By Jake Olzen
The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is facing growing resentment due to its recent affirmation of excluding homosexuals from the organization. In July, the BSA Executive Board announced it would continue its policy of banning openly gay boys as well as GLBTQ adults from participating in Scouting. But the policy — which was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2000 — has triggered a backlash of protest and invigorated efforts to change it.
There is no single, unified effort struggling against the BSA policy. Rather, there are a multitude of persons and groups fighting for the right of full inclusion to the Boy Scouts all over the country. While their efforts are not necessarily coordinated together, the preponderance of protest — from radicals to reformists — suggests that a tipping point for the BSA policy may be near.
Online organizing efforts have been key for Jen Tyrrell. When she was fired from her volunteer position as her son’s Cub Scout Den Leader in April, Tyrrell — with the help of some friends and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) — started an online petition to have her re-instated.
The Change.org petition for Tyrrell quickly garnered national attention with hundreds of thousands of signatures and thrust her into the public spotlight as an advocate for gay rights.
“I’ve never been an activist,” said Tyrrell when I phoned her. “But I’m embracing it. It’s been hard putting myself in a position I’ve never been comfortable in. I hate public speaking; I cringe and get sick every time I have to do it. But I just need to do it. I cry, I want to quit, but our family is struggling through it. I don’t want to be in the spotlight, but it’s necessary and I’m going to stick around.”
Tyrrell spoke at the GLAAD Media Awards, paraded in the NYC Pride March and others, and, most recently, personally delivered 300,000 signatures in support of her reinstatement and in opposition to the BSA policy to the Boy Scout national headquarters in Irving, Texas.
One promising sign suggesting that Tyrrell’s and others’ petition efforts are not in vain is the case of BSA Executive Board members Randall Stephenson and James Turley. Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, and Turley, CEO of Ernst & Young, have publicly expressed their support for changing the policy from within the BSA organization after having been the targets of another Change.org campaign started by Tyrrell.
Another promising sign is the preponderance of Eagle Scouts that are returning their Eagle Badges in protest. Mark Engler wrote an excellent report about the growing phenomenon for Dissent. According to Scouts for Equality, over 250 Eagle Scouts have done so, with more every day; many of their letters — including this author’s — can be found on the “Eagle Scouts Returning Our Eagle Badges” Tumblr.
When the Executive Board reaffirmed its policy decision in July, Burke Stansbury had had enough. He spoke with friends — including other Eagle Scouts — and decided to write a letter and send his badge back in protest. But he quickly noticed that he was not alone.
“Others had also written letters and posted it on Facebook and other places and they were getting some attention on social media. I put together the Tumblr to collect the letters. Maybe a dozen that I had come across in different places and I added mine,” said the 36-year-old Stansbury, from Seattle, when we spoke by phone.
Much to the surprise of Stansbury, it has drawn the attention of some major mainstream media outlets and continues to receive a couple of thousand hits a day.
“Sometimes you plan out all these strategies and nothing catches on. This [Tumblr], though, took 30 minutes to put together and just took off … it was clearly just a matter of striking a chord,” said Stansbury about the returned Eagle badges phenomenon — highlighting the significance of recognizing memes and creating something viral in social change movements.
Scouts for Equality, however, the most high-profile organization advocating for change in the BSA policy, is fast approaching 500,000 supporters — including almost 1,500 Eagle Scouts — does not endorse the returning of Eagle Awards.
“We love Scouting,” explained Brad Hankins, Marketing Director for Scouts for Equality, about their position. “If everyone who disagreed with the policy were to return their medal,” wrote Hankins in an email, “we’d lessen our voice within the BSA. Of course, we support those who have returned their award … and feature them … because it is a powerful and peaceful protest.”
Inspired by Tyrrell’s efforts, Zach Wahls — an Eagle Scout and son of two lesbian mothers whose eloquence and emotion speaking out against the BSA policy went viral on YouTube last year — started Scouts for Equality. The organization embraces a change-from-within strategy that relies upon mobilizing citizens, high-profile leaders and celebrities, and active scouts and council — regional and local bodies through which the BSA programs and policies are administered — to pressure the Executive Board to change its policy.
Surprisingly, considering his socially conservative base, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has expressed opposition to the BSA policy and President Obama — honorary president for the BSA — has also weighed in, citing his hope that the Boy Scouts will end its discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Through the use of petitions and public awareness campaigns, Scouts for Equality is amassing a large base by which local troops and councils are publicly dissenting of the national policy against gays. According to Hankins, their goal is to have 750,000 active scouts in troops or councils, roughly 25 percent of the entire scouting population, oppose the ban. Thus far, Scouts for Equality boasts 250,000 scouts in troops and councils in support of that goal.
In addition to encouraging and supporting local action, Scouts for Equality has started to promote a new petition on Change.org. The petition asks the BSA to allow national board members to vote publicly on the policy at the next BSA convention in May 2013, instead of making the decision by a secret committee, which is what happened in July. The petition reached 150,000 signatures this week.
