Geoff McGrath (AP/Elaine Thompson)

"I was shocked and appalled": Ousted gay Boy Scout leader sounds off to Salon

Booted from his post with the BSA for being gay, Geoff McGrath's still a role model to his Scouts. Here's why


Katie McDonough
April 24, 2014 3:43PM (UTC)

Geoff McGrath didn't ask to be the Scoutmaster of his Seattle, Wash., church's chapter of the Boy Scouts -- his church asked him.

Despite being a perfect fit for the position -- McGrath is an Eagle Scout with a master's degree in social work, and an active member of the Rainier Beach United Methodist Church --  the Boy Scouts ousted him earlier this month simply because he's gay.

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But his church and community stood with him, refusing to comply with the BSA's order to dismiss McGrath. He was well-loved by the Scouts he mentored and the parents who volunteered alongside him. And, as Rainier Beach Pastor Monica Corsaro recently noted in a piece defending McGrath in Time magazine, the church strongly rejects the Boy Scouts' policy banning LGBTQ adults from serving in leadership positions. The congregation "welcomes, includes, and values all people," Corsaro wrote. "And by all, we mean all."

As a result, the Boy Scouts moved this week to revoke the church's charter, apparently without consulting McGrath or any members of the church, including Corsaro. "Because the church no longer agrees to the terms of the BSA chartered organization agreement, which includes following BSA policies, it is no longer authorized to offer the Scouting program," spokesperson Deron Smith said of the decision, adding that the Boy Scouts were "saddened by the development."

McGrath is currently traveling in Italy to celebrate his 20th anniversary with his partner, but took some time to discuss his response to the BSA's decision to revoke his church's charter with Salon. When asked about his feelings on this moment in the BSA -- as a gay man who has had a lifelong affiliation with the organization and as a leader to the young Scouts in his community -- McGrath recalled what he's learned from his time with the organization. "An important part of Scouting is about being brave," he said. "When we go on hikes and the weather gets kind of bad ... it rains, but at some point you put up a tent and start your campfire and your camp stove and you have a warm meal. You tuck in and the next day the sun’s out."

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Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

It's been a month since the Boy Scouts asked your church to remove you from your post as Scoutmaster, and only days since the BSA revoked your church's charter because your community refused to abide by the BSA's anti-LGBTQ policy. How did you feel when you heard the news? 

I was very honored to be asked by the church to continue functioning in the role, even though it made me worried at the time that there may be repercussions. I was really shocked and appalled to see [that the BSA] -- without consultation with [Pastor Monica Corsaro] -- drop the charter with no prior notice. It caught me completely by surprise.

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Were there conversations that you had with the kids in your troop or parents in your community that were sparked in the wake of the BSA's decision? Do you think this experience has gotten people thinking about these issues in a way that they hadn’t previously?

Yes. For instance, the Cub Master who was interested in leading this Cub Pack ... when we talked about starting up the Pack, he knew I was gay. We discussed there being issues with the BSA around that. And he was like, "Yeah, yeah, whatever; we just want to start this Pack and make it happen." He was excited about getting things started.

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When the news came down, all of a sudden he saw what the issues were around discrimination. Then he said, "You know, before this happened I never really thought anything at all about gay issues, but all of a sudden I’m a gay rights activist. That’s kind of cool!" And that’s just one example. In Seattle, the issues are not that big of a deal. We’re an open and affirming society; we have full gay marriage, and so it’s not really on everybody’s mind all the time. So when we come across these sort of blatant acts of discriminations it feel s very foreign and alien to the culture of our city and our state.

The momentum on this issue feels very much on the side of equality and acceptance within the organization, which makes the Boy Scouts' fixation on LGBTQ adults feel that much more bizarre. I wonder about the moment when you were told that the BSA wanted to remove you from your post. How did the message come down? It seems like a hard sell to say, "You're a respected member of  your community, you were requested by your church to serve in this capacity ... but we still won't let you do it."

Exactly. I was asked for all of those reasons to be their Scoutmaster and when we applied for the new troop and pack -- we started the pack in the fall, and we started working on the paper work for the troop in January. My status as being a gay person in the community was well known to the folks at [Chief Seattle] Council. It’s a trivial thing, but go to the Seattle Times website, for instance, and Google my name. You’ll see the gay rights activism I've done over the decades.

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When we submitted our paperwork, the folks at Council were actually very excited for this experiment -- to try and have a successful and fully inclusive troop. And we were excited with them. The charter was actually accepted and made it all the way through the National Council review. They decided -- even with all that activism -- to accept this troop with me as the Scoutmaster.

We actually expected that we would be supported and defended after they accepted our application. We were caught off guard when they didn't.

