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Gay ex-Scout: I never saw this coming

Three decades after losing his landmark lawsuit, my Scouting buddy ponders a historic day for gay rights


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Andrew O'Hehir
January 30, 2013 12:54AM (UTC)

When news broke earlier this week that the Boy Scouts of America was considering a reversal – or at least a half-baked semi-reversal – of its long-standing ban on openly gay members or adult leaders, I knew I had to talk to Tim Curran. Until recently the news director at SiriusXM Satellite Radio's OutQ channel, Curran is a former Eagle Scout who has covered this issue as a broadcast journalist for years, along with many other LGBT-related topics.

But there was more to it than professional expertise. You see, I’ve known Tim for more than 30 years (I’ll drop the last-name thing now). We were both members of Troop 37 in Berkeley, Calif., spent innumerable hours together camping and hiking and playing cards on summer-camp afternoons, and received our Eagle Scout awards at the same ceremony. Not long after that, when Tim came out and took his boyfriend to the high-school prom, he was barred by the Scouts from becoming an adult leader – and then became the plaintiff in a landmark anti-discrimination lawsuit that went all the way to the California Supreme Court. I testified in an early stage of that lawsuit before a Los Angeles judge hilariously named Sally Disco – although I don’t think my resolute cluelessness about the “morally straight” clause of the Scout Oath was particularly helpful.

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Tim lost that case in 1998, and a couple of years later a New Jersey Scout named James Dale lost a similar case by a 5-4 vote in the United States Supreme Court, establishing from then until now the legal principle that the Boy Scouts is a private organization with wide latitude to set its own rules and exclude whomever it wants to. In practice that has meant that openly gay boys and adults are unwelcome (along with professed atheists), and since the days when Tim and I were Scouts the organization has allied itself ever more closely with the “family values” crowd and the Christian right.

Now, in an abrupt if partial reversal, by early February the Scouts may allow local troops to set their own policies about admitting or excluding gays. As Tim pointed out when I reached him on the phone, this is a long way from a real anti-discrimination policy. It’s also a change he never thought he’d live to see.

Tim, did you see this coming?

I did not. Seven months ago, after a two-year secret review, the Boy Scouts said, “No way, nohow, are we ever gonna change this.” By the time my lawsuit concluded in 1998 with a loss, I wasn't even sure the policy would change in my lifetime. And I'm still skeptical. I'll believe it when I see it! This looks to me like a trial balloon. They haven't committed to a policy change. They're saying they're thinking about it, they're considering it, it has to go to a vote of the board, blah blah blah. It smells to me like a trial balloon that will be popped if the pushback is significant. Which it could be.

It looks from the outside like there must be some serious internal division within the organization over this.

I think the fact that this has changed in seven months is a sure sign that there's tremendous internal strife over it. You don't have to have an inside line or be a political genius to figure that out! And I think it's really unclear what the catalyst is, if they've really gone in seven months from "No way, nohow" to "We're thinking about it." If they're reconsidering the conclusions of a two-year secret review, it's clear that something has catalyzed this, and I couldn't tell you what. Was it politicking within the board? We do know there were at least two members of the board, and probably more, who were fighting for this change. Maybe they were just able to put together a winning coalition. Was it the fact that the Human Rights Campaign recently said they would start to score corporations and deduct points on its Corporate Equality Index for companies who give money to the Boy Scouts?

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Was it perhaps the gradual change that we're seeing in the Mormon Church [a major sponsor of the Boy Scouts] and its posture towards anti-gay activism, where they're becoming less and less visibly out front -- or less and less combative in tone, anyway -- on fighting against gay rights? You know, they're very sensitive to public relations considerations. Let me give you another one: After, I think, 29 straight losses on marriage-equality votes at the state level, on Nov. 6 there were four marriage-equality wins. The handwriting, perhaps, is on the wall. We're at a tipping point, and the question becomes how far behind, how alienated and separate, how out of touch do you want to be?

Right. But of course on marriage equality we’ve got this weird and unstable Missouri Compromise situation, where gay marriage is completely legal in some states and banned by constitutional amendment in others. The Boy Scouts seem to be creating their own version of that model.

