Photo: Amanda Hendrixson

By Amanda Dee

It takes a name to rally a movement.

For the scouting movement, it took Robert Baden-Powell. Baden-Powell, a British military officer, published “Scouting for Boys: A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship” in 1908, when history books cite the formal start of the global scouting movement.

Today, Boy Scout Law reads, “A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent,” a slight variation of the original scouting code (which the Scouts co-founder himself also changed). “Reverence” has been interpreted differently across scouting organizations, with the World Organization of the Scout Movement and the Girl Scouts of America elaborating on that as a more general duty to a higher power, something greater than themselves. But the Boy Scout’s Oath explicitly pledges to “God” “to help other people at all times; to keep … physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”

The Boy Scouts of America is a federally chartered nonprofit corporation, meaning it’s free from antitrust and monopoly regulations and still controls the organization’s branding insignia. Boy Scout units charter through local councils or organizations, religious or otherwise. And therein lies room for discrimination against LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) leaders, and members.

In 1978, BSA officially implemented its blanket ban on openly gay members and leaders.

Similar to the debates surrounding trans bathroom access, if a religious organization or a company owned by a religious affiliate would like to discriminate against someone in the name of their religion, they have typically appealed to the First Amendment freedom of religious expression clause. This often clashes with anti-discrimination law. And, many argue, basic civil rights.

James Dale

James Dale of New Jersey earned his Eagle Scout just like any other Eagle Scout. He was also an assistant scoutmaster. When the Boy Scouts of America learned Dale was a gay rights activist and gay himself, they revoked his membership. Dale brought the case to court.

In 2000, the Supreme Court granted BSA the right to ban LGBTQ troop leaders, in a 5-4 decision—setting a constitutional precedent of discrimination.

In response, organizations like the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism protested. Three hundred reformed synagogues that sponsored or hosted Boy Scout troops cut ties.

Jennifer Tyrrell

In 2012, Jennifer Tyrrell of Bridgeport, Ohio, was expelled by the Cub Scouts after serving as den mother for her son’s pack for nearly a year because of her lesbian identity.

Tyrrell’s story lit fire in stomachs, including representatives of GLAAD, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, and what would soon become Scouts for Equality (SFE). “This is where things really started happening,” remembers Scouts for Equality Executive Director Justin Wilson.

A Boulder, Colorado, transplant from Iowa, Wilson has been involved in the Boy Scouts nearly his entire life. He earned his Eagle Scout by 18, worked, and then served in the military. When he returned home after service, he started working for the Boy Scouts and has remained involved through SFE.

“I felt so involved in Scouts as an organization, I felt that any policies they had reflected on me, and I didn’t want to be someone that was associated with a discriminatory policy,” he says. “So that’s why I wanted to help change it.”

Started five years ago after the Tyrrell case by Zach Wahls, Scouts for Equality is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to LGBTQ inclusivity in scouting. The organization registers and connects inclusive scouting units, and provides LGBTQ support and resources.

Since Boy Scouts of America v. Dale and the outrage over Tyrrell’s dismissal, a 2013 internal BSA survey of 280 councils revealed tension between youth and council leaders regarding the policy ban.

The survey found that 50.5 percent of councils recommended continuing the policy ban while 38.5 percent of councils recommended a change (11 percent took a neutral position).

Among youth Boy Scouts and Venturers, as well as  non-affiliated teens, the survey also found that a majority support the abolition of the ban and don’t believe it represents Scout core values.

Additionally, about half of BSA donors didn’t support the policy change as of 2013.

Yet, on May 23, 2013, the BSA overturned its ban on gay youth.

“So for anyone out there that sees a problem in the world, I can say from experience with Scouts for Equality, be the change you want to see in the world,” Wilson says. “And if you see a problem, speak out, and if you keep speaking out, even if you’re the only one, eventually someone is going to listen—they’re going to join up with you and you’re going to double your power, and so on, down the line.” And, down the line, things were changing, rapidly.

On July 27, 2015, the Boy Scouts overturned its ban on gay leaders.

Lake Miller won’t forget that night.

He had been fishing and cooking out with Scouts for Equality supporters in Yellow Springs, Ohio, when, he says, “All of a sudden, I get a news alert on my phone that says the Boy Scouts have allowed gay adults in. And I just stood on a picnic table and probably gave a four-minute speech about how amazing this was and how much work we have to do, but how much progress we’ve made. Everyone was cheering … and everyone was like, that’s why I’m in this program—to continue to have these amazing experiences and to push for what is right.” 

Miller, a leader with Scouts for Equality, hails from Yellow Springs, Ohio. He is also chapter head for the Tecumseh Scouts for Equality chapter and a business student at Wittenberg University.

He is starting his own inclusive cub pack at Temple Israel in downtown Dayton, one of the first Reform Jewish synagogues to return to the Boy Scouts.

Joe Maldonado

Joe Maldonado, an 8-year-old boy, was kicked out of his New Jersey Cub Scout pack late in 2016 because his birth certificate says “female.”

“It made me mad,” The Record, a New Jersey newspaper, quotes Maldonado. “I had a sad face, but I wasn’t crying. I’m way more angry than sad. My identity is a boy. If I was them, I would let every person in the world go in. It’s right to do.”

