Every Boy Scout takes an oath when they become a part of the historic organization to help other people at all times, to keep himself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.
And it’s with those last two words of the oath that The Boy Scouts of America has found itself amid a national controversy.
For decades, the BSA has used that oath as a basis to eliminate gay scouts and adults from within its ranks. Young men under the age of 18 who are active in the BSA can be unceremoniously dismissed if they reveal that they are gay. Adult leaders, den mothers and scoutmasters can also be dismissed if it is discovered that they are in same-sex relationships.
The argument on whether the oath is historic and precious or outdated and discriminatory has brought the Boy Scouts to the front pages of newspapers and websites and former members have expressed disappointment in the private organization.
But in April, the BSA announced it could change its stance on gays by allowing gay scouts under the age of 18 within its ranks. However, it would still prohibit gay adults from serving in leadership roles, which means when a gay youth hits the age of 18, he will no longer be welcome at Scouting events.
The proposed policy change has received mixed reactions, and most of them negative. Those hoping for an inclusive scouting organization say it doesn’t go far enough and sends mixed signals, and those wanting to continue the ban on LGBT involvement say a change isn’t even necessary and hurts the “morally straight” code of the organization.
“The BSA’s proposal would be a step forward from their current position, but only a step,” said Eagle Scout Zach Wahls, Scouts for Equality founder. Wahls made headlines in 2011 when his speech before the Iowa House of Representatives in support of marriage equality became a YouTube sensation. Wahls was raised by two women.
The change in policy would continue to ban LGBT scout leaders like Wahls’ two moms and lesbian den leader Jennifer Tyrell, who was kicked out of her 7-year old son’s Cub Scout troop in Ohio last year.
Wahls credits Tyrell’s unfair ousting from her son’s troop as the tipping point for the recent wave of nationwide, grass-roots opposition to the BSA’s gay ban, including the founding of Scouts for Equality.
“This is no longer a faceless policy hurting nameless people,” Wahls said. “This is a real policy affecting real scouts. [The Boy Scouts’ gay ban] is an archaic policy.”
Scouting for inequality
Much has been said about the national debate over the Scouts’ ban on gays, but it is also a contested issue within the local BSA councils across Central Florida.
“We are still in the process of gathering information,” said Bill Davis, Scout Executive for the West Central Florida Council in St. Petersburg. “Some people are saying to keep the membership standards as they are and some are saying to change them to be more accepting.”
When asked if he thought the current policy was discriminatory, Davis cited the 2000 Boy Scouts of America v. Dale court case.
“Not according to the Supreme Court,” he said. “I think the Supreme Court decided a number of years ago that the [BSA] had the right to determine its own membership standards as a private organization.”
The West Central Florida Council serves Pinellas County and west Pasco County.
George McGovern, the Scout Executive for the Gulf Ridge Council based in Tampa, did not comment directly on the BSA gay ban or the new policy proposal, instead directing questions about the ban to BSAMembershipStandards.org.
“At this point there is not much to add to the discussion because the vote has not happened and to comment on an unknown at this point would be supposition,” said McGovern.
The Gulf Ridge Councils serves Citrus, Hardee, Hernando, Highlands, Hillsborough, Pasco, Polk and Sumter counties.
Bill Gosselin, Director of Operations for the Central Florida Council of Boy Scouts of America, told Watermark back in March that the Central Florida Council in Orlando does not have an official stance on the issue.
“It’s an open discussion,” he said. “We are not taking any sides on this point.”
Gosselin said that the current policy, not just in Central Florida but nationwide, is that openly LGBT individuals are not allowed to be members or leaders. The Central Florida Council of Boy Scouts of America serves Brevard, Flagler, Lake, Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia counties.
He said that the current policy also prohibits Boy Scout troops from collaborating with openly LGBT individuals and organizations in the community as well.
“We don’t ask or inquire, but if someone’s sexuality becomes a distraction [to scouting] then it becomes an issue,” said Gosselin.
But Gosselin didn’t offer any examples of how someone’s sexuality would be a distraction in the organization, in terms of scouts and troop leaders who just happen to identify as LGBT but still act ethically within the organization like Jennifer Tyrell or Zach Wahls’ moms or even former Eagle Scout Sean Cuddihy.
Protesting the ban
This gay ban is personal for the Cuddihy family of Orlando, who have long been active with the Fort Gatlin District Troop 184 in the Central Florida Council. The family’s oldest son, Sean, renounced his Eagle Scout distinction last December in an open letter to the BSA because of the ban. He also returned his Eagle award to the national office.
Even with the proposed change in policy, Cuddihy, who has been active in the scouts most of his life, would still be banned from the organization because he is gay.
