Thirty-eight years ago when Tim Curran first sued the Boy Scouts of America for anti-gay discrimination, no one could foresee the day when the Boy Scouts would transform into the simply named “Scouts of BSA” with next year’s admission of girls into the 2.3 million-member organization.
Founded in 1910 to promote leadership in boys, the earth virtually moved on Jan. 30, 2017 when the organization decided to admit transgender members. In a statement announcing the historic change, Chief Scout Executive Michael Surbaugh said in a statement that the policy using information on a person’s birth certificate to determine eligibility for programs was “no longer sufficient as communities and state laws are interpreting gender identity differently, and these laws vary widely from state to state.”
It was a shock that BSA acknowledged the community after a very long stubborn history of only listening to their religious sponsors and traditional views of masculinity. In 1973, Catherine Pollard volunteered to lead Connecticut Boy Scout Troop 13 when no one else would. When she officially applied to join, she was rejected, which the State Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities said was sex discrimination. BSA appealed. What, BSA counsel asked in 1985, could female scoutmasters understand of the biological changes experienced by young men?
BSA eventually relented in 1988 with a policy change that welcomed women into leadership roles. As of 2017, nearly one third of all volunteers are women.
But homophobia trumped sexism. “Boy Scouts of America,” the group consistently said, “believes that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the obligations in the Scout Oath and Scout Law to be morally straight and clean in thought, word and deed.”
Then came Tim Curran. In 1980, the popular 18-year-old assistant scoutmaster in Berkeley, Calif., was outed by a local newspaper. The National Council found out and kicked him out.
“I was quietly outraged,” Curran wrote on July 21, 2015 on CNN.com, where he is an editor. Following a Boy Scout Handbook principle—if a Scout thinks “Rules and laws are unfair, he seeks to have them changed in an orderly manner” — Curran sued the Mount Diablo Boy Scout Council. Jon Davidson, then with the ACLU of Southern California, filed suit in April 1981, the first against the BSA alleging anti-gay discrimination.
The case lasted 17 years and in 1998, California’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Boy Scouts, which they deemed to be a private club that could determine its own membership rules, as opposed to a business with establishments open to the public.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a similar 5-4 ruling in 2000 when James Dale sued. Then the high court decided that a private organization could exclude someone when “the presence of that person affects in a significant way the group’s ability to advocate public or private viewpoints.” And, the Court determined, opposing homosexuality is part of BSA’s “expressive message.” Admitting homosexuals would disrupt that message.
A firestorm ensued, at least in Los Angeles where the LAPD used the BSA for its youth programs. That irked out LA Council member Jackie Goldberg who noted that the city’s non-discrimination law did not allow such an association. A series of out police commissioners, starting with Dean Hansell, then Shelley Freeman, then Rob Staltzman, dug deep, held hearings— producing evidence that the BSA front group, Learning for Life, still linked back to BSA—and forced the city to cut ties.
LA County Sheriff Lee Baca, good on other LGBT issues, was smitten by the BSA and argued he would use pressure from within to change the BSA. That never happened.
Nationally, a grassroots groundswell bubbled up in April 2012 when Ohio mom Jennifer Tyrrell was removed as den leader of her son’s Cub Scout pack because she’s gay. GLAAD jumped on the case, generating publicity, creating petitions and forcing corporations and companies to look at their policies and associations with BSA. BSA board members, such as David J. Sims of the Ohio River Valley Council, resigned as a show of support for Tyrrell and her son.
On Oct. 4, 2012, KGO-TV reported that teenager Ryan Andresen of Moraga, Calif., was denied the Eagle Scout rank after coming out as gay. Another firestorm erupted, and BSA was caught lying, hardly in keeping with moral values. Andresen, meanwhile, went on The Ellen DeGeneres Show where he shared his story and was gifted $20,000 for his education.
By Feb. 2013, even religious sponsor United Methodist Church called for the BSA to drop its ban on gay scouts and leaders. Two months later, David Meshulam, president of the Los Angeles Area Council for the BSA, announced that he and other South California BSA Councils wanted the ban dropped. And in May 2013, it is, first for gay youth then, in July, for gay adults.
It was all too much for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one of the most important funders of the organization. The LDS Church sponsored roughly 437,160 youth members. On May 10, the Mormon Church announced it was ending its BSA sponsorship for boys between 14 and 18 years old Jan. 1, 2018.
Meanwhile, in 2019, newly admitted Scouts of BSA girls will trek into the woods with 11- to 17-year-old boys to learn to tie square knots and find the best firewood for outdoor cooking (burning chestnut produces a lot of sparks and heavy smoke; birch and cherry are better options.)
And, as if girls, gays and trans aren’t enough to spin the heads of old conservative traditionalists—Scouts of BSA will apparently be providing condoms at the 2019 World Scout Jamboree in West Virginia. No one could have foreseen that.