What changed? You had the support of the National Council. It wasn’t like you only had community or local support -- you had the National Council's blessing. 

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Well, it’s hard to say exactly. BSA is a big organization. There are over one hundred thousand different packs and troops throughout the nation. And there’s over six hundred councils; Chief Seattle Council is our local council and it serves sixteen thousand kids. So it’s a huge organization. I think it was mostly a question of the right hand not cooperating with the left hand.

Additionally, they’re in the middle of leadership change with [Robert] Gates coming on, so it could be a product of this transition. During times of transition, sometimes information gets muddled, and I imagine that’s mostly what’s happened. Though it could be there was some internal power struggle and maybe the reformers have been pushed aside for a sort of double down on very conservative or reluctant to change elements. I don’t know, I don’t really have insight into BSA's national operations. BSA is a billion dollar corporation and there are accountants and attorneys and sometimes those folks are making the decisions. More often, the executive board is pretty hands off and you just have the paid professionals running a little wild.

I hope that is all that’s happened in this case.

It sounds like there is a real disconnect between the people who make up the BSA -- the community that you're a part of -- and the people making decisions at the top. 

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Certainly. There is a divide between the professional side of the organization and the volunteers. I think, for the volunteers and nationally, this is really not an issue and people are mostly puzzled why this is so much more important than the Scout Oath and the Scout Law -- the stuff we work with every day with our kids.

Speaking of the kids, I wonder what kind of a message you feel the BSA is sending to the young kids in your unit? 

Well, what they see mostly in their day to day life is the Troop and the Pack functioning. It functioned before this happened, it’s functioning through the crisis and it will continue to function.  The other thing that they see is photos of themselves in the press and on television, and they're sort of proud about that. The younger kids really aren’t clued in at all -- as long as they’re able to look around and see that their leadership is in tact and taking care of them, that’s what matters most to them. But the older kids, for their part, it’s really a lesson in civics. And being able to be powerful in their own communities. And they feel that their voices are being heard in this way, and that helps them feel like they can be powerful in their own world and in their sphere.

I think that will give them a view that will pay big dividends in the long term.

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It's a strange thing. The BSA is trying to remove you from your post, but you’re actually still providing these lessons and shaping the experiences of the kids you work with. So you continue to be a role model even in this sort of crisis moment. 

An important part of Scouting is about being brave, and at the same time being friendly and courteous and helpful. So the kids are sort of walking that walk, seeing how to do it -- and they’re persevering. When we go on hikes and the weather gets kind of bad ... it rains, but at some point you put up a tent and start your campfire and your camp stove and you have a warm meal. You tuck in and the next day the sun’s out. So this is just one more way for the kids to internalize those kinds of lessons.

So what happens now? The BSA has revoked your church's charter, meaning that they can no longer operate within the national organization. What's next for you and the Scouts you serve? 

Well, I’m in Italy right now. [Laughs] The assistant Scoutmasters and the Cub Master are taking care of business while I’m out of town. I mean, they take care of business week in and week out. They’re at the front line. We do have to make some uniform adjustments because we can’t infringe on BSA’s intellectual property, so that will begin maybe with an arm band that explains we’re banned by the BSA or something like that. It will take us a few more weeks to figure out a program replacement. There are some excellent program replacements from Campfire to Baden Powell Service Association and some other options as well. We could even design our own program materials -- we certainly have the capability within the Pack and the Troop to do that. It might be fun ... the kids might enjoy designing their own uniform.

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If the BSA were to reverse this policy and say, "You know what? We were wrong. This is discriminatory; it was wrong of us and a terrible example to set for the young people entrusted to our care," would you return to the BSA?

We’ve gone through a little bit of a rough patch, and I wouldn’t say that feelings aren’t hurt over this. But on the other hand the Scouting fellowship is a worldwide thing, and it’s something that is important to all of us. And, you know, friends have spats at times and the trick for all of us it to work though the rough patch and smooth it over and build a stronger relationship as a result. Our only argument right now is around an outdated policy. It’s not really an argument with people or individuals or personalities; it’s just with the policy. It’s time for that policy to change and when it does I think that we would be very happy to be back in the Scouting fellowship.

Are you optimistic that this is something that’s going to change soon? 

Well, the Bible tells us that Joshua had to march around Jericho seven times, blowing horns the whole way. And I don’t know which circuit of the city we’re on right now, but the walls haven’t fallen yet. It might take a while. And that said ... I’m 49. I’m a young man. My Scouts are younger -- they’re going to be around a long time.

We’ve got energy and we’re happy to do our part to make things successful for ourselves, as well as for BSA in the future. 


Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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