Which is not, by the way, the same thing as permitting gay people in Scouting. Or creating a universal non-discrimination statement. The Boy Scouts of America does not permit individual troops to decide whether they will admit or exclude black people or Jews. That is not permissible. Sexual orientation is not being added to their non-discrimination statement. But if local option had been permitted 30 years ago, I would still be in Troop 37! Well, maybe not to this day. But I would have for a while, certainly. The point is, I would have been permitted to stay. As you well know, our scoutmaster and the troop leadership had a discussion about it, and decided it was OK for me to stay, as far as they were concerned. But they were told the troop would lose its charter.

So we’re heading for a situation, just to go all stereotypical, where troops in Berkeley and Brooklyn can have gay leaders and gay members, and troops in Waco, Texas, will not?

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Yeah, that's exactly what we're headed for. We're headed for chaos. We're headed for national jamborees and regional camporees where there's all kinds of anxiety and tension around having openly gay leaders in one troop side by side with anti-gay leaders from other troops. On the other hand, having said that, those kinds of fears proved completely illusory in the military. People warned that there would be dissension in the ranks, and it proved to be a non-issue. So it may be that by permitting this -- what you've called the Missouri Compromise -- it ultimately leads to the end of the exclusion of gay people in Scouting. Because you get desensitization, and because it's a nontenable situation.

Right. Well, “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” as ridiculous a policy as that was, ultimately led to the collapse of the ban on openly gay people in the military.

Right. But, you know, over a 20-year time period!

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It’s hard to imagine this taking that long, but who knows. When you talk about this as a trial balloon, I suppose one of the things they're wondering about is how the evangelical base of Scouting, one might say, will respond to this.

I think that's exactly the question. There are a lot of anti-gay conservatives in Scouting, and Scouting has somewhat selected for them by having this policy. People who were cool with gay people kept their kids out of Scouting. They've created an environment, where -- I don't know if anti-gay conservatives predominate, but there's certainly a higher percentage of them than there would otherwise be. So now you're in a situation where some of those people are going to threaten to leave Scouting. Inevitably you'll get people who will say, "We recognize that our troop can make its own choice about this, but we just think it's bad policy and we don't want anything to do with it." So you will get some threats, and some people will carry out those threats. And the vociferousness with which that debate, if not hysteria, is carried out will determine whether or not the Boy Scouts actually change the policy. I think the timeline is supposed to be within a couple of weeks, but don't be surprised if they push that back.

From the institution's point of view, are they afraid of something like what has happened in the Episcopal Church in America, which has essentially split into pro-gay and anti-gay factions?

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The thing is that there's an important difference. For all their protestations that the Boy Scouts is a grass-roots organization -- I mean, that's complete BS, as you know. It's a top-down, authoritarian organization, and what the national council says goes. In the Episcopal Church, by design, decision-making is decentralized. So people can just choose to leave, take their marbles and start their own organization. There's a history and a tradition of that. In Scouting, as pro-gay people have found out, you can't decide to take your marbles and start a pro-gay Scouting organization. They have a monopoly and it's run from the top. So you can't imagine a situation in which you have pitched-battle factionalism, like they have in the Episcopal Church and other mainline Protestant religious denominations. It's just a question of how many defections and departures they're willing to tolerate. But people who depart don't have anywhere to go. So there's a certain consciousness -- it's more like the Catholic Church, right? People may threaten to leave, but if they do they have no home.

Let me veer a bit more personal here. How do you see the moral calculus now for parents who might be interested in Scouting but want to be supportive of inclusion? My son is old enough for Cub Scouts and his twin sister is already a Brownie, because the Girl Scouts have a long-standing non-discrimination policy. I've already explained to him that he can't be a Boy Scout because they have policies we can't support. The question for our family, and many others in our situation, is whether this is enough of a change, or whether we need to wait for full inclusion and equality.

Well, I've never made recommendations for parents, even when it was an anti-gay organization. There's so much good in Scouting, and you have to measure that good against the cost. If you were willing to be clear with your children about the moral compromises -- and not many people are! -- I was OK with parents signing their kids up for Scouting. Now, I would say it makes the decision easier. You shop around for a troop that represents your views the same way you shop around for a church or temple in your denomination that most closely represents your views. If you're a Methodist and the church down the block is too conservative, you look for another one across town.

I mean, let's see whether this thing actually happens! But if and when it does, then I'm all for people looking for a Boy Scout troop that represents their views on the issue. And again, maybe taking it as a teachable moment, talking to your kids about the organization and the fact that not every troop is open or fair. Other people may have a different view. I'm sure they do. But having been through Scouting, I know the good the organization offers that is unique.

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Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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