Mark Anthony Dingbaum, a senior campaigner at Change.org, commented on how social media and Change.org’s open platform has helped galvanize the movement for equality within scouting. In an email, Dingbaum explained:
“[Tyrrell and Wahls] have sparked a movement to change this policy. What sets this movement apart from past attempts to end the ban is the ability to organize online and connect with hundreds of thousands of people — including thousands of Scouts and Scout leaders — who believe it’s time for the Boy Scouts of America to stop discriminating against gay people.”
Tim Griffin, an Eagle Scout and former BSA employee who was fired because of his sexual preference, is one of the most compelling advocates organizing for change. When Griffin was fired from his job as program director at Camp Winton in California because of his sexual orientation, 10 other staff members resigned in protest of the discriminatory treatment, including his boss and friend Alex Hayes.
“When I was fired,” said Griffin in a phone interview, “I was really scared for the camp because I thought they would have to close down. I already knew the whole staff would walk out and that I had a thick community of support. I didn’t want [the campers] to lose out on an opportunity.”
Still, having 10 people walking out with him made Griffin feel like he could fight against the discrimination and the BSA policy. And when he received a phone call from the Sacramento Bee’s Ed Fletcher requesting an interview, Griffin gave Fletcher everything he wanted and it showed up on the front page the next day.
Then the phone calls started.
“We weren’t really sure how the media was going to help us create change. [Reporters] were calling left and right and showing up at my front door. It was very scary,” said Griffin.
But once his story was out there, Griffin noticed that the campaign began picking up momentum.
Hayes had started a Change.org petition asking the Golden Empire Council to reinstate Griffin and break from the BSA policy, and as Griffin’s story began attracting national attention, so did the online petition which swelled from 20,000 signatures to 50,000 overnight. Once they reached 70,000 signatures, a media event was organized to put pressure on the council. Griffin and Hayes publicly delivered each petition — printed in full — to the Golden Empire Council headquarters in Sacramento.
In a meeting with BSA officials, Griffin requested that the council publicly reject — and refuse to enforce — the ban on queers in Scouting, like Minnesota’s Northern Star Council has done. Griffin called the meeting “not very hopeful” but realizes that the pressure it puts on the council and the Boy Scouts is necessary for change to happen.
“[The media] pressure puts the Boy Scouts in a place where they either have to change policy or in a place of insecurity where they don’t matter … where they are just a conservative youth group instead of an American tradition.”
While Griffin’s appeals to the Boy Scouts as American tradition has, in the past, proven a useful avenue for social change, the historical reality of Scouting and oppression is a bit more complex. For example, the founder of Scouting, Lord Baden Powell was an English war hero and hard-pressed by wealthy benefactors to expel scout leaders based on their antiwar views. Other criticisms of the Boy Scouts alleges that it is highly militaristic and promotes a less-than-critical patriotism. The funding structure of the BSA — where each council is financially independent — meant that segregation and racism, particularly in the South, continue to be problematic even in an age of supposed integration. The overt Christian attitudes of the BSA mean that agnostics and atheists are rarely welcomed.
In the past decade or so, most of those — Spiral Scouts, Navigators USA — have been created because of the BSA’s sexual orientation policy, but don’t enjoy the kind of brand name recognition like the Boy Scouts.
Griffin and some of his former coworkers have kicked the idea around of organizing a queer-friendly scout camp next summer as an alternative place that BSA troops, like California’s Pack 24, could go to, rather than one of the Golden Empire’s camps — which are, in Griffin’s words, “cash cows” for the council.
The issue of funding is significant. From the revolutionary change that overthrows dictators to electoral politics and corporate campaigns, when pressure is put on power-holders’ financial sources, social change typically hastens.
The United Way — a major source of funding for councils — has been dropping the Boy Scouts from its funding lists for the past decade because of its own nondiscriminatory policy. In the aftermath of the BSA’s reaffirmation of its exclusionary policy, United Way groups — including one in Pennsylvania — have explicitly stated that it can no longer fund the BSA until it ends its discriminatory policies.
While activists and Eagle Scouts differ on their opinions on how best to win equality for all scouts, the movement is probably stronger because of such differences.
For Stansbury, sending his award back didn’t start out as a tactic but as an act of conscience because he was fed up with the organization. But he sees the kinds of outside and inside pressure as a good opportunity for change, adding that “it’s in [Scouts for Equality] interest to have us quit.”
Griffin and others, like Wahls, have decided to stay scouts, believing that its makes their argument more convincing.
“I decided to keep the Eagle Award,” said Griffin, adding that he believes his argument is more powerful working within by staying an Eagle Scout.
“I didn’t want what I was saying to be invalidated, but I think throwing the Eagle Scout back at them is very powerful and I’m very proud of friends and people who have turned in their awards.”