Terrance Heath

The First Openly Gay Eagle Scout May Soon Be Kicked Out

Filed By Terrance Heath | February 14, 2014 9:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Boy Scouts, Eagle Scout, Pascal Tessier, scouting, scouting equality

pascal-tessier.jpgAs of Monday night, a Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly,courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty,brave, clean, reverent, gay, and can even achieve the rank of Eagle Scout.

Unbeknownst to me, earlier this week Boy Scout Troop 52 announced that 17-year-old Pascal Tessier had earned the rank of Eagle Scout. With that, Tessier became one of the first, if not the first, openly gay scouts to achieve Scouting's highest rank, since the Boy Scouts changed their policy on gay scouts.

Unfortunately, Tessier will turn 18 in August. That means he will soon be prohibited from participating in Scouting, based on that same policy.

Last summer, the Boy Scouts changed its policy banning openly gay youth from becoming scouts -- a policy the Scouts fought all the way to the Supreme Court to protect, and won. The change came just 10 months after the Boy Scouts emphatically reaffirmed its ban on gay scouts, but it was only a partial change; the Scouts voted to lift the ban on gay scouts, but maintain the ban on gay adult leaders.

For an organization that emphasizes honor, and lists bravery among the qualities it desires in its members, it was a cowardly move. Facing a decade of declining membership, the Scouting organization found itself caught between a need to boost membership and a desire to keep its biggest, most conservative financial backers -- like the Mormon Church -- in the fold. The Boy Scouts chose a half-measure that will ultimately prove unsustainable.

The Boy Scouts signaled their readiness to reconsider their anti-gay policy in 2003, and were immediately besieged by thousands of emails from religious conservatives who were opposed to the proposed change in policy. Meanwhile, the Boy Scouts faced movements to stop its use of civic land and facilities, in cities that had non-discrimination policies that included sexual orientation.

Ten years later, the same pressures existed. Churches threatened to pull their funding if the Boy Scouts dropped its anti-gay policies. The Boy Scouts came under immediate fire from Southern Baptists, who were one of the largest sponsors of Scout units. Internal pressure in favor of changing the policy came from executive board members and corporate CEOS James Turley (Ernst & Young) and Randall Stephenson (AT&T), who said the policy was in conflict with their own companies' non-discrimination policies. At the time, other corporations were under pressure to stop their charitable donations to the Scouts, as long as the policy was in force.

The Scouts decided not to decide.

Finally, the Scouts decided on an absurd policy that would allow gay youth to join, but essentially kick them out once they turned 18 and became adults. Perhaps this decision was made in order to satisfy the Scouts' religiously conservative supporters who claimed that changing the Scouts anti-gay policy would "open the door to predators and pedophiles," playing on parental fears that children would be at risk of abuse if the Boy Scouts stopped discriminating against gays. (In response, nearly 100 experts in sex abuse prevention, social work, psychiatry, child advocacy, criminology and faith outreach signed a letter refuting that myth.)

bsa_rainbow.jpgThe times, however, had changed. In 2003, 55 percent of Americans said that homosexuality was a "sin," while 33 percent said it wasn't. Nearly a decade later, 45 percent of Americans say homosexuality is a "sin," and 45 percent say it's not. That's a ten point decline in the "yes" column, and a twelve point increase in the "no" column. By 2013, a majority of Americans wanted the Boy Scouts to drop their anti-gay ban -- including President Obama.

In the end, the Boy Scouts fell short. Instead of placing itself on the right side of history, the organization chose the awkward position of planting one foot on the right side of history, while leaving the other firmly planted on the wrong side.

The ridiculous result of that decision is that, months after deeming him worthy the Eagle Scout rank, the Boy Scouts will deem Tessier unworthy of being associated with the Scouts. The only thing that will have changed is his age, and his adult status along with it.

Even as he celebrated Monday night, Tessier was well aware of how the partial policy change could affect him. He will turn 18 in August.

"It's kind of a backhanded acceptance: We accept you for now," he said. "It says to you you're a monster of some sort."

Perhaps the Scouts reasoned that continuing to ban participation by gay adults would allay unfounded concerns about possible abuse. The problem is, having that discriminatory policy in place didn't stop the Boy Scouts from having over 2,000 reported cases of sexual abuse.

While the Scouts held the door closed on openly gay adults, lax background checks left the door open to pedophiles. Scouting officials worried that stricter background checks would scare away potential volunteers, and even lobbied successfully against state legislation that would have required FBI fingerprint screening.) As a result, they let in hundreds of men with criminal histories of sexually abusing children.

Instead of protecting the boys entrusted to its care and guidance, the Boy Scouts engaged in a massive cover-up of sex abuse, similar to the cover-up of abuse in the Catholic Church. Instead of alerting authorities, the Scouts quietly shielded scoutmasters and others accused of molesting children, in order to protect the reputation and good work of Scouting.

The organization kept 14,500 pages of "perversion files." However, instead of using the information to protect the boys in their care, Scouting leaders used the information in their files to track boys and leaders who were "effeminate" or suspected of being gay. Their actions allowed sexual predators to go free, while their victims went unacknowledged.

It's been more than 26 years since I was awarded the rank of Eagle Scout. I wasn't completely out then. I'd come out to my friends in high school, but that was about it. And while I'm sure rumors spread here and there, I wasn't out to my Scouting troop.

At the time, I'd wanted out of Scouting, but my dad wouldn't let me quit. So, I finally attained Eagle rank the same year I graduated from high school. Graduation and becoming an Eagle Scout were markers of the end of one chapter in my life, and the beginning of one I'd looked forward to since i realized I was gay: getting out of Augusta, GA and into the world, where I could finally come out and meet other gay people.

Still, I wasn't completely done with Scouting yet. After becoming an Eagle Scout and graduating, I was given the title "Jr. Assistant Scoutmaster," but it was in title only. After the summer, it was understood that I was pretty much done with active involvement in Scouting.

Had I been out, like Tessier, I almost certainly wouldn't have been awarded the Eagle Scout badge, if I'd even stayed in Scouting long enough to earn it.

But, like Tessier will be come August, I'm now a gay adult and Eagle Scout who is officially not welcome to be involved with Scouting. It never occurred to me 26 years ago that someday I'd be the father of two boys, but I am. Unlike my dad, I'm not getting them involved in Scouting. I can't see letting them be involved with an organization that still discriminates, as the Boy Scouts do.


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