouts of America,” Scouts for Equality director Zach Wahls said in a statement on the organization’s website. “I’m proud to see Dr. Gates charting a course towards full equality in the BSA.”
Gates’s remarks come at a critical time for the Boy Scouts. In recent years, the organization has witnessed a decline in membership and corporate sponsors, and the rise of public support for LGBT rights. In the last month, the ban on LGBT leaders has made the Boy Scouts the target of an investigation into possible employment discrimination and the focus of the Twitter hashtag campaign #StandWithBrian (which centered on ousted gay Scout leader Brian Peffly). But as groundbreaking as Gates’s remarks are, they don’t go far enough. Not by a long shot.
Citing internal opposition and vulnerability to court decisions that could order the BSA to change its policy, Gates said that the organization’s legal position had weakened since taking the membership dispute all the way to the Supreme Court in 2000. More Scout councils, he said, could also be expected to openly challenge the policy, which is what recently happened in New York. With an increasingly indefensible position, the time was ripe for Gates to have called for real and immediate change — the kind of action needed to begin righting wrongs, the kind of action that charts the path ahead. That’s the kind of action that’s truly needed. But instead, Gates waffled. “I am not asking the national board for any action to change our current policy at this meeting,” he said.
As an Eagle Scout and voice for equality in scouting, I was hoping for something more. By not calling for action, Gates risks much more than appearing weak and indecisive. He risks giving those who support the current policy enough breathing room to strengthen and advance their position. That’s why Gates’s remarks are worth embracing, but not without a sense of hesitation. If Gates takes the next step and calls for action, then we can celebrate.
This is not to downplay the importance and symbolism of Gates’s remarks. Indeed, he seems sincere and knowledgeable about the complexities of institutional change. He truly does have the Boy Scouts’ best interests at heart.
But now is not the time for waffling or half-measures. As Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin said of Gates’s remarks, “We welcome as a step in the right direction President Gates’s announcement that the organization will not revoke the charters of chapters that welcome gay Scout leaders and employees. But, as we have said many times previously, half measures are unacceptable, especially at one of America’s most storied institutions.”
Until Gates and the Boy Scouts of America make real change in the organization, we must keep up the pressure on them. A former Defense secretary should know better than anyone that actions speak louder than words.
DASHANNE STOKES is an Eagle Scout, writer, commentator, and civil rights activist. Follow him on Twitter @DaShanneStokes.