A few months later, on Jan. 30, the BSA announced they would consider scouts based upon the gender on their application, officially permitting transgender boys into the scouting program.

Following this decision also came the end of a more than century-old relationship, perhaps a sign of the times. The Boy Scouts’ first and largest sponsor, the Church of Latter-Day Saints, or the Mormon Church, released a statement, on May 9, that it would remove as many as 180,000 Mormon boys from Varsity and Venturing Scout programs and start their own programs, starting Jan. 1, 2018. For now, the church will continue to sponsor Cub Scouts for boys aged 8-10 and Boy Scout programs for those aged 11-13 in the U.S. and Canada.

For both opponents and proponents of the membership policy changes, there is still work to be done.

“Now that the policy has changed, a lot of people view this as, OK, mission complete: the Scouts are changed now and we can go about our business and we can ignore this now,” Wilson says. “We want to make sure people know we’ve got to stay very involved in the Boy Scouts and we’ve got to stay watchful to make sure we don’t backslide because the changing policy is the first step, but changing that culture, that’s what takes years, decades—and it takes dedicated people on the inside who are willing to stick with the Boy Scouts. Speak out. Continue to speak out in favor of inclusion, and over time, rise into leadership positions where they can make a difference.” Some dream of being that difference, but may never have the chance.

Bethany Anne Azemus

Lifelong Dayton native Bethany Anne Azemus looked up to generations of scouts in her family: her grandfather, her dad, and then herself. She was the oldest brother.

In Boy Scouts, Azemus discovered her calling and her true family, which she thinks about every time she looks at an old T-shirt.

Azemus was working on her climbing merit badge. She was 12. The tower stood at 45 feet. On the first day, she climbed it. She was the second person to climb the tower. Ever. But she needed to climb it once more for the badge, and she couldn’t. When the sun rose that last day, so did her final chance for victory.
“I am frustrated,” she recalls. “I spent the entire week, all of my free time, just looking at that tower, looking at it, studying it—how can I get up it?”

Then, the climbing director gave her an extra shot. He handed her some money and told her to buy an “I Lived the Trial at Woodland Trails” T-shirt from the trading post.

“And we’re all gonna sign it, and I know you’re gonna get to the top,” he told her. “Because you already got the shirt.”

She spent the next hour hanging off the wall.

“Everything’s hurting, and the staff members are just encouraging me the whole time because they knew I could get up there,” she says. “…the entire camp was behind me and saying I could do it, when even I didn’t know I could do it. And eventually, I made it up. And I got the shirt signed. I still have that shirt.”

“And that was the first time that I ever felt that sort of communal effort, when everybody is pulling for that one person to be successful,” she continues. “And I’ve seen that so many times in Scouts. That’s why I love it so much. There’s nobody that’s rooting for somebody else to fail. Everybody wants to see everyone else succeed.”

When Azemus, who was born male, came out about her transition at about 20 years old, she didn’t stop participating in Boy Scouts. It was hard, but she still had some support.

“Even before it was OK to be out, I had told multiple staff members that I’d worked with in the past because they’re basically family to me,” she says. “If any of them said, ‘Hey, I need your help,’ I’d be there for them. They’re the same as a brother to me.”

For the last two summers, Azemus has worked summer camps for the Girl Scouts, to expand her career opportunities. She respects the Girl Scouts, but never experienced what she calls that “beyond family” feeling she had with the Boy Scouts, finally climbing that wall.

Although Azemus loves Dayton so much she would run for mayor, she will most likely move to another state where she can amend her birth certificate to reflect her true gender identity—it is illegal to alter your birth certificate in Ohio.

Her dream job is to run summer camps for the Boy Scouts full-time, but, in part, because that specific position does not yet exist and because she is a transgender woman, she won’t get her hopes up.

“I tell myself that I’ve accepted it,” she says. “I don’t know if I actually have. Because I still fantasize about just walking into the office one day and being like, ‘You should hire me,’ and them being like, ‘OK, we agree—you should work for us.’ It’s just a reality that I have to accept.”

She still believes in the principles of scouting, but urges, “I think it’s time for the BSA to stop being a follower in the international scouting movement.”

Sydney Ireland

Today, national eyes have turned to Sydney Ireland, a teenage girl from New York who wants to be an Eagle Scout.

For the rest of the world, co-ed scouting is the norm. Alongside the U.S., Bahrain, Barbados, Botswana, Kuwait, Lesotho, Liberia, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Swaziland, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen still tout male-only programs. However, in the U.S., girls can participate in the Boy Scouts Venture program.

Though Baden-Powell drew from American Frederick Russell Burnham, chief of scouts for the British Army, in his “Scouting for Boys,” he also worked with fellow Brit Ernest Thompson Seton, in particular with his guidebook, “The Birch Bark Roll of Woodcraft.” Woodcraft, Seton’s youth organization prior to and after his tenure as the first chief scout with the BSA, was “for boys and girls from [ages] 4 to 94.”

Regardless of the history, culture evolves over time, sometimes transforming in  flashes, but certain elements persist across generations, in the name of tradition. Be prepared—it will take a powerful symbol, and person, to change a culture.

To find or register inclusive scouting units or for more information, please visit ScoutsForEquality.org.

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Amanda Dee
Reach DCP Editor Amanda Dee at editor@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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