Written by Emily Mullins
Brooke Willis' Boy Scout uniform has been displayed on the altar of Pilgrim United Church of Christ for about 10 years now. When it went up, it symbolized the Cleveland, Ohio, congregation's protest against the Boy Scouts of America's anti-gay policies. The fact that the uniform is still there indicates that those policies haven't changed.
"This whole situation is extremely unfortunate," said Willis, who spent a good portion of his childhood as a Boy Scout. "Kids are kids –– they need guidance, and leadership, and adventure, and activities. Who cares if they are gay or straight? The Boy Scouts should accept everyone."
After a confidential two-year review, leaders of the Boy Scouts of America just reaffirmed their 1999 policy of excluding gay leaders and members. The July decision continues to be met with controversy and debate across the country –– among those who consider the policy to be discriminatory and those who believe, as a private organization, BSA leadership has the right to implement any policy they choose. The decision even prompted response from U.S. President Barack Obama, who opposes the organization's ban on gay members, volunteers and staff.
"Gay scout leaders are not interested in sexual orientation," Willis said. "They are interested in providing direction and leadership and giving kids something to do year-round. So many kids have no other role models –– why would you turn away volunteers who are trying to make a difference?"
Like Willis, Jonathan Helmick is another scout who thinks the BSA's anti-gay policy is unfair and excluding. Helmick, a member of First Grace UCC in Akron, Ohio, joined the scouts when he was about 13 years old, earning his Eagle Scout badge at 16. He was very active in the BSA, acting as a mentor for younger scouts and serving in leadership roles at summer and winter camps.
"The BSA is an organization whose grand design is to give young men and boys a place to go, a place to learn essential skills, and to be better people and leaders," Helmick said. "To close your doors to a cross-section of the population is a disservice to the intent of the organization and to future scouts."
While Helmick did not come out publically about his sexual orientation while involved with scouting, he says many people were aware he is gay. He also knew of fellow Eagle Scouts and pack leaders who were gay, but that it made no difference to anyone and did not affect anyone's experience as a scout. "It didn't matter, and no one talked about it," Helmick explained. "But after the policy was enacted, it was like the pink elephant in the room."
Currently working toward his doctorate in music, Helmick is no longer active in the BSA. And while he finds the anti-gay policies discriminatory, he, like Willis and other scouts, still believes that scouting provides positive experiences for young men and boys.
"I still believe in the organization with my whole heart," he said. "Regardless of their decision, they are still doing good in the world. Everyone makes mistakes, and sometimes you have to love unconditionally. When the Boy Scouts are ready to welcome us back, we're ready to welcome them back."
Isn't that type of honor and respect what the Boy Scouts are all about?
The UCC issued a statement at General Synod in July 2003 opposing the BSA's policy, stating that "discrimination against anyone based on sexual orientation is contrary to our understanding of the teachings of Christ." The UCC continues to offer full support to congregations who wish to sever their ties with the BSA, as well as those who wish to remain connected to the organization. There currently are 1,200 UCC-sponsored Boy Scout troops throughout the United States.