Boy Scouts of America President Robert Gates has announced that while he does not support the BSA’s ban on openly gay scout leaders, he will actively oppose changing the policy so as to guard against further divisions within the organization — but this is a goal he cannot reach.
Gates, who has now formally taken over the role as the head of the BSA, made these comments in a prepared speech to the BSA’s annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. Gates of course previously worked as the Secretary of Defense for the Obama administration and during that time supported in strong terms the repeal of the military’s ban on openly gay service personnel known as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. As a result, commentators including myself have noted that his tenure as BSA president could provide an opportunity to repeal the remnants of the BSA’s ban on gay members which survives today as a ban on openly gay scoutmasters.
However, despite saying that when the vote was taken last year he would have supported ending the ban in its entirety, Gates announced that he feels that the issue should be left alone for the time being:
A year ago, this meeting saw a respectful and civil debate over membership policy. In a democratic process, a strong majority of the volunteer leadership of this movement from all across the nation voted to welcome gay youth into scouting. In all candor, I would have supported going further, as I did in opening the way for gays to serve in CIA and in the military.
Given the strong feelings — the passion — involved on both sides of this matter, I believe strongly that to re-open the membership issue or try to take last year’s decision to the next step would irreparably fracture or perhaps even provoke a formal, permanent split in this movement — with the high likelihood neither side would subsequently survive on its own. That is just a fact of life, and who would pay the price for destroying the Boy Scouts of America? Millions of scouts today and scouts yet unborn. We must always put the kids and their interests first. Thus, during my time as president, I will oppose any effort to re-open this issue.
With these words, Gates appears to be reassuring the more conservative members of the BSA, but there is cause to think that the problem is now firmly outside of Gates’ or the wider BSA’s control.
Earlier this month we reported on a young adult gay scout member who had been tipped for a repeat of the leadership role he had undertaken in previous years and done well. After he was unintentionally outed by a friend on Facebook, the BSA then said he was unsuited for a leadership role. This speaks to the generational problem the BSA is now faced with: it will have a number of openly gay scouts wanting to work up through the ranks to become leaders, and yet the BSA will refuse them that opportunity simply because it continues to hold to its anti-gay history.
Another facet of the argument that is important here is whether the BSA really can afford to keep being anti-gay. For instance, there is pressure being put on retail giant Amazon to drop sponsorship of the BSA from its charitable and youth leadership sponsorship programs until the BSA begins allowing gay scout leaders. There’s no indication yet that Amazon will make that change, but the threat alone should give the BSA pause. Add to this that there are troops that are readily defying the ban on openly gay scout leaders and one must say Gates is being incredibly naive if he thinks the problem will now just go away.
We might not wholly count Gates out as a reformer though, because while he may oppose bringing the issue up during his presidency, he has made it clear that he supports openly gay scout leaders. That in itself sets a precedent for future action, and whether he wants it or not, the issue doesn’t stop now he’s said he won’t take the lead. If anything, he’s just reignited the fire and LGBT groups will continue to push — and hard.