Geoff McGrath has given a lot to the Scouts. He’s 49 years old and, as an Eagle Scout, was in an ideal position when last year he was asked to form a new troop by a reverend at his Methodist church in Seattle. McGrath, though, has now had his leadership revoked because he is openly gay.
Despite the scouts in his care and their parents being absolutely fine with McGrath being gay, the Boy Scouts of America’s administration has now revoked his membership (and, if reports are to be believed, without first informing him). Why? Because they say he had “deliberately injected” his sexuality into scouting.
Last year, the BSA took a ballot in which it voted to accept openly gay scouts. However, that change in policy does not cover gay scout leaders who are still banned under what is essentially a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. This is doubly injurious because it means that a young gay man can grow up in the scouts being open about their sexuality but can never assume a leadership role despite having all the qualifications that would make him outstanding at the job, all because the BSA is still holding to notions that being gay is somehow out of step with the “path” it wants kids to be on.
McGrath, who has been with his partner and now husband for 20 years, is the first gay scout leader to be fired since the policy change came into force last year. He contends that when he filed the application for a new troop last year, called Troop 98, that application was approved without trouble. McGrath had made no secret of his being gay and he goes so far as to state that the association was fully aware of the facts of his position: that he wasn’t hiding his sexuality. Then, when it came to NBC News profiling him for a piece last month, he received word that his leadership had been “revoked.”
The BSA then told the press that it had indeed revoked McGrath’s leadership status, with spokesperson Deron Smith telling the media:
“We don’t believe the topic of sexual orientation has a role in Scouting and it is not discussed unless it is deliberately injected into Scouting. Recently, this individual provided both Scouting national leadership and the media with information that led to his removal as a leader. The BSA does not have an agenda on the matter of sexual orientation; we remain focused on working together to deliver the nation’s foremost youth program of character development and values-based leadership training.”
Things become murky, however, when one looks at how the Scouts have dealt with McGrath in the past.
At age 22, McGrath was asked to take on an Assistant Scoutmaster position. He was subsequently stripped of that position, it appears, for no other reason than the leadership realizing that he was openly gay. To imply that the administration had no knowledge of McGrath’s identity before approving this latest request is therefore dubious. It also seems that the timing here is suspect. The BSA, it seems, only became concerned when it realized that McGrath being openly gay would be in the press. Until that point, it hadn’t acted. One might therefore question just how seriously it takes enforcement of its sexuality policy and whether it is really more concerned with its image rather than having more substantial objections.
McGrath contends that while he did inform parents that he was openly gay and that through doing so he hoped to open a debate about gay scout leaders, his primary focus was always on leading the new troop in Scouting traditions. He also fired back at the administration, saying it is the BSA that is making his sexuality an issue, not him.
“It’s extremely disappointing to not be fully supported and defended in my membership,” McGrath is quoted as saying. “They are complaining that the problem [McGrath's being openly gay] is a distraction to Scouting and they don’t seem to understand that the distraction is self-inflicted.”
What’s interesting is that the BSA here appears to be using soft power to try to limit the scope of its accepting young gay people, too. McGrath was asked by Reverend Monica Corsaro of Rainier Beach United Methodist Church, a gay-inclusive church, to start a troop that would promote an inclusive environment. By the BSA swiftly moving to oust McGrath, it sends a very clear message to gay scouts: stay in the closet if you ever want to be a scout leader.
“The Boy Scouts need to understand that the Scoutmaster they seek to remove is growing the Scouting movement,” Zach Wahls, co-founder of Scouts for Equality, is quoted as saying. “If this unit had not been inclusive, it would not have existed. By effectively shuttering this unit, the BSA is depriving these youth of the opportunity to be a Scout and they are telling all their youth that discrimination is okay.”
The Scouts, as a private organization, is able to elevate or even fire whomever they choose, though every time they add new qualifiers to their discrimination, their policy seems to become more ugly and arbitrary. There is reason to believe, however, that change may come. First, it seems that the Scouts is setting itself up for the slow phasing out of its gay scout leader ban anyway. It seems almost unimaginable that it would allow openly gay scouts into the fold and then continue to kick them out. Simply, the antiquated policy will eventually become so time consuming to defend it will be worth jettisoning simply on that basis. How quickly that change will occur will largely come down not to media pressure, but pressure from within the BSA as parents speak out and say they find this discrimination unacceptable.
Also there is the fact that the new president of the BSA is former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Not only did Gates oversee the dismantling of the US military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, but he publicly and privately supported the move. At the very least, that creates the possibility for a strong transition to a more equal BSA.
Ultimately, though, ending the ban on gay scout leaders comes down to the simple matter of the BSA finally acting on the ideals it says it is trying to instill in America’s young people: courage, conviction and fairness.
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