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Former Defense Secretary Gates to lead Boy Scouts
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Chuck Colbert
2013-11-19

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National gay-rights leaders are responding positively to reports that former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will lead the Boy Scouts of America ( BSA ).

The Scouts' national executive board selected Gates late last month; and if approved by a BSA oversight council, he will serve a two-year term.

National volunteer and professional leaders, including the BSA national nominating committee, recommended Gates' selection by the Scouts's national executive board. The move means that upon approval of voting members of the national council, Gates would begin his term as BSA national president in May 2014 and lead the National Executive Board, which guides the Dallas-based BSA in serving approximately 2.6 million youth members, according to a BSA news release.

Gates, 70, was a key player in ending the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" stricture, a highly discriminatory policy and federal law that banned openly gay, lesbian and bisexual military service.

Indeed, Gates has had an impressive career, having served eight U.S. presidents of both political parties. In addition to his position as defense secretary, he was director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Gates also served as president of Texas A&M University. He is currently chancellor of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

A Kansas native, he earned a bachelor's degree from the College of William and Mary, a master's degree from Indiana University and a doctorate from Georgetown University.

Earlier this year, the Scouts announced a policy whereby gay boys could be members, but gay adults could not be troop leaders.

"We are glad to hear that the Boy Scouts of America intends to elect former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates as president of the BSA's executive board," Zach Wahls, a straight Eagle Scout and the son of a lesbian couple, said in email correspondence.

"Mr. Gates has led a distinguished career of service to our nation—including the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'—and we hope he will continue that legacy by leading the Boy Scouts into a future that protects all its youth and parents, regardless of their sexual orientation," said Wahls, who is executive director of Scouts for Equality.

A spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign also voiced praise for the new BSA president-elect.

"Secretary Gates was instrumental in the repeal of the discriminatory 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' and it is our hope he'll be just as instrumental in transforming the Boy Scouts of America into a more inclusive institution," Paul Guequierre said in an email.

Similarly upbeat was reaction from GLAAD, formerly the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "Former Defense Secretary Gates has previously confronted discrimination head on, ushering in a new era of equality in our nation's armed forces," GLAAD spokesman Wilson Cruz said in a statement.

"Millions of people and national corporations have called on the Boy Scouts to put an end to discrimination once and for all. We urge Dr. Gates to continue his work to ensure all people are treated equally, no matter who they are and no matter what uniform they wear," said Cruz.

For his part, Gates said, "There is no finer program for preparing American boys for citizenship and leadership than the Boy Scouts of America. As an Eagle Scout, I know firsthand how impactful this program can be and I believe its mission is more important today than ever before."

He added in a statement, "I am honored to take on this role and look forward to working on behalf of the millions of youth and adult members who make scouting what it is today—an organization providing life-changing opportunities to today's youth."

In May, the Scouts approved a resolution removing any ban on members based on sexual orientation alone, with more than 60 percent of the BSA's National Council—1,400 delegates—voting to end a 100-year ban on openly gay scouts.

End-the-ban efforts

However, the policy change, which takes effect on January 1, does not include adult Scout leaders.

It was back in April 2012 when GLAAD urged the Boy Scouts to end its ban on gay Scouts and gay leaders after Jennifer Tyrrell, a mom and den leader from Bridgeport, Ohio, was removed from her 7-year-old's Cub Scout pack for being gay. Tyrrell's Change.org petition garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures in support of ending the ban.

Similarly, in August 2012, the Lincoln Heritage Council and Boy Scouts of America forced Greg Bourke, who acknowledged being gay, to resign a scoutmaster position in Louisville, Kentucky after five years of service.

Bourke who has two kids with his partner of 31 years, was an associate scoutmaster but was forced to limit his involvement with his son's troop.

Reached by phone, Bourke, who still remains active in his son's troop albeit unofficially, voiced hope Gates' selection will continue the Boy Scouts march toward full equality.

