Former Defense Secretary and Eagle Scout Robert Gates took the helm of the Boy Scouts of America Saturday, and right away faced the inevitable question: What does the man who worked to allow gay soldiers in the US military think about the scouts’ ban on gay leaders?
Mr. Gates hardly demurred. Had he taken leadership before 1,500 Boy Scout volunteers voted last year to allow gay Boy Scouts, but not gay Boy Scout leaders, he would have pushed the group to end the ban, he said in an AP interview.
Defense Secretary under Presidents Bush and Obama, Gates – known for not shying from tough subjects that might offend colleagues – presided over ending the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy on homosexual troops.
But since he was not Boy Scouts of America’s leader during last summer’s contentious debate, Gates said, he’ll refrain from pushing the issue in order to go forward with his toughest task: Cooling the simmering debate and recriminations within an organization being pulled apart between its conservative base – many troops are sponsored by Christian churches – and progressive groups like Scouts for Equality.
The ongoing controversy has likely taken its toll, as the group saw a 6 percent drop in membership in 2013, compared to a more annualized rate of 4 percent. The six percent was less than what some conservative Boy Scout supporters had predicted would leave after allowing gay scouts, but still is part of a long-term withering of the 2.5 million-scout organization.
The Boy Scouts have had to look at some of the founding values it preaches – friendliness, kindness, bravery, and reverence – while traversing difficult cultural ground in a country increasingly vying for equal rights for homosexuals against deeply-held religious values among much of its leadership, membership, and donors.
Last year’s vote by the organization to allow boys who have romantic feelings for other boys was a huge step. Last year, 17-year-old Pascal Tessier of Maryland became the country’s first openly gay Eagle Scout.
But its ban on gay leaders continues to rankle equal rights activists both inside and outside the scout community. In particular, Boy Scout leadership remembers sexual abuse scandals in the 1990s that led to strict rules that mandate that two adults are always present, and that leaders are not allowed to physically touch scouts.
“I was prepared to go further than the decision that was made," Gates told The Associated Press in an interview before the annual meeting in Nashville Saturday. "I would have supported having gay Scoutmasters, but at the same time, I fully accept the decision that was democratically arrived at by 1,500 volunteers from across the entire country."
But Gates also acknowledged a difficult reality: Even standing by openly gay youth has given rise to several new splinter groups that have begun to compete more directly with the scouts.
"Given the strong feelings – the passion – involved on both sides of this matter, I believe strongly that to re-open the membership issue or try to take last year's decision to the next step would irreparably fracture and perhaps even provoke a formal, permanent split in this movement – with the high likelihood neither side would subsequently survive on its own," Gates said.
Indeed, Gates was tapped for the next two years largely in order to help stem declining membership in an organization long known for giving boys survival skills that apply as much to nature as they do to making one’s way in society. Gates himself has credited his Eagle Scout experience for giving him the confidence to handle a five-decade public service career, including heading up the CIA and leading the US military through difficult campaigns in the Middle East.
“We need America to know what the Boy Scouts can do for the youth of America,” outgoing president Wayne Perry told the AP. He said the former defense secretary can “immediately reach an audience that we wouldn’t otherwise reach.”
To be sure, critics will likely ask Gates to directly address the gay leaders situation. But even though he’s vowed not to confront the scouts directly on last year’s decision, the Gates’ appointment will likely mean at least more soul-searching for the country’s largest youth organization.
“Welcoming gay youth is an important step forward,” along with more focus on local marketing and positive stories about scouts and scouting, Gates said – efforts that have been stymied up until now by the gay rights debate and coverage of child abuse lawsuits.
At the same time, Gates said he’d push BSA leadership for a “blunt talk” about how scouts can stay relevant and popular while holding onto its core values.