Boy Scouts Set to Cave on Gay Rights

Photo by bradjreynolds, Flickr creative commons

It’s not yet a done deal, but the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) are on the cusp of a dramatic reversal. The organization announced on Tuesday that, when its leadership meets in Dallas next week for a national board meeting, it will vote on a proposal to allow local troops and sponsoring organizations to make their own decisions about whether to accept homosexual members.

The proposal is expected to pass, and, if it does, a significant number of troops will likely adopt non-discrimination policies. When that happens, gay scouts will no longer be banned from the BSA or purged from its ranks—at least if they can find an open-minded troop.

It’s not a total victory, but it’s a remarkable shift.

The changed stance comes as a real surprise because, just last July, the BSA wrapped up a major review of its policy, only to conclude that it would stick to its traditional path, come hell or high water. That the organization has reconsidered just a half-year later speaks to the power of activism.

Shortly after the Boy Scouts reaffirmed their decision to exclude gay members, I spoke with Burke Stansbury, a former scout in Seattle. Stansbury created a Tumblr last summer called “Eagle Scouts Returning Our Badges,” a space for former Eagle Scouts who were severing ties to the BSA to post letters of resignation. Much like the Occupy-related “We Are the 99 Percent” Tumblr before it, the site featured moving personal stories. For many BSA participants, people who had devoted years of their lives to scouting and developed treasured relationships in the organization, the act of sending back their badges represented a difficult personal sacrifice. But several hundred were nevertheless moved to take this step, convinced that the organization needed to hear from some of its highest-ranking participants about the dismay and disgust that its intolerance produced.

Upon the BSA’s recent announcement of a forthcoming vote on changing its position, I called Stansbury again to get his take and to discuss some of the social movement lessons learned by the campaign for equality.

“It shows that the pressure building up over the last six or seven months has really had an impact,” Stansbury said. “The BSA has been shamed, and I think it’s pretty clear that they’re going to reverse their past decision.”

One aspect of the BSA’s shift that interested me was the fact that the organization steadfastly denied that activist pressure was having any impact at all—right up until the point of capitulation. This is consistently the case in anti-corporate campaigns and other boycotts. In past months, the BSA had responded to the Eagle resignations by minimizing their numbers.

Stansbury explained, “When [the BSA leaders] reaffirmed their position in July, they said, ‘We’re doing it because majority of our members agree with this policy.’ They repeated that like a mantra for months. And when asked about Eagle Scouts who were sending badges back they said, ‘Oh, that’s just a handful. It’s not significant. The majority of our members agree with us.’ They never acknowledged that the pressure [activists created] was having any sort of impact on their decision-making…Until all of a sudden—boom—they announced that the board will be voting next week and likely changing the policy.”

Rather than being a set of insignificant outliers, the Eagles who resigned in protest represented only the most outspokenly disgusted faction within a much wider push to force change at the BSA. Scouts for Equality, the more moderate face of this effort, gathered in excess of 1.2 million signatures on a petition opposing the BSA’s bigoted policy. And, crucially, Scouts for Equality also lobbied business sponsors to stop donating to the BSA, highlighting the fact that the Boy Scouts’ official stance did not align with the corporations’ own non-discrimination policies. Over the past six months, sponsors including Merck, UPS, and Intel (the Boy Scouts’ largest corporate sponsor) suspended contributions, as did some United Way chapters.

“I think we had a good inside-outside strategy going,” Stansbury said. “I was in contact with people like Zach Wahls from Scouts for Equality, who were very much about working from within and getting certain councils and troops to oppose the national policy. Then there were those of us who said, ‘Screw this. We’re out. And we’re going to just hammer away from outside and call this a bankrupt institution.’ I think both of those messages resonated and both had an impact. The resignations played a part by showing that people who had invested a ton of their lives in the institution felt strongly enough to cut ties.”

Those pushing for change had powerful institutions lined up against them. Indeed, another impressive and noteworthy aspect of the activists’ success is that the forces wanting to retain the anti-gay ban—most notably the Mormons and the Catholic Church—have such strong and long-standing influence within the BSA. The proposed revision would still allow troops sponsored by these institutions to continue exclusionary practices. But the hold of these groups on the BSA’s policy-making has been broken.

This shift reflects a calculation by the organization’s leadership that the public flogging coming from pro-equality activists was worse than the backlash a change will invite from scouting’s sizeable traditionalist sectors. As Stansbury argues, “They’re trying to have it both ways by letting local councils decide for themselves. That will allow the many Mormon Church–sponsored troops to continue to be exclusionary.” Still, Stansbury does not believe these groups will be appeased: “The BSA will face some real blowback from the conservative forces in this debate.” What it came down to, in the end, was that “the writing was on the wall that they were going to lose more supporters and more funding by maintaining their policy than they would by ending it.”

Such a calculus about a supposed matter of deep principle may seem unusual. But it shows that, even from within, there was significant opposition to the stance all along. Moreover, it gets at the heart of how social movements wield influence. Whether they are pressuring politicians or CEOs, the job of such movements is to make the price of maintaining the status quo—the cost measured in negative PR, alienated constituencies, lost votes, or disaffected patrons—greater than the discomfort of accepting change.

Within the BSA, those scales tipped over the past six months. Accepting change became the less painful option for Boy Scout leaders. And the result is a small but significant stride toward justice.