The Boy Scouts of America will vote next month on whether to end a controversial ban on gay participation. Technically, Boy Scout troops do not allow gay and lesbian members and volunteers. But one troop in Cambridge is not waiting for the vote, and has come up with its own rules.
On a Tuesday evening, inside St. James Episcopal Church in Cambridge, about 12 uniformed scouts are reciting the Boy Scout Oath: “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country, to obey the Scout law …”
If you listened carefully, you’d hear the voices of boys and girls.
“… To help other people at all times, keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.”
“Morally straight” has become a loaded term in the Boy Scouts of America. For this Troop 56, it means being unusually inclusive. They welcome girls, and in a break from national rules, this troop accepts openly gay members – as scouts, leaders or parent volunteers. Adam Smith, an 18-year-old scout, said his father and his father’s partner are welcome at all events.
“His partner has had an official position in this troop," Smith said. "He was ‘snow czar,’ as we call it – in charge of snow shoveling for a year."
Smith said that for him and the other members of his troop, gay participation is no big deal.
“It’s really no problem whatsoever, I haven’t had anyone ask about it, comment about it," he said. "We just don’t really care. I feel that everyone should be able to feel as easy with their parents and having their parents participate in this wonderful activity as I do.”
Smith said he and the other boys are happy to have girls in the troop. When boy scouts welcome girls, it’s called "venturing," and it's a nationally accepted program. But this troop merges Boy Scout traditions with venturing.
“It’s completely co-ed," Smith said. "All through the ranks. Girls go into venturing at age 14 but we give them our own tenderfoot, second class and first class ranks despite the fact that the BSA technically does not allow those ranks. And we also have a co-ed Cub Scout pack, and that’s something that pretty much no other boy scout troop has.”
Twelve-year-old Emma Andrew – who's far outside the politically charged debate, just wants to do scout things.
“We learn how to tie knots, wilderness survival, first aid," Andrew said. "In an emergency I’ll know what to do. Scouting is so nice and so fun it would just be really bad to exclude other people from it.”
Andrew said she believes each troop should form its own rules for inclusion.
“If there are troops that are different and they don’t have any gay members and that they’re against it, I would be fine with that too," Andrew said. "I mean, I think every troop should be different and they should have votes on what they think.”
But policy is really the farthest thing from the scouts’ minds. At this meeting, they’re working on a communications badge. And a 15-year-old scout named Brian is checking supplies for an upcoming camping trip on Cape Cod.
“Ok, guys do you have a back pack cover?," Brian asked. "Wool Socks? ... Probably one of the best parts is getting outside. It gives you a break from the busy, busy city life.”
Far from the Boy Scouts' national headquarters in Texas, Troop 56 Scout Master David English said he doesn't understand the national policy excluding gays.
“I’m not exactly sure what drives the Boy Scouts to come out with this policy," English said. "But from what I’ve seen in the news in the last 2 weeks I strongly believe that it’s going to be overturned.”
The Troop 56 parent volunteers who are gay declined to comment for this story, which points to the fear and reality, that even among a progressive troop, they don't want to come out to people beyond those they trust. But Troop 56 volunteer and parent Michelle Holmes is a member of the National Council, and looks forward to voting to end the gay ban.
“This is a family organization," Holmes said. "And if a child has two dads or two moms and brings them to the awards ceremony then it’s not secret. It’s part of their family. So that’s the part that we can’t be totally in the closet about.”
The “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach is one that some other troops adopt, in Massachusetts and elsewhere. But many already have non-discrimination charters.
Right now, THE national council is in the "listening Phase," reviewing a number of issues and how they will impact the Boy Scouts, including fundraising, and legal concerns. The listening phase turns to a vote on the gay ban sometime in May.