On July 27th, 2015, a sort
of bewildered excitement came over our camp. The camp, a Boy Scout camp
owned and operated by a council in Massachusetts, had become
something of a hotspot for the Scouts for Equality movement, the focused effort
trying to force the Boy Scouts of America to stop discriminating on the basis
of sexual orientation. The group, often abbreviated SFE, had existed since
2012, with our chapter being established in Feburary of 2015.
And then, on July 27th,
2015, the Boy Scouts of America voted to end their ban on gay adult parents and
And so, even as business went
on as usual, our camp was hit with something of a shock. And as the
staff passed each other in the road, they would quickly say:
Did you hear?
In his essay “Forget Shorter Showers,” the environmental activist Derrick Jensen writes that “personal change
does not equal social change."
He’s wrong. Dead wrong. Not
only is he wrong, he is wrong in the sort of way that makes every single fiber
of my body scream.
The problem is, this is also
the sort of statement that is hard to directly disprove. It’s very difficult to
point at any large-scale social shift and trace its roots back to a personal
change. The system, as a whole, is too broad and complex to be broken down so
But in my heart I am a scientist, and
when scientists find themselves up against an inscrutable system, they adapt by
finding a model for it instead. A sufficiently similar model can help to show
cause and effect, and hopefully help explain how the larger system works, in
And so when Jensen discounts personal
change as a motivator for social change, I look to the Boy Scouts of America
and their anti-gay discrimination policy, and the fall it underwent in the
summer of 2015. In the span of just three years between the June of 2012, when
the Boy Scouts reaffirmed their anti-gay policy, and the July of 2015, when
they struck it down, massive systemic change had happened, and it was entirely
due to the actions of individuals.
I look to the importance that
individuals can have in changing the system, and I look to my experience
watching that change.
But before I tell you that story, I
have to explain the strange beast that is the Boy Scouts of America.
When looked at by an outside
observer, the Boy Scouts of America (abbreviated the BSA) is something like an ant colony – it’s a very elaborate system of levels and ranks that functions
rather efficiently, but understanding how all the different pieces interact
takes some time. The one running the colony, in the case of the Boy Scouts, is
the National Board, a committee of volunteers meeting once a year in Irving,
Texas. While they’re out of session, decisions fall to the Chief Scout
Executive, who runs the day-to-day operations of the organization. Underneath
this top level come the four Regions, which are further subdivided into Areas,
which each contain a number of Councils. These Councils are semi-autonomous,
setting a number of their own policies, managing their own budgets, and
overseeing their own properties. Youth have the opportunity to be involved in
the management of these different levels, and are expected to be the ones
leading their Scout Troops.
I explain this all not only
because it will help in understanding how change began to take root in the BSA,
but also because I believe wholeheartedly in the Scouting program. When I say
that Scouts have the opportunity to be involved in the management of the
various levels, I don’t mean as bystanders and observers, I mean as Presidents
and Chiefs. The BSA provides a leadership training like nothing else in this
country, and it does it while teaching reverence for the environment and
survival skills, too. It really is a wonderful program, which is why I was
always a little depressed about how I was technically not allowed to be a part
of it. I was lucky enough to work for a Council which was non-discriminatory,
but if I ever got National’s attention, my bosses would be under a lot of
pressure to let me go.
Which is why I was excited
around April of 2015, when a man by the name of Pascal Tessier started making
The hiring of Pascal Tessier, an
openly gay Eagle Scout, by the Greater New York Councils was the beginning of
the end for the Boy Scouts’ membership. Media outlets everywhere jumped on the
story, calling it a “watershed moment” and “something necessary, something that needed to be done.” Tessier was lauded as “the first openly gay Scout,” “the
first openly gay Eagle Scout,” and “the first openly gay Scout leader.” And what’s more, he came out swinging, having already
hired a lawyer for any legal battles he would have to fight with the BSA.
