NEW YORK (AP) – The Boy Scouts’ New York chapter said Thursday that it has hired the nation’s first openly gay Eagle Scout as a summer camp leader, a direct and public challenge to the national scouting organization’s ban on openly gay adult members.
The Boy Scouts’ national spokesman, Deron Smith, said there was no change in that policy, which has been highly divisive. As for any further response to the New York announcement, Smith said, “We are looking into the matter.”
The challenge to the national headquarters was laid down by the Boy Scouts’ Greater New York Councils, which announced the hiring of Pascal Tessier, an 18-year-old Eagle Scout. Tessier has been a vocal advocate of opening the 105-year-old organization to gay scouts and leaders.
“We received this application from this young man, and we found him highly qualified on all the merits,” board member Richard G. Mason said by phone. The New York group, like some other local scouting councils, has said before that it is open to gay employees.
“We have an anti-discrimination policy, we believe in it very firmly, and we are executing on it,” Mason said.
The national organization changed its policy in 2013 to allow openly gay youth as scouts, but not adults as leaders, after a bitter debate over its membership policy. The change took effect in January 2014.
Ahead of Thursday’s announcement, Tessier has been getting legal advice from prominent lawyer David Boies, whose recent causes include arguing for recognition of same-sex marriage.
Boise said it was possible that Tessier’s hiring could lead to litigation between the New York chapter and the BSA’s national headquarters, but he expressed hope this could be avoided.
“We all started this with the idea that the best resolution of this was a resolution based on conciliation and agreement,” Boies said.
“It is certainly a remarkable development because we now have the first openly gay scout leader employed by the Boy Scouts,” he added. “We hope that is the beginning of the end, if you will, of the policy nationwide.”
However, national BSA leaders, after wrestling with the membership policy in 2012 and 2013, have conveyed no interest in reopening the discussions.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who became the BSA’s president in May 2014, said at the time that he personally would have favored ending the ban on gay adults, but he opposed any further debate after the Scouts’ policymaking body upheld the ban. Reopening the issue, Gates said, “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.”
Advocates for letting gays participate in scouting hailed Tessier’s hire.
“This is a watershed moment,” Zach Wahls, executive director of Scouts for Equality, said in a statement. “We are proud to see such an important Boy Scout council standing up for the full inclusion of gay members.”
When the national Boy Scouts began allowing gay boys as scouts, liberal Scout leaders and gay rights groups celebrated the shift but called for allowing gay adults to participate, too. Conservatives involved with the Scouts, including some churches that sponsor troops, decried letting any gays – including boys – participate. Some defected when the ban on gay youth was lifted.
The Boy Scouts of America has said it doesn’t “proactively inquire” about members’ sexual orientation – in effect, a form of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But it has expelled adults who were open about it, including a gay troop leader in Seattle who was removed last year after he disclosed his orientation during a TV interview.
While some other local Boy Scout councils also have let it be known they are accepting of openly gay employees, the 103-year-old New York councils’ move presents an unusually acute departure from the national policy. Wahls said it was the first case he was aware of that a council publicly acknowledged that one of its adult staffers was gay.
The New York councils serve more than 46,000 young people, in both boys’ scout troops and other programs, such as pre-professional “explorer” initiatives; some include girls. About 9,000 boys and girls are expected in its summer camps this year.
Tessier achieved scouting’s highest rank last year. The Kensington, Maryland, teen said then he was relieved finally to have his Eagle badge approved by the Scouts’ national headquarters in Irving, Texas.
“Even if I had been kicked out along the way, I wouldn’t have changed anything,” he said. “The whole experience was something worth having, not only for myself but also for all the other people involved – and for all the people it affects.”