Southern California is home to tens of thousands of boy scouts, located in most cities. If estimates are correct and up to 10% of the population is gay, this topic impacts our readers. Patch welcomes opposing views, so join our conversation in comments.
Jennifer Tyrrell does not want to tear down the Boy Scouts of America, she just wants her family to be able to participate “without feeling like second class citizens.” As she talks about it, she gets really emotional, but mostly she sounds like a down-to-earth mom who spends Saturday doing laundry.
Her love for Scouts is part of what compels her to keep going. She says her main message is that, “whether you are gay or straight, or black or white, take that out of the equation and just try to imagine how it would feel to wake up in the morning and feel that you are not as good as other people.
"Can you imagine," she adds, "to be told that you are not good enough to participate in your child’s life? I hope nobody has to feel that.”
A few days ago I spoke with Tyrrell to find out what is happening with her nationwide petition that asks Boy Scouts of America (BSA) to change their policy prohibiting gay scouts and gay scout leaders.
Jen Tyrrell lives in Ohio with her partner Alicia Burns and their four kids. When one of her sons wanted to join the Boy Scouts she was unsure about it, but she wanted her son to have the same experiences and advantages that his little friends would have. So she signed him up with the local pack, chartered through The Church of God, and was asked to volunteer to be the den leader.
The boys in the den had a great year as Tiger Cubs and advanced to the Wolf level. In just one year that her son was a scout, Jen could see a change. “It made him a better little boy. It made me a better person in a lot of ways too. I love love love scouting!”
She told the boys she would take them all the way to Eagle Scouts if they wanted. Her sexual orientation not once came up - never mentioned, never discussed.
Then Jen Tyrrell volunteered to do some accounting for the pack, since she is trained and the treasurer had recently stepped down. The pack was bouncing checks and she uncovered some bookkeeping discrepancies. Suddenly her sexual orientation became an issue for her local pack. On the day that she was scheduled to make a financial report, she got a call from the local council office. The woman on the other end of the phone was in tears and told her she was sorry but she was being relieved of her duties as a den leader. The council representative went on to say that she did not agree with the policy. Within the week her membership was revoked based on her sexual orientation. Jen Tyrrell was shocked.
Most of us learned about Jen Tyrrell from the Change.org petition (http://www.change.org/petitions/boy-scouts-of-america-reinstate-cub-scout-leader-who-was-removed-for-being-gay?gclid=CK-t1tXKq7ECFSUbQgodYCIAVA), which she launched in April this year, asking BSA to end their policy prohibiting gay scouts and gay leaders. The petition now has well over 300,000 signatures and is still live and active on the Change.org website. She encourages supporters to keep signing and leaving comments in the hope that the swell of support will help convince the BSA to change their policy. She says she will not take the petition down until they win.
That is the way Jen talks these days. Her life is a lot busier than it was before this controversy came into her home. It is a little ironic, she says, because public speaking is not her forte. In fact, she failed a public speaking course in high school because she was afraid to speak in front of a class of 20 students. But that changed when she had something to say, something really important to her and her family.
"I have dealt with a lot of things in my life, but I have never been compelled to speak out before." Since her petition gained nationwide support and notoriety, she has been traveling around the country to promote it. She rode in the New York City Gay Pride Parade in June, sitting next to George Takei, Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu and an outspoken advocate for gay rights. In San Francisco she received recognition from GLAAD for her work on this issue. While she was on stage, her children played backstage with Diana Agron, another gay rights advocate and star of the television show Glee. What a difference a petition makes!
Last week, on July 13, Jennifer and her family traveled to the Boy Scouts of America headquarters in Dallas, Texas to deliver her petition (http://www.change.org/petitions/boy-scouts-of-america-reinstate-cub-scout-leader-who-was-removed-for-being-gay) along with transcripts of comments from supporters. She brought the comments because she wants the BSA to see that there really is support from within the organization to change the policy. The first comment you read on the petition website is written by Jen’s partner, Alicia Burns. Her words are eloquent and heartfelt. Her comments end with, “Together, we CAN be heard, and it is now our hope to shape the future with not only the 12 Core Values of Scouting, but with acceptance as well.” The message the Ohio couple is trying to send is that they do love the values that the Scouts stand for and they think there is room for all, that bigotry does not hold a place in scouting.