At our camp, we were
somewhat puzzled by Tessier’s rise to fame. Certainly, all the claims to his
originality confused us – Tessier was most certainly not the first gay Scout,
and not even the highest profile one. I had been a gay Eagle Scout for longer
than Tessier. My boss had been not only a gay Eagle Scout, but
also a Section Chief for the Order of the Arrow, representing Scouting’s honor
society for Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Eastern Massachusetts. My
friend was currently a Venturing Vice President, a bisexual girl who
represented Scouting’s co-ed program for the same area. We had gay Eagle Scouts
working in our kitchen, a bisexual Eagle running our rifle range, and a
bisexual woman running our Handicraft area. From national trainings, I had met
and worked with gay Ecology directors from Buffalo to Cape Cod, gay lifeguards
from Rhode Island to Concord, New Hampshire, and gay administrators from Ohio
And Tessier wasn’t the first
to be prepared to fight with the BSA, either. The Boston Minuteman Council had
a policy of non-discrimination in 2001, promising to be a safe haven for people
of any orientation. Multiple organizations, such as Intel and Caterpillar, had
pulled their funding from the BSA. And, when my boss,
the openly gay Eagle Scout and Section Chief, was hired to work at our camp, our council's Scout Executive received a
call. From somewhere in Texas, a member of the National Board told him:
You’re going to fire him.
And he, sitting in his home
in New Jersey, said back:
The basic feeling at our camp was that Tessier made headlines not for being the BSA’s first openly gay
employee, but for being the most recent. Tessier represented what was becoming
a national trend – gay people were popping up at all levels inside of the BSA,
and as public opinions on gay rights shifted, they had started to make
themselves more visible.
Meanwhile, the Chief Scout Executive
started calling for the National Board to vote to allow gay leaders into the
They scheduled the vote for July 27th.
I feel as though environmentalism, as
a cause, suffers from the same disease as media coverage of Pascal Tessier did
– or, as my high school history teachers would have called it, a case of Great
Man History disease. Our view of environmental history tends to be structured
around the actions of a limited number of individuals – the Aldo Leopolds and Rachel Carsons of our world. The people we focus on are those who preached a
call to action, not those who took it up. But without those who have answered
the call, there can be no change. Without someone to listen, our activists and
environmental heroes are merely shouting into the abyss.
The problem, though, is that it’s
hard to credit the people working to change things on the ground. The macroscopic
view is much easier to research, to understand, to trace the roots of.
But just looking at these Great Men –
the Carsons, the Leopolds, the Thoreaus and the Tessiers – seriously discounts
the work of individuals.
After all, Carson was dead when DDT was banned.
At that point, it wasn’t her fighting
To be fully honest, when July 27th
came around, there wasn’t too much doubt in how the vote would go. The Chief
Scout Executive was explicitly in favor of allowing gay leaders, and there was
a general confidence that the National Board would do the right thing. And so
when the vote came back and the change was made official, the first response
was as much satisfaction as it was excitement. There had been no surprise.
In May of 2009, Gallup published
something of a unique poll, showing that just knowing a gay person almost
doubled a person’s support for gay marriage. It was that simple
– homosexuality stopped being such a scary word as soon as a person was able to
put a face on the phenomenon. Visibility became the new keyword – the hope was
that by getting people to have a better understanding of homosexuality, they’d
become more accepting.
This trend seemed to work inside of
the BSA as well. Pascal Tessier merely rode a wave of increased visibility
inside of the BSA, mirroring the increased visibility happening across the
nation. But, more than having that momentum at his heels, he also had good
timing. Marriage equality was being debated on the national stage, with the
Supreme Court to rule on the Obergefell case around a month after Tessier made
headlines. Around the country, gay rights were winning out. And so, with the
wind and a supportive community behind him, Tessier took the fight to the Boy
Scouts of America.
This is the first lesson that can be
learned from the gay rights movement inside of the BSA - it’s not enough to
have the nation’s attention. It’s not enough to be ready to fight. Without the
people on the ground having changed how they live, having gotten others used to
the idea of change, having readied the stage for the fight to come, nothing
will happen. Only if you have all three can real change come around.
Shortly after the joy of we won wore out, SFE members started
asking a new question – Now what?
After the movement had seen such success, where could it possibly go?
But, soon enough, there were
answers. The Mormon Church – representing 16% of the organization’s membership – was threatening to leave the
program. Some groups began to point out how the language of the membership
policy still allowed individual Troops to discriminate. And, on a larger scale,
the organization still resists being inclusive towards atheists, the transgendered,
or women. Even with the battle won, the war was still raging.
And Scouts for Equality is
still fighting that war. The Boy Scouts of America, as an organization, is a
monolith, and refuses to move at the pace of modern life. But it can be
changed. All that’s needed is enough resistance on the ground level.
And this here is the second lesson to
be learned. The fight will be long. The fight will be hard. But with enough
preparation from the bottom up, the fight can be won. And when it is, you can
take a step back, recoup, and celebrate.
But soon after, you best be ready to
fight a little bit more.