Pascal Tessier, 17, had aspired to rise to the rank of Eagle Scout since he was in the sixth grade.
“It shows to everyone that I’m a capable person — that I’m worth something,” said Tessier, of Kensington, Md.
He knew it would be an arduous process to achieve Scouting’s highest honor: earn 21 merit badges, play a leadership role in the troop, complete a service project and undergo a board of review. Tessier also knew there was one requirement that he could never meet: being straight.
For years, Boy Scouts who came out publicly were forced to leave the organization.
But on Wednesday the Boy Scouts of America is lifting its ban on openly gay youths, and for the first time in the organization’s 103-year history, members such as Tessier — who realized he was gay after he joined — will be able to remain in Scouting.
“Every organization has to be a living entity and change with the times, including churches and including the Boy Scouts,” said Alan Snyder, who voted in favor of the change as board chairman of the Boy Scouts’ Western Los Angeles County Council, which covers about two-thirds of the county and includes about 5,000 volunteers and 14,000 boys.
The lengthy, controversial approval process this year sparked protests and garnered national attention.
President Obama, several senators, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and others spoke out in favor of allowing gay Scouts. Petitions purportedly bearing 1.4 million signatures in favor of ending the ban were presented at Scouting headquarters in Texas.
But the ban had strong backing from other Scout constituencies, including the Southern Baptist Convention and the conservative Family Research Council, which bought an ad defending it.
The new policy — approved by 61% of the national council in May — has spawned differences of opinion and alternative Scouting groups.
Some troops in California had allowed gay Scouts before the ban was lifted, including a troop in Santa Monica. Other California troops including some in Orange County had adhered to the national policy. In Los Angeles County, Snyder said, some officials initially balked at lifting the ban.
“At a board level in our local council, the heartwarming aspect of it has been that as people became knowledgeable on the issues, even board members that were cool to the idea have accepted it,” said Snyder, managing partner at the investment firm Shinnecock Partners in Los Angeles.
Boy Scouts’ nationwide membership has dropped about 19% in the last decade to 2.6 million. About 70% of troops are sponsored by religious groups, some of which threatened to pull their charters if the ban was lifted.
Southern Baptist Convention leaders passed a resolution in June expressing their opposition to lifting the ban and their disappointment in the Boy Scouts.
But others, including the largest sponsor, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, supported the proposal. Catholic Scouting leaders said lifting the ban did not conflict with their teachings.
After officials voted to lift the ban, they published new membership standards online clarifying frequently asked questions including: “Should special arrangements be made to accommodate youth in camp, on trips, or during events based on same-sex attraction?”
The answer, in part: “We are all Scouts and are accepting of all members of the Scouting family.”
It took years for Tessier to earn the badges required to become an Eagle Scout. He served as troop scribe, patrol leader and assistant senior patrol leader, and designed his service project, restoring a brick walkway at a local Audubon Society. After Tessier and his mother spoke out against the ban, effectively outing him, he was sure he would lose his chance to become an Eagle Scout if the ban was not lifted.
“There was in fact a fear of being kicked out of Scouting because you were gay,” Tessier said.
He said once the new policy was announced, two Scouts in his troop came out as gay.
“People felt safe. It just gives even more of a reason to keep on going,” he said.
When Scouting officials voted to lift the ban, they did not end the ban on gay leaders. Gay advocates trying to lift that ban hope to find an ally in the Boy Scouts’ new president, former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, an Eagle Scout who is scheduled to take over in May.
“He’ll be a really good leader for this because he did a really good job handling the end of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’” said Ross Murray, a spokesman for the gay rights group GLAAD, referring to the policy banning openly gay troops that Gates helped phase out two years ago.
So far, fewer than 2% of 116,000 troops and packs have been dropped by their sponsors, such as Baptist churches, according to Deron Smith, a Boy Scouts spokesman.
“We’re pleased that the overwhelming majority of our members, families and chartered organizations remain committed to the Boy Scouts of America,” Smith said.
Membership in the Utah National Parks Council, the nation’s largest Boy Scout council, increased from 74,148 to 75,863 between December 2012 and November 2013, the most recent month available, according to the council’s district director, John Gailey. The imminent lifting of the ban on gay Scouts “has generally not deterred parents or youth from joining,” he said.
After the Boy Scouts announced that the ban would be lifted, the Rev. David Dykes of Green Acres Baptist Church, a 15,000-member congregation in Tyler, Texas, met with leaders of the church’s troop. They unanimously decided that welcoming gay Scouts was an opportunity to share the gospel.
“We’re not trying to exclude anyone from the church,” Dykes said.
But if the Boy Scouts lift the ban on gay leaders, Dykes said, his church would probably withdraw sponsorship, “because of the biblical message our church teaches.”
Some opponents of gays in Scouting have created an alternative group, Trail Life USA, with a motto drawn from Scripture, “Walk worthy.” They have chartered 480 units (each of which, they say, is comparable to a Boy Scout pack and a troop), and plan to launch Wednesday, said John Stemberger, who leads the group’s board and is president of the conservative nonprofit Florida Family Policy Council. More than 60% of those joining are former Boy Scouts, officials said.
A hundred of the new troops are in the Southwest, according to Ron Orr, a business consultant based in Fort Worth who has been coordinating volunteers in the region. Orr, who was an Eagle Scout and whose son just earned the rank, pulled his younger son out of Boy Scouts.
“We just felt like it was time to make a change as changes were presented and Trail Life came to us and aligned with our beliefs,” said Orr, whose family is evangelical Christian.
Tessier completed his Eagle Scout service project Dec. 21, and his board of review is scheduled for Jan. 15. If approved, he will receive the rank later this year at a formal Boy Scouts ceremony.
He has no plans to celebrate afterward, when he will remain focused on another goal: lifting the ban on gay Scout leaders.
“You can’t really say it’s OK to be gay, but once you turn 18, it’s not OK,” he said, adding that as the ranks of gay Scouts grow, “it’s just a matter of time before things catch up.”