Boy Scouts lift ban on openly gay youth

GRAPEVINE, Texas — In an emotionally charged vote Thursday, the Boy Scouts of America lifted its ban on gay youth starting in January next year, the latest sign of a shift in American attitudes toward gays and lesbians.

After months of debate in local districts, more than 61% of the Boy Scouts national council approved a resolution at its annual meeting overturning the long-standing prohibition on openly gay youth, while retaining a ban on gay adult leaders. Of 1,232 votes, 757 were in favor.

Gay advocates called the vote a step in the right direction for the 103-year-old group, among the nation's largest youth organizations with more than 2.6 million youth members.

"Today's vote ending discrimination of gay Scouts is truly a historic moment and demonstrates the Boy Scouts of America's commitment to creating a more inclusive organization," said Zach Wahls, 21, an Iowa Eagle Scout raised by lesbian mothers who founded Scouts for Equality, which advocates for gays in Scouting. He traveled to Texas for the vote.

Some Scout officials who participated in the vote said they wished the group could have gone further.

"We are disappointed that it doesn't include everybody," said Alan Snyder, chairman of the board of the Western Los Angeles County Council of the Boy Scouts of America, who voted for the proposal. "Inclusive should be all-inclusive."

Opponents vowed to fight the new policy, which they warned would damage flagging membership and funding.

Some of the protesters who opposed lifting the ban had gathered in Boy Scout uniforms on the road leading into the hotel. A few returned Thursday, looking crestfallen.

"It's a disaster," said William Tarbell, 68, a Boy Scout unit commissioner from Reno, taking off his 60-year-old broad-brimmed Scouting cap. "I will no longer wear it."

Jonathan Saenz, president of the Austin-based conservative advocacy group Texas Values, which organized one of the protests outside the annual meeting, called the vote a "tragic decision" that showed the Boy Scouts had "chosen to place sex and politics above its timeless principles."

He blamed national leaders who called for the vote and "willingly opened the door to allow homosexual advocates to overrun an organization that stands for a code of morality that these intolerant advocates reject." He predicted the vote could destroy the organization.

John Stemberger, president of the conservative Florida Family Policy Council, said opponents planned to meet in Louisville next month to discuss forming an alternate youth group "that does have timeless values." While standing at a news conference in his Scout uniform, he announced, "This will be the last time I wear this uniform."

After delaying a vote earlier this year, Boy Scout executives polled members on the issue this spring and devised the resolution as a compromise.

The prohibition of gay Scout leaders remains unchanged, and in a statement issued after the vote, the Boy Scouts noted that the resolution reinforces the stipulation that any sexual conduct by youths in the program is "contrary to the virtues of Scouting."

Wayne Brock, chief executive of Boy Scouts of America, called the debate "a challenging chapter in our history" and said the vote was "truly in the best interests of Scouting."

"It allows us to better serve kids," he said. "The decision has been made — it's time to stand together."

Officials said that in coming days a national team would begin working with local councils to prepare guidelines for implementing the resolution.

Media were not allowed inside the Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center, where the annual meeting began Wednesday, and reporters were not allowed in when the vote was taken.

Scouting officials inside the hotel during the lead-up to the vote described an atmosphere of open dialogue.

Snyder, whose Boy Scout council covers two-thirds of Los Angeles County, including 14,000 boys and 5,000 volunteers, said organizers showed videos of Boy Scout youth and leaders discussing different sides of the issue.

During the meeting, some speakers spoke from the heart about religious beliefs, he said. Some worried gay youth might try to convert their peers. One woman talked about her son who delayed admitting he was gay because his father was involved in Scouting and he wanted to become an Eagle Scout.

Overall, Snyder was impressed with what he called "an incredible, open, frank discussion."

It was not immediately clear whether the new policy would help or hurt Boy Scout membership and funding. About 70% of troops are sponsored by religious organizations, the largest among them the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Mormon officials had supported the resolution, and on Thursday the church said it would work with the Boy Scouts "to harmonize what Scouting has to offer with the varying needs of our young men."

Some troops affiliated with conservative churches have said they could not accept the new policy.

Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, said, "Our sadness for the Scouting organization as a whole cannot be overstated." Southern Baptist leaders have been gearing up to absorb boys who leave Scouting into their own youth group, the Royal Ambassadors.

Sentiment among Southern California Scouting leaders favored the resolution, and some said they were curious to see what the vote would mean for local troops.

Martin Kast, scoutmaster of Troop 509 in La Cañada Flintridge, said he would prefer an all-inclusive policy that would allow gay boys and adult leaders alike to join the organization.

"It is sort of a pity that they do this halfway measure, because it really creates a problem," he said. "A gay boy can be in Scouting until he's 18 and then suddenly he has to hide it again. … A boy who is declared gay gets to Eagle and wants to continue in Scouting and suddenly he can't."

Kast said the troop, chartered by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, had not taken a formal stance and that he was speaking only for himself. But he added that no one in the troop had expressed opposition to lifting the ban, and he predicted that gay adults eventually would be accepted.

"It's clearly the right move for Scouting. The question will be how do Scout leaders need to handle situations in real life and will they leave it up to troops how to handle it?" said Neil Ticktin, an Eagle Scout and assistant Scout master for Troop 485 in Westlake Village.

For instance, he said, should Scout masters allow two gay 15-year-olds on a camping trip to share a tent? Ticktin encouraged national Scouting leaders to provide guidance.

"It might be the first step to making people feel comfortable with it," he said. "There's some massive opposition from some of the church groups. Whatever may be right, we have to help people get there. We have to help people understand this and be fair and equitable."

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Times staff writer Kim Christensen in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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