When the Boy Scouts of America doubled down on their policy of discriminating against gay scouts and leaders, I announced that I was going to return my Eagle Scout awards. The decision wasn't made lightly. Scouting helped give me the confidence and independence to travel around the world alone as an author and journalist gathering stories. But it also gave me the moral compass to stand up and act against injustice.
I promised my former troop leader that I would call Boy Scouts of America's national office to talk with them about how they reached their decision before I made my final decision to mail back my awards. That call went something like this:
"My name is Kelsey Timmerman. I'm an Eagle Scout. I promised my former scout leader that I would talk to someone at your office about your policy regarding gay scouts and leaders before turning in my Eagle Award."
"Hello," the man on the other end answered with a sigh.
I told him about my promise and explained that I wanted to have a conversation with him so that I could better understand their decision.
"You can send your badge to--"
"No," I interrupted. "No. That's not why I called. I want to have an actual conversation about this."
He sighed and proceeded to tell me that an unelected board made up of undisclosed individuals had based their decision on a study that found that parents of Boy Scouts were against gays in scouting.
"Can you send me the study?" I asked.
"No," he said. "It's not available to the public."
"How many parents were surveyed?"
"Can't tell you."
"How were the questions worded?"
"Can't tell you."
"How were the survey subjects selected?"
"Can't tell you."
"Let me get this right: A mystery board based their decision to discriminate against an entire group of people on a mystery study?" I asked, as respectfully as I could.
When I called Boy Scouts of America, an organization that prides itself on molding leaders, to have a conversation about their anti-gay policies, I got hung up on. That's not leadership.
BSA's discriminatory stance bothers me for two reasons: 1) It is morally wrong, and 2) I fear that the stance will harm an organization that means so much to me. People can debate the first point -- as I did on Talk of the Nation -- but there's no doubt that I am right about the second point. Corporations and individuals have been distancing themselves from the Boy Scouts since July, when BSA made the announcement that gays were still not allowed.
In the end I sent in not only my Eagle awards but the cards that my friends and family had given me at my court of honor, plaques, certificates signed by U.S. senators and one signed by President Clinton. I sent them pictures of my fellow scouts and me standing on mountaintops. I wanted them to feel what scouting meant to me -- the dedication, the accomplishment, the adventure -- when they opened my package.
When I heard the recent news about BSA's possible shift toward not having an official policy discriminating against gay scouts and leaders, I was pumped. I believe that anyone can benefit from the lessons and skills gained through the scouting experience. But then I read the official BSA statement:
The policy change under discussion would allow the religious, civic, or educational organizations that oversee and deliver Scouting to determine how to address this issue. The Boy Scouts would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members, or parents. Under this proposed policy, the BSA would not require any chartered organization to act in ways inconsistent with that organization's mission, principles, or religious beliefs.
This isn't a firm statement saying, "We believe discrimination is wrong and has no place in scouting." This is a statement about a discussion that could possibly lead to a shift in their position. This isn't brave (one of the 12 scout laws) leadership to do what's right. This is following fears.
Discrimination is a slippery slope. If we don't let gays into scouting, who else won't we let in? What races? What religions? Boys with dogs? Men with toupées? Men and boys with dogs with toupées? I would love my son Griffin to become a Boy Scout when he's old enough, but I don't want to have to ask the local troop what groups they discriminate against before allowing him to join.
Not having a no-discrimination policy is having a policy of discrimination. BSA isn't leading the way on this discussion; they are removing themselves from it. This is hanging up the phone on a conversation and allowing discrimination to continue at the troop level.
This is not leadership.
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