Sean Cuddihy has joined the ranks of 382 other Eagle Scouts who have renounced their Eagle Scout honors in protest of the national organization’s policy regarding gays. He is one of eight Eagles in Florida listed on the Scouts for Equality’s Renounced Eagle list.
Sean Cuddihy’s father Glenn, showed solidarity by also returning his scouting uniform with a letter of support for his son.
“I am ashamed of the Boy Scouts of America leadership,” Glenn Cuddihy wrote. “The Boy Scouts of America leadership blatantly discriminates against deserving people, and refuses to evolve with the rest of the world. “As a long standing Boy Scouts of America leader and a responsible citizen, I am asking you to change your policy that discriminates, teaches intolerance and harms everyone involved.”
Glenn Cuddihy wrote that his son lives by and meets the intent of Scout Oath and Scout Law better than any person he knows and is well-deserving of his Eagle award.
In Boy Scouts, the Eagle Scout is the most prestigious rank a scout can earn and it is also a lifetime honor. There is a saying in the Boy Scouts of America: “Once an Eagle, always an Eagle.”
That is, unless you come out about your gay sexual orientation.
Since the Eagle Scout rank was introduced in 1911, more than 2 million young men-including Sean Cuddihy-have earned the distinction.
Until today, I was a gay, Eagle Scout
Sean Cuddihy knew he was a scout before he knew he was gay. Scouting runs in his blood. His grandfather was a Boy Scout and is a Life Scout. His dad was a Boy Scout and continues to volunteer as a Scoutmaster. His brother is also an Eagle Scout in his troop.Â Both his grandmother and mother have served as Den Mothers.
He holds onto childhood memories of scouting as some of his happiest, and he recalls spending time with his dad, brother and close friends.
“It was family time”¦friend time,” he said. “I don’t know what else a kid can ask for.”
Cuddihy’s journey towards the Eagle began in the second grade when he joined the Fort Gatlin District Troop 184 in Orlando nearly two decades ago. His Boy Scout troop quickly became a defining part of his life.
Sean Cuddihy said that at around the age of 13 he realized he was gay, but like so many young men, he kept his feelings to himself and tried to convince himself he was straight. He dated girls and remained in the closet.
Out as a Scout
Cuddihy knew that if the Boy Scouts leadership found out that he was gay, he could be banned from the organization he loved.
“I wanted to go camping and hang out with my friends [in Boy Scouts] but I also couldn’t ask someone I liked to prom for fear of getting kicked out of the organization,” said Cuddihy.
Scouting was such a central part of his family life and his friendships. He had too much to lose.
“I wasn’t out at any point while I was still active in Boy Scouts,” he said. “It was definitely one of the things that really encouraged me to try to suppress my gay identity.”
Cuddihy said being in the closet while he actively participated in the Boy Scouts was difficult, but he feels that compared to some scouts with less supportive families and friends, he was fortunate and less vulnerable than others.
“My parents have been so supportive from the very moment that I came out to them,” he said. “Even so, up to that point I have to say [worrying] about whether I was gay was a real source of anguish through high school.”
Being gay and a Boy Scout under the organization’s current gay ban didn’t make it any easier for Cuddihy. By the time he earned the Boy Scouts’ highest honor of Eagle Scout in 2007, it was more and more difficult for him to deny that he was a young, gay man who happened to be a Scout.
When he turned 18, Cuddihy aged out of the Boy Scouts of America. That’s also when he accepted his own sexuality and started the process of coming out to his family and friends.
But rather than feeling relief concerning life as a gay Boy Scout, he became more concerned with the organization’s ban and label as an Eagle Scout for Life with an organization that outwardly discriminates against gay people.
After Cuddihy finished high school in Orlando, he attended Harvard, eventually graduating with honors and moving to Washington, D.C. There, for the first time, he met other gay Eagle Scouts like him. He also met his partner, with whom he has been with for four years.
The BSA’s discriminatory policy forced Cuddihy to choose between his life-long love for scouting and being able to be true to himself and the love of his life-his partner Luis.
“I was uncomfortable having people know that I was affiliated with an organization that had such a strong position denouncing things that were really important to my life,” said Cuddihy.
Following his heart and his conscious, Cuddihy said he could not continue to be a part of an organization that has time and time again rejected LGBT people and his relationship with his partner.
He disagrees with BSA leaders like On My Honor coalition founder John Stemberger who say that the ban is not discriminatory nor has a negative impact on gay youth.
“I think it is absurd to say it is not discriminatory,” Cuddihy said. “That’s absolutely destructive to deny that it is.”
Cuddihy still speaks very highly of his experiences with the BSA, even as it continues to reject him and countless other LGBT scouts and adult leaders.
A father’s protest
Glenn Cuddihy continues to volunteer with the BSA, championing for equality within the ranks of the organization so possibly one day his son can be a Scoutmaster alongside him and his younger son, Scott.
