Like you, we were disappointed the Boy Scouts failed to lift its ban on openly gay scouts and leaders today, opting instead to punt the decision to May, when the BSA National Council convenes.
But Zach Wahls, founder of Scouts for Equality and a rising voice in the LGBT-equality movement, sees a silver lining.
“This was the first time the Scouts didn’t vote to outright affirm their ban,” he told Queerty in an interview at GLAAD’s New York offices. “It’s undeniable progress—and a real reversal from where they were just last July,” when the BSA recommitted to the exclusionary policy.
Wahls says it’s “inevitable” the Scouts will change their policy.
That’s not to say he isn’t frustrated at the pace of progress: “The BSA is supposed to blaze a trail, but there’s been a real abdication of leadership,” he says. “There are thousands of scouts and scout families who will have to continue to face the silent shame of the closet—because the ban doesn’t prevent gay scouts from joining, it just prevents openly gay members.”
Wahls, 21, first came on the national scene in January 2011 when, as the straight son of two lesbian moms, he spoke before the Iowa Legislature against a proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. But years prior, he was a proud member of the scouts—joining at age 6 and achieving Eagle Scout status in 2007.
“Both my moms were actively involved [in the Boy Scouts.] My ‘short mom,’ Jackie, was our grizzly mom,” he says. That Wahls had two mothers didn’t cause any ripples in his Wisconsin and Iowa units—even though den mother Jenn Tyrrell was ousted from her Ohio troop just last year for being a lesbian.
It’s just one example of how ludicrous this ban is.
Wahls still thinks fondly of his time in the Scouts, and worries about the future of an organization that’s unable to read the writing on the wall.
“If the Boy Scouts want to be relevant today, they have to change,” he insists. “I know there are people who say, ‘Oh, the Scouts have had this tradition for 100 years. It doesn’t need to change.’ Well, do you want your children to grow up with the values of a century ago?”
Ever since 2000, when gay assistant Scoutmaster James Dale lost his Supreme Court case, many of the more moderate and progressive voices in the Scouts have left, leaving a hard, reactionary core. “There’s a lot of self-selection—the members who are left don’t have a problem with the policy,” says Wahls. “A lot of them, on the leadership level, are radically conservative.”
The public has a notoriously short attention span, but Wahls isn’t worried support will fade by May. He’s encouraged by the 1.4 million signatures on a petition delivered to BSA headquarters this week, by President Obama’s endorsement of lifting the ban, and by a poll released just today indicating Americans want the policy changed by a measure of 55%-33%.
That’s more than support same-sex marriage.
This could prove to be a long fight, but Wahls and Scouts for Equality show no sign of flagging. “We put a lot of energy into the the November elections,” he says. “We’ve just been able to really focus and strategize on this for, what, two months? We’re just getting started.”