"Oh my gosh, I am encouraged," Bourke said, going on to add that with Gates' history of "working toward full inclusion in the military, I think he has the experience and is the right person" to bring about change "in an organization like the Boy Scouts, which closely resembles the military."

More than 4,500 signatories on a Change.org petition have called specifically for Bourke's re-instatement.

In all, more than 1.9 million people have joined Change.org petition campaigns seeking a complete end to BSA discrimination based on sexual orientation. To date such advocacy efforts have succeeded in getting two Boy Scout board members—AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson and Ernst and Young CEO James Turley—to speak out against BSA's anti-gay bias.

Additionally, Change.org petitions, along with efforts by GLAAD and Scouts for Equality, have pressured donors like the Intel Foundation and the UPS Foundation to pull funding until the Boy Scouts ends the ban on Scout leaders.

Last fall, a Bay Area mother, Karen Andresen of Moraga, petitioned her local Boy Scout council to honor her son Ryan with an Eagle Award that was denied to him when Ryan came out as gay. An official Eagle Board of Review unanimously approved Ryan's application for Eagle, but a Boy Scout executive ultimately rejected his application.

Andresen's online Change.org petition has garnered more than 450,000 signatures. The petition asks leadership from Troop 212 and the Mt. Diablo Silverado Council "to reject the Boy Scouts of America's discriminatory anti-gay policy and to give Ryan Andresen the Eagle Award he's earned."

New youth group

News of Gates' selection to head the Boy Scouts comes shortly after former BSA members and officials launched a Christian-based alternative organization called Trail Life USA.

More than 1,200 people gathered in Nashville, Tennessee for two days in early September to jump-start the new group. Co-founder John Stemberger told NBC News in July that Trail Life would allow gay boys to join, but they would not be permitted to "flaunt" their sexual orientation.

"We're going to focus on sexual purity, not sexual orientation," he said.

Stemberger of Orlando, Fla., is also a founder of OnMyHonor.net, an online coalition opposed to the BSA's vote in late May to change its membership policy to permit gay Scouts.

United Way chapters in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and New York have cut funds to the BSA—all in reaction to the ban on gay Scout leaders, according to the Associated Press.

The AP also reported that nearly 90 percent of the 1,200 local United Way chapters nationwide provide BSA funding, totaling $81.9 million.

Just as religious-right spokespersons were displeased with Gates' role in overturning "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," so they are unhappy with his selection and potential leadership role in dismantling anti-gay bias in scouting. For example, a columnist for the fundamentalist Christian website worldmag.com, Warren Cole Smith, termed Gates' selection a "fruit-basket-turnover," and groused about BSA spokesman Deron Smith's refusal to discuss the matter.

Meanwhile, as the struggle for scouting equality continues, Freedom to Marry's executive director, Evan Wolfson, offered an assessment of the battle's overall significance for the larger LGBT movement.

"It's always been important because the Boy Scouts is an important opportunity for young people," he said.

The ban, Wolfson added, was a "terrible message of discriminatory stigma that was not good for our nation's youth."

The Boy Scouts is "an iconic institution that signifies something," he went on to explain over the telephone. "So our beginning to undo this discrimination signifies something about the larger movement both within society and with scouting, as younger parents and Scouts themselves that didn't want this policy to remain.

"There is also something to be said about how our success in undoing military discrimination is now being used to undo scouting discrimination, which at an earlier stage was modeled on military discrimination," added Wolfson. "There is something satisfactory about the way in which our victory is building on itself."

Like other gay rights leaders, Wolfson praised Gates' selection as president-elect.

"His credentials as a conservative and somebody with a military background, combined with the actual hands-on experience of undoing discrimination, hopefully signals [the BSA's] commitment to finish the job it started, getting the Boy Scouts back on track by removing entirely the discrimination, not just part or it."

©Copyright. Chuck Colbert. All rights reserved.


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