Understanding the gay scouts provision

Two weeks after the Boy Scouts of America voted to lift the ban on homosexual scouts there is still dialogue and confusion as to how this policy will play out when it goes into place next January.

During the Boy Scouts of America’s national meeting on May 23, over 61% of the 1,200 delegates voted for the resolution that would lift the ban on homosexual scouts. The scout policy, which still prohibits openly gay scout leaders from joining the organization, has created a mix of support and controversy in Virginia as individuals and allying groups decide if they will continue their support for the 103-year-old organization.

Scout executive Brad Nesheim of the Heart of Virginia Council sat down with me to help understand some of the details of the new policy and give his perspective on the issue.

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A little history

The Boy Scouts of America began as a national organization since 1910, and its roots in Richmond started as early as 1913. The Heart of Virginia Council currently serves about 450 troops, and each troop is chartered by an outside group–typically a church or a community organization. Part of the conflict surrounding this issue comes from faith based groups who say the new policy goes against their core beliefs, according to Nesheim.

Sexual behavior in general is explicitly prohibited in scout law, but the policy on sexual orientation was absent for most of the history of the organization. The policy banning homosexuals did not exist in the BSA until 1978 when, according to Nesheim, Chief Scout Executive Harvey L. Price and BSA National President Downing B. Jenks made a statement for the first time that said homosexuality had no place in the BSA. Although it wasn’t an explicit policy in the literature or training of scouts, it began an unspoken culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell” about sexual orientation. The stance was challenged in the early 1990s when Scoutmaster James Dale was expelled from his position as a leader of a New Jersey troop after joining a lesbian and gay alliance group and coming out as gay. After nearly a decade of litigation the Supreme Court ruled in 2000 to uphold the BSA’s policy, citing that as a private organization the scouts have the right to regulate their membership.

A changing time

The first resolution lifting the ban was proposed in 2010, but it wasn’t until this year that widespread national attention was given to the policy. After hearing from local councils, national organizations, a series of surveys and town hall meetings, the BSA leadership crafted the new resolution that passed last month.

Although some groups threatened to pull their support of the boy scouts before the new policy was passed, so far only individuals have resigned from the Heart of Virginia council, Nesheim said, which he believes is a sign of change.

“We believe the mission of the Boy Scouts of America is still fully intact,” Nesheim said. “This just helps for the mission of scouting to be given or shared with more families and kids and I believe the decision was the right thing to do at this point in time for our organization.”

Nesheim has struggled with his position on this policy since the Dale case. In 2000, the scout leader supported the decision of the Supreme Court and believed that homosexuals should not be allowed in scouting. But after hearing from friends and learning more about homosexuality and LGBT issues, he had a change of heart.

“I began to realize that I had been wrong in thinking that homosexuals shouldn’t be involved in scouting,” he said. “People are afraid of things they don’t understand and I guess what’s really bothered me the most is seeing some of the dialogue of just an open disdain for a lifestyle they don’t understand.”

Although he doesn’t believe allowing homosexual leaders will be on the agenda any time soon, Nesheim said he thinks the next couple of months are going to be a busy, proactive time for the central Virginia council as they reach out to organizations and volunteers to continue their support.

“I don’t think we can turn our backs anymore. I’m glad the Boy Scouts of America have taken this step. I think that most people are going to embrace this as a good thing.”

Bill Harrison, executive director of the Richmond Gay Community Foundation said the activation of the new policy is a courageous move for the Boy Scouts.

“It was a very bold step. This is a very old American institution and a lot of communities of faith that are also struggling with sexual orientation are supportive of Boy Scout troops. They are taking a risk…and they chose to stop discriminating against young men who identify as gay and who would like to be a Boy Scout.

Although there are people on both sides of the issue who are upset with the resolution, Harrison said soon this kind of issue won’t matter at all anymore.

“I think a year from now people will realize that nothing much has changed and the Scouts are not acting any differently,” Harrison said. “This is not rocket science. The barriers that are between people because of sexual orientation or gender identity, I think it’s usually a matter of talking about it and getting to know each other and realizing that their fears are unfounded.”

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