Inside the Boy Scout Battle to Repeal the Gay Ban

A fast changing America threatens to leave scouting and its current rules against gays behind.

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Tim Sharp / REUTERS

The entrance to Boy Scouts of America headquarters in Irving, Texas, on Feb. 5, 2013.

Hundreds of scouts and their leaders will descend on a vacation resort north of Dallas this week to, among other things, take a vote on this new statement: “No youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.”

The vote, set for Thursday, will steer the course for one of the nation’s largest youth development programs, which currently bans openly gay scouts and scout leaders from joining the decades old organization.  A simple majority of some 1400 members of the Boy Scouts’ National Council will carry the day.

Activists on both sides have been organizing for months. Gay rights groups like GLAAD and Scouts for Equality launched an intensive ground game, mobilizing eligible voters to support overturning the ban. The Family Research Council (FRC) and its allies like, a group created by Florida lawyer and Eagle Scout John Stemberger, jumped in with a counter attack. The stakes intensified quietly announced on April 19 that the proposed membership change would only permit gay youth, effectively continuing the ban on gay scoutmasters and adult leaders.

The Boy Scouts have, for more than 100 years, sought to represent the best of American values–strong work ethics, care for community and honorable character. Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), who supports the FRC position, says, “If we can’t stand up for the Boy Scouts of America, then what does the United States of America stand for?”

But a fast changing America threatens to leave scouting and its rules behind. Half of the country supports gay marriage, according to Gallup, and the Girl Scouts, 4-H clubs, and Boys and Girls Clubs of America have all opened their doors to gay members and staff. If BSA denies gay youth membership, argues GLAAD spokesman Rich Ferraro, “They might as well take America out their name.”

Scouts for Equality, a group created by 21-year-old Zach Wahls, a straight eagle scout with two mothers, has staged perhaps the most intense offensive. The group has 15,000 members, 6,700 of whom are eagle scouts, the highest achievement level in scouting. Wahls also has at least 800 “super volunteers,” and that’s in addition to his twenty full-time staffers, over half of whom are on the ground mobilizing voters in key council regions for their cause.

The key to their field program is a data-crunching lesson Wahls learned from Obama campaign strategy. In February, Scouts for Equality hired both 270 Strategies, a firm founded by Jeremy Bird, who designed the Obama campaign’s get-out-the-vote operation, and Ken Schulz, an Obama regional field director, to run their national field outreach. Wahls put together a spreadsheet of the country’s 280 local BSA councils, determined how many votes each council would have, and cross-referenced that list with a range of data points to determine the councils where they would focus their outreach energies. “We identified the most competitive councils, not necessarily the ones that we were most likely to win,” he explains.

Once Scouts for Equality narrowed their focus to less than 200 councils, they logged more than 1,500 leader-to-leader conversations. In April, Scouts for Equality also hired Global Strategy Group, a strategic communications firm, to help hone its message. Wahls says their grassroots funding has been “incredible,” but quoting a scouting motto, he adds, “‘A scout is thrifty,’ so we were able to make our support go as far as we can.”

GLAAD has worked closely with Scouts for Equality, and both groups have partnered with the petition website to gather signatures in support of the ban’s repeal. Every day this week leading up to the vote, GLAAD has planned actions for people to take. They created a graphic of an “inclusive scouting” badge for supporters to share as their social media profile pictures, and they have asked celebrities to participate in the social media component this week. In March, singer Carly Rae Jepsen dropped out of a concert for the Boy Scouts because of the ban, and Madonna wore a Boy Scouts uniform on the GLAAD Media Awards stage.

GLAAD has also targeted faith communities, which represent over 70% of the chartered organizations that sponsor scouting troops across the country. Ross Murray, who leads GLAAD’s faith outreach, sent email blasts this weekend to over 3,000 people—many of whom are heads of religious organizations—asking them to have conversations about the ban with at least five people during their religious services’ coffee hours this weekend. “We are not trying to change worship—it is Pentecost Sunday—but let’s have some targeted conversations about why [repealing the ban] is the faithful thing to do,” he explains.

The defensive campaign is more tight-lipped. Family Research Council president Tony Perkins assigned his senior vice president Rob Schwarzwalder to head up a Boy Scout task force in late February. FRC would not comment on whether or not they have identified the 1,400 voting members. Fundraising, according to Schwarzwalder, has been “very modest,” and they have relied primarily on electronic communications. “This is much more of an ‘in the family’ operation,” he says. “It has been appropriately behind the scenes.”

Perkins’ created a “Stand with Scouts Sunday,” an online simulcast for churches that aired on May 5, featuring Texas governor Rick Perry, who is an Eagle Scout. “The fact is this is a private organization, their values and principles have worked for a century now, and for pop culture to come in and try to tear that up because it just happens to be the flavor of the month, so to speak, and to tear apart one of the great organizations that has served millions of young men…that is just not appropriate, and I frankly hope the American people will stand up and say, ‘Not on my watch,’” says Perry.

The arguments to keep the current membership policy strive to combat changing cultural attitudes about marriage in America today. One pastor in the “Stand with Scouts” webcast, Robert Hall of Calvary Chapel Rio Rancho in New Mexico, made the FRC case clear. “Today many people do not want to hear the truth about the choices they make which are eating away at their lives,” he says, comparing speaking out against the gay lifestyle with telling his ungrateful neighbor that termites were eroding his new house. “They are not happy when we point out the resulting cultural trends which are undermining the foundations of our nation and threatening our children.”

Another scout in the webcast raised concerns that accepting gay scouts would increase unwanted gay sexual activity in scout programs. “On a campout, you are in a tent and it is closed off to the outside world,” he said. “Me, at 11 or 12, having my buddy come on to me, I wouldn’t have known what to do at that age, especially if it were an older scout who I look up to.” Another Eagle Scout argued that a scout must be “clean,” according to scout law, and “Homosexual acts are not considered clean.” A mother, who homeschools her 13 children, six of whom are Eagle Scouts, explained, “I wouldn’t be comfortable with my girls having a campout with a straight male, so I also would not be comfortable with my boys having homosexuals watching over them, because I do not know what is going to happen at that point.”

Whether or not those tactics work remains to be seen. Only 80 churches watched the live webcast, but more than 1,800 small groups and individuals tuned in and the hour-long segment currently has over 11,600 views on its website. FRC also has materials available for download on its website so voting members can read its position. Last Friday, FRC hosted rallies in 40 cities, and the group has worked closely with Stemberger, who created to organize oppose to the resolution. hired Shirley and Bannister to promote their outreach efforts.

Opponents of the policy change received a setback when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the church group that sponsors the largest number of scouting troops—announced in late April that it was “satisfied” with BSA’s proposed membership change, saying it “constructively addresses” the issue. While some have called the statement an endorsement of the change, the church has not taken steps either to effect or prevent the change. Schwarzwalder, who says he is not too familiar with organizing efforts in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, calls their statement, “unfortunately ambivalent at best.”

All the players–Schwazwalder, Stemberger, Wahls, and Ferraro, along with hundreds of scouting families on both sides of the issue–will all be on the ground in Texas this week. Security at the vote will be tight. There will be barcoded badges, special marks on the barcoded badges, scanning procedures, government issued IDs, and a strict voting verification process. The results will be announced at approximately 5 p.m. local time Thursday.

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