MSNBC's Thomas Roberts speaks with Eagle Scout Zach Wahls, son of a same-sex couple, who is backing efforts to reinstate a lesbian den mother ousted from the Boy Scouts of America.
The Boy Scouts of America opens its annual meeting on Wednesday, and among the headlines coming out of it will be one the organization has grappled with over the years: gay membership.
The issue has come to the forefront again with the ouster of den leader Jennifer Tyrrell, who was removed from her position with her son’s Tiger Cubs pack in April because she is gay. An online petition to reinstate her has received more than 285,000 signatures, and Eagle Scout Zach Wahls, the son of a lesbian couple, handed it over Wednesday morning to officials gathering for the two-day meeting in Kissimmee, Fla.
Wahls told msnbc.com that he delivered the three boxes bearing the petition to senior members of the Scouts leadership and a spokesman, wearing his Eagle Scout uniform. He said it was an "unprecedented" and "honest" conversation -- "one scout to another" -- that lasted about 20 minutes.
"It’s really, I think, a very positive step in the right direction,” said Wahls, 20, of Iowa City, Iowa, who became known nationally after speaking before his home state's legislature in 2011 about having gay parents. "We’re not trying to force the Boy Scouts of America to change its policy, we want the Boy Scouts to change of its own volition.”
Tyrrell served as den leader in her Bridgeport, Ohio, community for less than a year. The then 32-year-old stay-at-home mother of four said she agreed to take up the role on the day she signed up her son, Cruz Burns, for the troop. She had concerns about the Boy Scouts' policy against homosexuals, but a Cubmaster said that they wouldn’t have problem locally.
“The best time in our lives we’ve had in the last year, it’s gone … because we can’t be scouts any more. I can’t stop crying,” she told msnbc.com in late April, noting that she would continue to push for a change to the policy to include all Americans. “… because we’re just people …gay people who love their kids.”
The Boy Scouts’ policy became a focus of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000, when the justices sided with the organization in a lawsuit involving a former Assistant Scoutmaster who was gay, citing the protections of the First Amendment.
Boy Scouts spokesman Deron Smith said in an email that accepting the petition was not on the agenda, but scouting officials would take it in a private meeting “out of respect for different viewpoints.”
“Scouting maintains that its youth development program is not the appropriate environment to introduce or discuss, in any way, same-sex attraction. Parents and caregivers should have the right to decide when and how to discuss this issue with their children,” he wrote in an email statement to msnbc.com.
Smith said there were no plans to change the organization’s stance.
Fernando Leon/Getty Images
Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout who is the son of a lesbian couple, speaks during the annual GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Media Awards in New York City on March 24.
“Throughout the years some have expressed their disagreement with this policy. The BSA is a voluntary, private organization that sets policies that allow it to most effectively accomplish its mission. Its policies are not meant as a social commentary outside of the Scouting program,” he said.
'A new era for scouting'
But Wahls said it was time for the Boy Scouts to move forward, citing the changes in the U.S. military which ended its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that had barred gay people from serving if they acknowledged their sexual orientation. He said they are in communication with people within the organization already advocating for change.
"It is really my sense that, you know, as we do see this changing of the guard especially under the (Scouts) new leadership … I do believe this is the beginning of a new era for scouting," he said. "Now, how long it takes for this new era to really kick in is unfortunately kind of up in the air at this point, but I do believe we will see this change a little bit sooner than a lot of people expect."
Like Jennifer Tyrrell, Wahls' mothers had served in leadership roles in the local Scouts in the Wisconsin town of Marshfield, but unlike her, they never had to deal with the Boy Scouts' executives who removed the Ohio mother from her post.
Noting that supportive comments for the petition came from current and former scouts and leaders, Wahls said: “I’m a part of this not because I’m opposed to the Scouts, but in fact because I support the Scouts.”
"It was a very important part of my life … the Boy Scouts really reinforced the values that my moms taught me," he added. "The Scouts are right on literally thousands of things, and they’re only wrong on one. So I really do hope that they can change this policy so they can go back to having that perfect scorecard."