The Boy Scouts of America, with its traditions of youth in uniform and the character-building virtues of honor, has always looked back to an older, more structured image of America, when gay and lesbian people were invisible and silent.
It was a view reaffirmed in Scout policy as recently as seven months ago. Openly gay Scouts and Scout leaders need not apply.
The announcement on Monday by Scouts officials that the ban on gays was in line for elimination was thus a thunderclap on two fronts, Scouts and people close to the organization said.
First, it completely removed from discussion the idea, voiced in July by senior national Scout leaders, that the ban was in the best interests of Scouts themselves.
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Perhaps even more momentous was the acknowledgment that Scouting itself had moved on, with a diversity of thought — like the multicultural and sexually diverse buzz of modern America itself — that no longer could be confined or defined by a dictated policy from headquarters. Local chapters would be able to decide whether to admit gay Scouts.
“The Boy Scouts would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members, or parents,” said a spokesman for the Boy Scouts of America, Deron Smith, in a statement. “This would mean there would no longer be any national policy regarding sexual orientation, and the chartered organizations that oversee and deliver Scouting would accept membership and select leaders consistent with each organization’s mission, principles, or religious beliefs.”
Scout officials gave no timeline for making a formal decision, or for putting the policy into effect, but a spokeswoman said in an email that discussion was anticipated at next week’s national executive-board meeting. Board meetings are closed to the public and the news media, she said.
In 2000, the Supreme Court affirmed the Boy Scouts’ right to refuse gay members.
Groups that had pushed for the change said that even if senior Scout leaders had second thoughts about the policy, it would probably be too late.
“The Boy Scouts of America have heard from Scouts, corporations and millions of Americans that discriminating against gay Scouts and Scout leaders is wrong,” said Herndon Graddick, the president of GLAAD, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. “Scouting is a valuable institution, and this change will only strengthen its core principles of fairness and respect.”
Smith, the Scouts spokesman, said that under the proposed policy, “the BSA would not require any chartered organization to act in ways inconsistent with that organization’s mission, principles or religious beliefs.” He said Scouts and parents would be able to choose a local unit that best met the needs of their families.
Critics and supporters alike said that abandoning national policy for local control could have unintended consequences.
Tony Perkins, the president of Family Research Council, a conservative group, said in a statement: “If the board capitulates to the bullying of homosexual activists, the Boy Scouts’ legacy of producing great leaders will become yet another casualty of moral compromise. The Boy Scouts should stand firm.”
Zach Wahls, whose group has sought more inclusive rules under the motto, “A Scout is equal,” said he applauded the change.
“It’s a step in the right direction, and good to see that BSA is softening its position,” he said. “But under the policy change, it will still be possible for some units to discriminate.”
The question of gays has not been the only cloud on Scouting’s horizon.
Revelations about sexual abuse by Scout leaders, which have increasingly emerged in recent years, with some victims and parents saying the organization shielded predators, have tarnished the group’s reputation as being always protective of youth.
But for a structurally conservative leadership, as people inside the Scouts describe it, the ban on gay leaders created a kind of crosswind that compounded the issue of pedophilia: Would removing the ban alienate tradition-minded families who might fear gay leaders? Or would lifting the ban attract a new generation of Scouts?
Meanwhile, pressure for change has been surging from within. A California chapter of the Boy Scouts of America said recently that it would directly challenge the ban on gays, by recommending that an openly gay former Scout, Ryan Andresen, 18, be awarded the rank of Eagle, Scouting’s top honor.
His father, Eric, who has been working with groups representing gay Scouts, said that even he was astonished by the pace of change.
He said he remained firm in his belief that Scouting has value.
“It will open the door to an awful lot of kids to stay with Scouting or get involved in Scouting in the first place, and that’s really important.”