“I lay there staring at the ceiling of my tent not wanting to move. It was early morning, and it was freezing. My sleeping bag had pressed up against the side of the tent while I was asleep and had absorbed the morning dew. [Outside] the two adults had turned on a propane lantern and started boiling a huge pot of water. Breakfast was going to be ready soon. As others started to wake up, we formed a tight-knit circle around the boiling pot of water, our little Mecca of warmth.”
This is from an essay written by Eric Hay, who joined the Boy Scouts of America as a Tiger Cub when he was 4 years old. Troop 1020 operated out of First United Methodist Church in the Dallas suburb of Rowlett, where Hay lived with his family. The cold, damp tent didn’t bother him. It was part of the bond he was forming with friends; they were all in it together.
Hay began climbing the scouting ranks: Tenderfoot, Star, Life. After 12 years, Hay attained the organization’s ultimate rank of Eagle Scout. He loved scouting so much he’d set his sights on a leadership role in the organization.
For Hay, scouting was far more than just something to do on a Monday night. His troop was like family. Scouting reinforced the values his parents and his church had instilled in him since earliest childhood: kindness, responsibility, pride in everything he did. When Hay was 12 years old, his mom died of cancer, and his troop planted a tree in her honor. His troop gave him the support he needed to get through the lowest point he would probably ever face.
Back then, Hay was unaware of the Boy Scout rule that could have led to his banishment from that troop—and from the Scouts—forever. Until the summer of 2012, five years after he’d left the organization, Hay hadn’t realized that gay people were forbidden from becoming Scouts.
Hay is bisexual. In its “Position Statement on Homosexuality,” in force during Hay’s scouting career, the organization stated that “homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the requirements in the Scout Oath that a Scout be morally straight, and in the Scout Law that a Scout be clean in word and deed, and that homosexuals do not provide a desirable role model for Scouts. Because of these beliefs, the Boy Scouts of America does not accept homosexuals as members or leaders, whether in volunteer or professional capacities.”
That policy was the subject of a high-profile U.S. Supreme Court case in the summer of 2000, when a scoutmaster named James Dale sued the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) after he was expelled for being gay. Initially, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in Dale’s favor, but in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that ruling on appeal, asserting that the constitutional right to freedom of association allowed private organizations—which BSA is—to exclude an individual from membership if they believe that individual’s presence will affect the organization’s ability to advocate private or public viewpoints.
Following a grassroots activist effort to get BSA to reverse its policy, in February of this year the organization embarked on what it described as “the most comprehensive listening exercise in its history to consider the impact of potential changes to its membership standards policy.”
As a result, on May 23, BSA’s National Council, gathering at the Gaylord Texan resort in Grapevine, approved a resolution to remove the restriction denying membership on the basis of sexual orientation. The policy won’t become effective until January 1, 2014, and the organization’s ban on openly gay adult Scout leaders will remain in effect.
In a comment piece in The Wall Street Journal, writer Eric Sasson called the change a “halfhearted shift on gay rights.” Because BSA failed to lift the ban on gay Scout leaders, Sasson deemed the shift “logically inconsistent,” leaving “many feeling dissatisfied.” Even those celebrating BSA’s decision claim the fight is far from over.
On the other side, the conservative blog Redstate.com declared that BSA was “yielding to a homosexual agenda,” and in June the Southern Baptist Convention voiced its opposition, calling homosexual conduct contrary to a Scout’s duty to God.
Eric Hay’s parents were socially and politically conservative, and members of their local Christian Science church. Though he now considers himself agnostic, Hay says he was faithful to God growing up and loved learning about his religion. Looking back, he thinks that religion compounded his feelings of guilt about his sexuality, “because the type of Christianity I was taught believed homosexuality was wrong.”
He recalls kids in middle school asking if he was gay, using the term as an insult. “Either that, or they’d imply it, or they’d just make fun of me as if I was.” Hay never let on that he was bisexual.
A few years before his mother got sick, Hay remembers her going to see a movie—he doesn’t remember what it was—with a family friend. “She came back and sat my brother and me down and told us that at the end of the movie two guys walked away holding hands, and that that was wrong. I remember asking her, ‘What if my brother or I was gay?’ Because by then I knew I was having feelings, but I didn’t know what they meant. She said if that was the case, we’d pray about it in order to change it. So Mom was validating this fear I had, and I spent a lot of time trying to counteract the thoughts I was having, beating the crap out of myself over it.”
Hay’s first summer trip with his Scout troop was at BSA’s Camp Constantin on the banks of Possum Kingdom Lake. During Hay’s absence, his family celebrated both his mom’s and his grandmother’s birthdays. It would be his mom’s last. By the time Hay got back from camp she had slipped into a coma. A week later she was dead. Hay was 11 years old.
