Most of the time, Eric Hetland lived for the weeks he got away from Chicago to attend Boy Scout summer camp. He learned how to hike, tie knots and swim from a scoutmaster he idolized so much he started calling him "Uncle Mike."
But every once in a while, the outdoorsy camaraderie turned ugly. When a young Scout scraped his knee or cried because he missed home, an adult would tell him to suck it up in no uncertain terms. "Crying is for faggots," they'd say, tossing around homophobic slurs with ease. Other times, as they gathered around a campfire, they'd talk about the possibility of having gay leaders in the troop. "I wouldn't want those queers around my kid," the men concurred.
Hetland, a teen on the verge of coming out as "pansexual" in his own description, stayed silent. He couldn't argue with leaders he loved, and besides, Boy Scout policy backed them up. One of the historic youth organization's oldest rules was that no openly gay adults were allowed to participate. "It said we don't trust them, we might even see them as a threat," he recalled. "As a teenage boy just discovering who he is ... that is such a negative message."
After decades of upholding their anti-gay policy, the Boy Scouts of America made a historic shift Monday and voted to officially lift a blanket ban on gay leaders, instead leaving it up to each charter to set its individual standards. The decision comes amid a decade of declining membership and a national push to extend equal rights to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. But while many former Scouts welcomed the new policy, its effect on membership and the future of the Boy Scouts in general remained unclear.
"Scouting has an amazing impact, and I don't see why that should be limited because of some inherent trait," said Hetland, now a 25-year-old who works in student affairs at the Illinois Math and Science Academy and the Chicago chapter leader of the advocacy group Scouts for Equality. "Over time, the Boy Scouts will find if they broaden their approach and are seen by the public as more accepting, they'll start making up that ground they lost."
— 89.3 KPCC (@KPCC) July 28, 2015
The Boy Scouts of America, which calls itself the nation's top youth program for character development and leadership training, started in 1910 with the mission of creating responsible citizens. Its youth members are guided by the Scout Oath and Law, the former of which requires boys to do their duty to God and keep themselves "morally straight." Adults are also held to the oath, with the additional mandate that they have the moral, educational and emotional qualities deemed necessary to afford positive leadership to youth. Until now, open or avowed gay men were not allowed, although the ban on gay Scouts under 18 was lifted a few years ago.
But walking the line between religious affiliation and camping skills has become increasingly difficult in recent years as public support for LGBT rights has expanded across the nation. Boy Scout membership was at 5.3 million in 1990, but began to drop after a New Jersey man lost his assistant scoutmaster position for being gay. The case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2000 that the discrimination was fair under the organization's "expressive message." That year, there were 4.5 million Boy Scouts in the United States. By 2013, there were 2.6 million youth participants.
Despite the growing backlash in recent years against the Boy Scout's anti-gay ban, many Scouts remained steadfast against allowing openly gay leaders until the BSA's president, Robert Gates, made his annual address in May. Gates, the former U.S. defense secretary who pushed through the repeal of the anti-gay military law known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," said the organization could no longer "put our hands in the sand and pretend this challenge will go away."
In that sense, Monday's decision to ratify the national executive committee's resolution lifting the ban was a strategic move, said Beth Gazley, an associate professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University in Bloomington. "If you are going to be the pre-eminent youth organization in America, you're going to have to be able to move with the times," she said.
It's unclear if the new policy goes far enough to help the Boy Scouts makeover their image and appeal to an increasingly diverse and tolerant nation after years of anti-gay traditions. The new policy still lets religious organizations, which sponsor about 70 percent of Boy Scout troops, ban gay leaders. At the same time, some liberal parents and children are angry with the Boy Scouts because the decision took so long, while some conservative families are upset the change is happening at all.
The policy change "is not going to bring the scouts back to what they've been and what they represented," Gazley said. "That ship sailed a long, long time ago."
— Chicago Tribune (@chicagotribune) July 27, 2015
Geoff McGrath, a former scoutmaster who lost his charter for being gay, said the only way the Boy Scouts can stop losing members is to adjust their priorities. A Seattle resident, McGrath grew up in the Boy Scouts and earned his Eagle award in high school. He set up his own inclusive troop in July 2013 and collected about a dozen members. McGrath took the boys hiking up Mount Pilchuck, built Pinewood Derby racecars with them and taught them to make flotation devices out of their clothes if they ever fell into water.
Then, in April 2014, a reporter revealed McGrath's sexuality to national Boy Scout organizers. His unit was shut down. At a camporee the month after his troop dissolved, some of the male leaders refused to shake his hand.
The new policy will partially eliminate that stigma, said McGrath, now a 50-year-old software engineer, but the fact that churches are not bound by the change is worrisome to him. "To the extent the BSA focuses on its mission and its responsibilities to children and families, it will survive and be relevant and grow and bless the nation," he said. "To the extent it crouches in a defensive, corporative stance, it will continue to decline."
McGrath said he hopes the Boy Scouts will build upon the policy change and eventually adopt a nondiscrimination policy. He wants the organization to welcome all Scouts and adults.
"Growing up gay and especially closeted and not even being able to think about it meant that life was complicated, but something that was not complicated was Scouting," McGrath said. "Being able to grab a canoe and head down the river or scale some mountains with friends -- there was nothing at all complicated about that."