Members of the Boys Scouts of America march in a gay pride parade in Salt Lake City on June 2, 2013. Boy Scouts of America President Robert Gates said in a speech Thursday that the ban on gay leaders is not sustainable. Reuters

The Boy Scouts of America's ban on allowing gay adults to participate must change -- and soon. That was President Robert Gates' message in a speech Thursday at the organization's annual national meeting, the Associated Press reported.

"We must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be," Gates said. "The status quo in our movement's membership standards cannot be sustained."

Gates told attendees he was not requesting an immediate switch in the official policy, which in 2013 expanded to allow gay scouts as members but not adults. Instead, he said internal disputes and potential legal conflicts motivate a shift in the near future. The Boy Scouts "cannot put our heads in the sand and pretend this challenge will go away," Gates said.

Gates, who was United States Defense Secretary when the military law "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was repealed, referenced legislation in states like Utah that protects employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, BuzzFeed reported. He also noted that some Boy Scout councils were already moving to break the rules, like the Greater New York Council, which decided in April to hire an openly gay camp leader.

These events and others indicate that more objections to the gay leader ban are coming, Gates said, adding that he would not revoke the charters of troops that defied the membership policy. "Alternatively, we can move at some future date -- but sooner rather than later -- to seize control of our own future, set our own course and change our policy in order to allow charter partners -- unit sponsoring organizations -- to determine the standards for their scout leaders," he said.

Gates said this would allow churches, which sponsor about 70 percent of Boy Scout groups, to set their own rules about leadership standards. "We must, at all costs, preserve the religious freedom of our church partners to do this," he continued.

Scouts for Equality, a nonprofit organization of alumni advocating for gay members and leaders, wrote in a statement that it had confirmed that the Boy Scouts of America's resolutions committee had advanced two proposed resolutions concerning gay leaders to the group's executive committee.

Zach Wahls, executive director of Scouts for Equality, said Gates' announcement was a step forward for the organization. "I’m glad he’s fully endorsing a re-evaluation of the Boy Scouts’ ban on gay adults,” Wahls said. “It seems like the Boy Scouts will continue an internal dialogue about the subject and that a full vote within the next year or two is imminent.”

The Boy Scouts of America has more than 2.4 million youth members and 981,000 adult volunteers, Reuters reported. Read Gates' full speech here.