Sixth grade was a peculiar time for Hay. On top of dealing with his mother’s death, he was going through puberty and attempting to make sense of his feelings toward boys. That grief and confusion would come to a head eight years later, just before he entered his sophomore year at the University of Texas at Austin, where he was studying for an economics degree.
That spring of 2012 found Hay sitting in his car in a parking lot off of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. He’d been working in the library all day and he watched the cars whizzing past, imagining himself jumping in front of them. It wasn’t the first time he’d had suicidal thoughts, but they’d never seemed so intense. “It got to the point that night that I ended up calling the suicide hotline,” Hay says. “I was scared. I scared myself.”
Hay had left the Boy Scouts after becoming an Eagle Scout in 2007, and he found out about the organization’s no-gays policy only when it was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in July 2012. That’s also when he discovered Scouts for Equality, a group set up to pressure BSA into abandoning its discriminatory stance.
“I had been in Scouts for 12 years,” Hay says. “If I’d said one thing—if I’d come out—what would that have done? I wouldn’t have been an Eagle Scout. This could have ended horribly for myself. The fact that this was an actual policy made it an inherent part of the organization, and I knew at that point I had to get involved to correct it.”
He emailed the founder of Scouts for Equality, a young Iowan named Zach Wahls, to offer his help. At Wahls’ suggestion, Hay launched an online petition urging his old troop to support the movement pushing BSA to drop its anti-gay policy.
He called 20 different Scout troops and sent out 25 emails to others. His message was this: I’m an Eagle Scout. I’d like the chance to meet with parents and troop leaders. “I didn’t even ask to speak to the kids,” Hay says, “but I got just one email response back, saying they didn’t have time to talk to me.”
One troop leader told Hay that the Boy Scouts accepting gays would destroy the organization, and that nothing could change his mind. “That’s when it first hit me,” Hay says. “Not only was it a huge emotional drain on me, but to hear these people talk about who I was in such derogatory terms…”
In the summer of 2012, Hay came out to friends and family in a heartfelt Facebook post. He opened his laptop and read it to me: “This note has a two-fold purpose.” One was to acknowledge his sexuality, which he had kept hidden for so long; the other was to highlight BSA’s discrimination.
“The perception of me by those whom I care about, and by those whom I was of good acquaintance in my early childhood, has paralyzed me until now,” Hay wrote. “Homosexuality is not an alterable belief. It is a state of being. … Had I affirmed this truth in words when I was younger, none of my accomplishments in my scouting career would have been possible, and I today would not be an Eagle Scout.
“For so many years I felt inadequate, as if there was something wrong with me. I value honesty above all else in this world, and I failed to be honest to those who mattered most to me, about who I am. … Boys shouldn’t have to go through what I went through. Regardless of what your thoughts are on this topic, I promise you my feelings are real, and the tears I have shed while typing this are real.”
More tears form in Hay’s eyes as he tries to finish reading the message. “This is not easy for me,” he tells me. His message continues: “I have spent years avoiding this, but I can’t do that anymore. Despite my many flaws, and despite my self-inflicted problems and the emotional turmoil I have caused myself due to my own self-loathing, I strive to be a good and honest person. I strive to follow the Scout oath and law every day of my life. In all of my years of scouting I never once took advantage of another man’s absence of knowledge about who I was. And if the Boy Scouts of America really stand for everything they say they do, then they will give others a chance to act as I did. To act honorably, with decorum.”
Hay says response to the post was mostly positive. Some people he’d hoped would respond didn’t. Others that he thought might ignore his message, or react negatively, turned out to be supportive. “And my grandparents read it. I was over at their house one day and they told me it didn’t matter to them.”
Positive reaction from religious friends, especially, gave Hay a renewed sense of hope.
“I do think it will change,” Hay says. “A policy never gets changed from the top down. It gets changed because there’s enough support from the bottom. With civil rights-type movements like this, when you have enough support and it’s moving in one direction, it will change. Scouts now is very different from Scouts 10 years ago.”
Zach Wahls is best known for a short video clip of him speaking before the Iowa Legislature in January 2011, when he was 19. By the year’s end that clip, uploaded to YouTube by a legislative intern, had been viewed a staggering two million times, becoming the most-watched political video of 2011.
Same-sex marriage had been legal in Iowa since 2009, but legislators were considering a constitutional amendment to ban it. In the video, an articulate, calm and measured Wahls explains how he had been raised by two mothers, that he is heterosexual, and that the sexual orientation of his parents has had “zero effect on the content of my character.”