“When I first told [my Dad] that I was going to renounce my Eagle, he talked about entirely renouncing his affiliation as well,” Sean Cuddihy said. “But he and I both agreed that he could do so much good for the organization if he continued to volunteer. I think he effectively registers his protest without cutting all ties. I admire him so much for doing what he’s doing.”
Glenn Cuddihy said he has had reservations for years being part of an organization that discriminates against his son. But the ban never seemed to be an issue because his troop has never denied anyone membership.
Since his son came out and made the decision to renounce his Eagle, Cuddihy has written letters to the Central Florida Council, the BSA national leadership as well as his representatives in Congress and President Barack Obama.
“My issue is with the BSA leadership that sets a national policy for discrimination, not the people that benefit from the great program we offer,” Glenn Cuddihy said. “I believe I can do both-help our kids grow into strong leaders and simultaneously help lead positive change by example and my actions.”
The future is uncertain for the Cuddihys as the BSA national leadership prepares to vote on revising the organization’s policy on May 23 at an annual business meeting.
Glenn Cuddihy, his son Sean, and Zach Wahls have stated that the new policy proposal allowing gay scouts but banning gay adults in leadership roles is a step in the right direction, but that the BSA still has work to do in order to be fully inclusive of LGBT people.
“[The new policy] still excludes great people like Zach Wahls’ moms and Jennifer Tyrell,” Sean Cuddihy said. “It still sends vulnerable LGBT kids the damaging message that they’re inferior, or even dangerous. It maintains pressure on gay Scouts to stay in the closet, because otherwise they won’t be allowed to give back to their Troops as young adult leaders once they turn 18.”
The Cuddihys believe that if the new proposed policy is approved, it will be an improvement over the existing one that bans all gays from participating in the scouts.
“I’m disappointed that even if we and our allies gain some ground, I still won’t be able to give back to the BSA as I’d like to or, someday, to serve as a Scout leader for any sons of my own,” Sean Cuddihy said. “But I’m also certain that our efforts won’t end with this vote.”
Discrimination doesn’t exist in The Girl Scouts
Amid all of the media attention given to the Boy Scouts of America’s ban on gay members and its reconsideration of a policy that allows gay youth, but not gay adult leaders within its ranks, the Girl Scouts of America has sat quietly by.
That’s because the GSA is not directly affiliated with the BSA, and it operates by its own set of rules and policy guidelines.
But in 2011, the Girl Scouts of Colorado stirred some controversy when it allowed a transgender child to join one of its troops. At the time, the Girl Scouts of Colorado reiterated the national policy in a statement which does not discriminate against girls based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
“Girl Scouts is an inclusive organization and we accept all girls in Kindergarten through 12th grade as members,” the statement read.
John Stemberger, the notorious anti-gay crusader in Florida many credit with convincing voters to pass a 2008 marriage amendment defining marriage as only between one man and one woman, is also the founder of On My Honor. That group is a coalition of Boy Scouts members and leaders who want the organization to continue banning gay members of all ages.
At the organization’s launch press conference in March, Stemberger said that allowing openly gay people in Boy Scouts would open the door for transgender people to join, which he considers a bad step.
Zach Wahls, the Executive Director for Scouts for Equality, said that the BSA national leadership does not have a policy regarding whether transgender people are allowed or prohibited to participate in Boy Scout troops.
Grace Gonzales, Vice-President of Marketing and Community Partners for the Girl Scouts of Citrus, spoke with Watermark in March and said the group does not have a stance on the Boy Scouts’ current ban on gay members or gay adult leaders. She did say that the Girl Scouts organization strives to be non-judgmental. The Girl Scouts of Citrus Council includes the counties of Brevard, Lake, Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia.
“We don’t take a position or develop materials [specifically about LGBT issues],” she said. “We feel that our role is to develop self-confidence and decision-making skills”¦life skills.”
Gonzalez said that parents or guardians are responsible for teaching their kids about sexuality.
Unlike the Boy Scouts, Gonzales said the Girl Scouts work with the placement of openly gay and transgender youth in troops on a case-by-case basis to ensure their emotional and physical safety.
In regards to troop leaders and volunteers, Gonzales said the organization’s leaders don’t ask about sexuality or gender identity.
“As long as they fit the requirements of our positions and have the girls’ best interests [in mind], we just feel that it’s not any of our business,” she said. “[Being LGBT or not] is not a requirement and it’s not a negative either.”
The Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts of the USA were founded as two separate organizations and continue to operate that way.Â Scouts Canada, on the other hand, is not based on gender at all and allows boys, girls and gender non-conforming youth to fully participate. The Canadian scouting organization also does not discriminate based on culture, religious belief or sexual orientation.