Opinion: The Boy Scouts of America’s baby steps on accepting gay Scout leaders

Robert Gates

In this file photo, former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates addresses the Boy Scouts of America‘s annual meeting last year in Nashville. At this year’s meeting in Atlanta he called the organization’s ban on gay Scout leaders “unsustainable.”

(Mark Zaleski / Associated Press)

Robert M. Gates, the former U.S. Defense secretary and current Boy Scouts of America president, earlier today urged the youth organization to, essentially, grow up and allow gays to serve in leadership roles.

Gates stopped short of pushing the issue to a vote during the national conference in Atlanta, but he said the organization faced an irrepressible tide, and it ought to change its policy before a court orders it to do so. (The speech is viewable here.)

He also cited growing resistance to the ban among local councils of Scout troops, and state laws barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

“We must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be,” Gates said. “The status quo in our movement’s membership standards cannot be sustained. We can expect more councils to openly challenge the current policy.”


The changing legal landscape, including the looming Supreme Court decision on whether gays have the right to marry, puts the Boy Scouts in “an unsustainable position.... The thing we cannot do is put our heads in the sand and pretend this challenge will go away or abate. Quite the opposite is happening.”

Gates, as secretary of Defense, oversaw the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” allowing openly gay people to serve in the U.S. armed forces. When he assumed the top job in Scouting, though, he stated his support for allowing gay Scout leaders but said he respected the organization’s democratic vote to ban them. He also said he did not expect to deal with the issue during his two-year term.

Apparently the times caught up with him.

Two years ago (before Gates took over) the organization dropped its ban on gay youths joining Scout troops, which the Times editorial board welcomed, but also criticized as  “too timid.”


“Although we’re glad to see the Boy Scouts of America become more tolerant, however limited and belated that change is, it must waste no time before taking the next step as well,” the board wrote. “There is no valid reason to exclude gay troop leaders of either gender, and the Scouts’ lack of acceptance smacks of old and ignorant prejudices against homosexuality.”

So the Scouts’ top leader is shedding some timidity. Let’s hope the the organization follows the rest of society and welcomes our openly gay neighbors as equals, with all the rights that such standing affords.

As the board said in 2013, “Here’s the funny thing about accepting diversity within the ranks: It tends to make people realize how unthreatening others really are.”

And there’s no better place for those lessons to be learned than in youth organizations.

Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.


Get our weekly Opinion newsletter