The motion to ban same-sex marriage passed the Iowa House of Representatives, but died the next day in Iowa’s Senate. Wahls went on to write a book, My Two Moms, in which he defended his family and explained the values his parents had instilled in him—values driven home, one reviewer wrote, “by his journey toward becoming an Eagle Scout.”
It was against this backdrop that in June 2012 Wahls founded Scouts for Equality. Like Eric Hay, Wahls hadn’t known about BSA’s ban on gay members and leaders until after the fact. “In my unit it was never really an issue,” he tells me by phone from his home in Iowa. “And my moms were always a part of my scouting experience. It was a total non-issue; there was no conflict in scouting and being LGBT. But when Jennifer Tyrrell was kicked out of her son’s Cub Scout pack I thought, ‘Holy cow this is a really big deal, we need to talk about why this ban is damaging.’ So that was the catalyst.”
In April 2012, after revealing her sexual orientation, Jennifer Tyrrell was ousted from her role as a Boy Scout den mother in Ohio—a post she’d held for more than a year.
Tyrrell’s story contributed to the rapid success of Scouts for Equality, Wahls says. Another factor was Ryan Andresen, who in January this year was denied his Eagle Scout award by his San Francisco BSA group because he is openly gay. Andresen’s mother got in touch with Wahls, and Scouts for Equality helped take his story to the national media. “It was everywhere,” Wahls says now, “from morning shows to political shows. And that’s what forced BSA’s hand. I don’t think they would have announced the vote without Ryan Andresen.”
But while the May vote by BSA’s national council was a positive step, the organization still forbids gay and bisexual men and women from serving in leadership roles. Wahls says the work of Scouts for Equality is far from over, and he continues to urge BSA’s big corporate donors to withhold financial support until BSA fully embraces equality.
Both Intel and UPS—two of BSA’s biggest funders—have agreed to stop donating. And, Wahls says, “We had a win a month ago when Caterpillar, the construction giant, pulled its funding too.”
Like Eric Hay, Wahls remains optimistic. “I think we’ll see full inclusion sooner rather than later.”
I wanted to ask Boy Scouts of America whether it wished it had changed its rules sooner, whether it regretted waiting so long to hold a vote on such a fundamentally discriminatory policy. I wanted to ask why gay men and women still can’t serve as leaders in the organization.
“We aren’t scheduling interviews right now,” BSA told me in an email. Instead, I received a lengthy statement:
“The Boy Scouts of America will not sacrifice its mission, or the youth served by the movement, by allowing the organization to be consumed by a single, divisive, and unresolved societal issue,” the statement said, in part. “As the National Executive Committee just completed a lengthy review process, there are no plans for further review on this matter … While people have different opinions about this policy, we can all agree that kids are better off when they are in Scouting.”
The spokesperson added that the organization has heard from supporters of the amended policy and opponents alike, that the organization respects the deeply held religious beliefs of its members, and that the no-gay-leaders policy “reaffirms that doing one’s ‘duty to God’ is absolutely explicit and one of the fundamental principles of Scouting, and states that sexual conduct by any Scout, heterosexual or homosexual, is contrary to the virtues of Scouting.”
In the early 20th century, a lieutenant-general in the British Army named Robert Baden-Powell wrote a book called Scouting for Boys, and opened a camp in England to test the theories espoused in the book, which was about camp-craft and military scouting. The camp and book are regarded as the origin of the modern scouting movement.
Ironically, as a July 2012 New York Times op-ed by literature teacher Brooke Allen put it, Baden-Powell “was in probability a gay man himself—though closeted, of course, considering the circumstances.” The circumstances were those of Victorian England. Just a decade before Baden-Powell wrote his book, a London jury had found Oscar Wilde guilty of sodomy and sent him to prison for two years. Certain private acts between consenting adults wouldn’t be decriminalized in England until 1967.
As Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote in Slate in 1999, the index of Tim Jeal’s 2007 biography of Baden-Powell references his “esthetic and sexual interest in men,” “pre-marital celibacy,” “dreams of young men,” and “anxieties over sexuality.”
Regardless, Baden-Powell once wrote that the goal of scouting is “to find the good in every boy and develop it.”
In his own essay, titled “The Closet Scout,” Eric Hay wrote that a Scout is “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent”—all the traits scouting founder Baden-Powell envisaged.
A Scout’s sexuality—and that of scouting’s leaders—is irrelevant, Hay says. “For their sake, the BSA needs to change its policy, and reach out to these youth, who have been ostracized for being who they are.”
Because those people—people like Eric Hay—want, and have earned, a role in scouting’s future.