The Boy Scouts of America wasn't looking for any type of celebration on Jan. 1 when the organization began allowing gays to join as members for the first time in its history. Still, LGBT rights activists from the United Church of Christ took a moment to mark the occasion as a positive step for LGBT equality. But they also reiterated that this is just a small step in a battle for the full inclusivity.
The Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer, UCC executive for LGBT concerns, said that he affirms this important step and what it means for scouting and the boys who will benefit from the programs. "At the same time I remain eager, even hopeful, for the BSA policy change that will welcome gay parents and other gay adults as scout leaders," Schuenemeyer said.
On New Year's Day, the Boy Scouts of America opened its ranks to gay and bisexual youth scouts for the first time in 103 years. The organization hoped the occasion would be marked as a non-event, seeking to avoid the attention similar to the contentious debate that surfaced when the change in policy was announced last year.
The inclusion of gay and bisexual scout members, but not scout leaders, sends a message that gay and bisexual scout leaders are not worthy of the same dignity and respect as others, according to UCC LGBT advocates. It's a message they say is contradictory of the BSA's attempt to be more inclusive.
"Any congregation that has gone through the process of becoming Open and Affirming can relate to what the Scouting community is feeling right now," said Art Williams, a member of St. Paul's UCC in Mechanicsburg, Pa., and council commissioner of the BSA's New Birth of Freedom Council. "Last year there were a lot of difficult and frank conversations followed by a clear decision. Now that the rules have officially changed, some folks are waiting to witness an event, like that New Year's ball dropping. But so far people are seeing that the scouting program this week looks an awful lot like the scouting program last week. The fact is that most things didn't change in scouting. Kids continue to go camping, and learn about duty and honor. The only difference is that some additional youth are welcome in the fold."
The BSA first banned gay scouts in 1978, and in January 2013 the organization began exploring changes to its policy. After collecting feedback from 200,000 members, the BSA announced the revised policy that now allows membership of gay and bisexual youth, but continues to exclude gay leaders, during an April board meeting. The BSA National Council adopted that change with more than 60-percent approval.
For now, the BSA is focused on providing guidelines for its troops regarding the new policy. The guideline offer explanations for questions that may arise. Some examples include whether or not scouts may wear their uniform to march in LGBT pride parades, or how troops should handle shower and toilet facility arrangements. The BSA is telling its troops to provide greater privacy across the board, moving to individual showers and away from group showers. BSA leaders expect that scout leaders will be able to handle potential conflicts.
"Now the scouting community needs time to get used to the new normal," said Williams. "And I feel strongly that we of the UCC community need to help as we can with that effort and continue to work with the BSA to open the program up for openly gay and lesbian adult volunteers and employees as well."
There are currently 1,191 UCC-sponsored BSA units and 38,225 scouts participating at UCC churches. The denomination had pushed for the Boy Scouts to be more inclusive in its membership criteria for about a decade, dating back to a General Synod resolution in 2003 that called for an end to the membership policy.
It's also possible more UCC congregations might now consider – or in the case of Grace United Church of Christ, in Lancaster, Pa., reconsider – sponsoring Boy Scout troops. For 50 years Grace UCC sponsored a troop, but ended the relationship in 2011 because of the policy that excluded gay members.
"It's definitely a possibility, and this is a step in the right direction, one of many," said the Rev. Chris Hart, interim pastor at Grace UCC. "We have not had a discussion about inviting a troop or sponsoring another troop, but we're more open to that possibility."