The reception Jen received in Dallas was cool and cordial. But she was happy to even get in the door. Up until this point, the BSA had “repeatedly refused” her phone calls. Apparently the BSA has a committee to review policy matters but nobody knows who the committee members are. Many are calling this a “secret committee” and are demanding that Scouts and others have a right to know who is making these final decisions. The BSA is refusing to reveal the names of committee members. According to Jen, the BSA says they have research to prove that gay participation would be harmful. But they will not produce the research either. This response is hard to accept when it is clear, by the overwhelming number of responses from past gay scouts and annecdotal reports, that many gays do participate actively in Scouting.
Jen joins a growing number of Scouts and BSA supporters calling for change. Eagle Scout Zachary Walls gained national recognition last year when he delivered a speech to the Iowa House of Representatives supporting the right to marry for gay citizens. He was raised by two mothers and is proud of his family; his youtube video of his speech went viral. More recently, executive board members of the Boy Scouts of America, Ernst & Young CEO James Turley and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, have made public their view that prohibition against gays should be changed. Some local troops are sending their own letters to BSA headquarters encouraging change as well.
The Boy Scouts of America have attended to this issue with some serious due process in the past. They have legally defended the right to exclude and discriminate against gays to the highest court. In 2000 a New Jersey scout leader took his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (Boy Scouts of America v. James Dale)
In a press release from the ACLU on June 28, 2000 the decision was called “damaging but limited.” (http/::www.aclu.org:content:us-supreme-court-ruling-boy-scouts-can-discriminate-damaging-limited-aclu-says) Well, the severity of the damages probably depends on whom you ask. If you are one of the many Boy Scouts or parents of Boy Scouts who happen to be gay, then the decision was probably devastating and confusing. Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote that the Scouts had a right to express their views against lesbians and gay men and being forced to accept openly gay leaders would hamper that right. Furthermore, he declared that lesbians and gay men make a statement by their very existence.
Nobody is denying that the Boy Scouts do some great things for boys, their families and their communities, and that is probably why it has blown up into such a huge issue. By many accounts, Boy Scouts is an integral part of childhood for millions of boys and their families, and has been for a hundred years. But they insist on inserting a set of policies that seem to go against the dogma they teach to boys. One of the methods touted in their literature as a way towards these core values identifies “family involvement” as a primary tenet of scouting:
4. Family involvement: Family involvement is an essential part of Cub Scouting. When we speak of parents or families, we are not referring to any particular family structure. Some boys live with two parents, some live with one parent, some have foster parents, and some live with other relatives or guardians. Whomever a boy calls his family is his family in Cub Scouting.
Taken from the Boy Scouts of America website, http://www.scouting.org/scoutsource/CubScouts/Leaders/DenLeaderResources/DenandPackMeetingResourceGuide/Overview.aspx
So how do the Scouts get to this place where literally thousands of scouts, former scouts, scout leaders and scout families are denied the privilege to participate? The Boy Scouts say they are a private organization and that it is their prerogative. The BSA is often connected very closely to church organizations, and they do also have a policy prohibiting atheists from participating. As with Jen Tyrrell’s pack, many packs meet in church buildings. The Supreme Court upheld the right of the Scouts to express their belief that gays and atheists do not fit with their values. Freedom of religion and speech are foundational beliefs of our nation. However, sometimes those freedoms are limited when they are exercised in a manner that violates the civil rights of others (as with racial and ethnic segregation, or sexual harassment). It is a fragile balance at best.
The thing is that Boy Scouts use public facilities and resources all the time. They hold pack meetings in public schools, they lease public buildings for activities, and they send home literature about scouting with public school children. They have become synonymous with good and correct behavior of boys and young men in America. But they are a private organization. Yes, many religious groups rent public facilities, but they are not usually seeking to communicate with our boys on a regular basis. Those religious groups are not part of American lore and they do not give out honors that college applicants proudly report on applications.
Revisiting this Supreme Court decision might not be such a bad idea. It happens (Loving vs, Virgina 1967 removed prohibitions on inter-racial marriage). The Boy Scouts have changed in the past. They could change now, although it may be with much acrimony. When the first troop of African American boys was founded in 1911, there was initially opposition. Today there are scouts of every ethnicity participating around the world. The Supreme Court might make a different ruling too, if the issue ever makes it back there. As times change, so do the decisions of our highest court and our grandest institutions, once in a great while.
Tell us in comments, do you agree with Jennifer?
If you would like to support Jennifer in her efforts, she asks that you go to www.indiegogo.com/jennifertyrrell