Gates took over an organization this week that serves about 2.5 million youths but faces continued membership declines and fights over its inclusion of openly gay boys, but not adults. Gates addressed those issues Friday, a day after Scouting's national leadership elected him president.
"I was prepared to go further than the decision that was made," Gates told the Associated Press in advance of a speech before the group's national leaders at its annual meeting in Nashville. "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."
The Boy Scouts of America's National Council voted at last year's annual meeting to accept openly gay youths, after a months-long process with protests on both sides. Gates said he fears that a continued fight over the issue threatens BSA's future.
"Given the strong feelings — the passion — involved on both sides of this matter, I believe strongly that to reopen 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 in prepared remarks.
Gates, 70, a well-respected former secretary of defense and CIA director, is a visible advocate for Scouting as it faces a storm of bad publicity.
The Scouts reached out to Gates as he was retiring from the Defense Department and asked him to join their leadership, said Wayne Perry, the departing Boy Scouts of America president. AT&T Chief Executive
"We need America to know what the Boy Scouts can do for the youth of America," Perry said, adding that Gates "immediately can reach an audience that we wouldn't otherwise reach.
Gates earned his Eagle Scout award as a 15-year-old growing up in Wichita, Kan. He has long credited that achievement for giving him the confidence to excel in nearly five decades of public service, and he stayed involved in Scouting during his career. He has recalled skeet-shooting with young Scouts while he was CIA director.
Over the last decade, the Scouts have faced small but consistent declines in membership. Also, high-profile sponsors and corporate donors, including Disney and Lockheed Martin, have cut funding over the exclusion of openly gay adults. Meanwhile, a handful of conservatives who opposed the inclusion of openly gay boys started their own organization, Trail Life USA.
Gates told the AP that he wanted to move the Scouts past that debate and focus on what unites the membership. He said he would push for a heavier focus on local marketing and sharing positive stories about Scouting efforts that are sometimes drowned out by debates over gay rights or child abuse lawsuits filed against the Scouts in several states.
He said he would emphasize to sponsors that "welcoming gay youth is an important step forward."
Gates led the Defense Department when it phased out the ban on openly gay soldiers known as "don't ask, don't tell," something gay-rights groups have cited as a hopeful sign for them.
But Gates said Friday that the Scouts were different from the CIA or the military, where "I could give an order and people would follow it, at least most of the time." In an organization driven almost entirely by volunteers, officials have to respect differences in opinion, he said.