Parents pressed Scouts on gay ban

Marc Fisher / The Washington Post /

WASHINGTON — The foot soldiers of the revolution that struck the Boy Scouts of America last week worked for no general, followed no strategy, represented no cause.

Denise Steele just wanted to be part of her son’s Scouting experience in Loudoun County, Va. — and couldn’t fathom why she, alone among the parents in her boy’s den, was not permitted to join him at Boy Scouts summer camp.

In Silver Spring, Md., Rick Meyerdirk was driven by the idea that his son Tyler might join Boy Scout Troop 1444, the same troop Meyerdirk had been in as a kid, meaning that the son’s name might end up on the same plaque as the father’s.

What stood in the way of those simple goals was the Boy Scouts’ policy prohibiting gays from being Scouts or parent volunteers.

It’s a policy that the organization announced last week it may reverse at its board meeting on Wednesday. What pushed the Scouts to this turning point was a combination of declining membership, financial pressure from donors, and the street-level reality embodied by people like a straight couple in Silver Spring who want the Scouts to be open to all and a lesbian mother in Northern Virginia who saw Scouting as a great way to serve her community and connect with her son.

Meyerdirk’s wife, Theresa Phillips, didn’t even know that the Scouts barred “open or avowed homosexuals” from their ranks until last summer. That’s when she heard that the Boy Scouts of America, after a two-year study of its policy, had reaffirmed its exclusion of gays because they are “not an appropriate role model ... for adolescent boys.” In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, upheld the Scouts’ right to exclude gays.

Phillips, a stay-at-home mother, had never been an activist, had no ties to any gay rights group and didn’t even know of gays who wanted to join her son’s Cub Scout pack in the Cloverly section of Silver Spring.

But although they had been involved in Scouting all their lives — Rick as a Cub, Boy and Eagle Scout, and Theresa in the Girl Scouts — the couple couldn’t see being part of an organization that excluded some people for who they were, rather than for what they did.

So in September, Meyerdirk and Phillips, who were parent leaders in son Tyler’s pack, put the question to their fellow parents: Should we state on our website that “Pack 442 WILL NOT discriminate against any individual or family based on race, religion, national origin, ability, or sexual orientation”?

Yes, we should, said 84 percent of the parents who voted. Yes, you may, said a vote by the Lions Club of Colesville, Md., which sponsors Pack 442. And so Pack 442 plastered its defiance of the national policy on their website.

And last Monday, word came from Boy Scouts headquarters that the national policy barring gays might be scrapped, allowing each chartering organization to make its own decision about gay members.

Pack 442 was hardly alone in pushing back against the policy. In recent years, Scout troops in Minnesota and Massachusetts, among other places, had issued similar statements, and many more troops quietly accepted gays without informing the brass.

Across the river in Potomac Falls, Va., Denise Steele was stunned by Scouting’s decision to consider a change. Steele and her partner of 20 years, Jackie Funk, who live with their two children and Steele’s nephew, don’t trumpet their sexual orientation to anyone, but many of their neighbors know that they are lesbians.

For six years, Steele was a parent volunteer and leader in her son Jackson’s Cub and Boy Scout units. No one mentioned her sexuality. She didn’t even know about the policy barring gays.

Then, two summers ago, when the boys were on a camping trip on Assateague Island, a fellow parent, also an assistant scoutmaster, saw Funk pick up Steele so she could get to work.

The parent then informed the scoutmaster and other leaders that their troop had a lesbian leader who needed to be removed.

The apparent shift in Scouting’s policy has given Steele hope she will be able to rejoin her son, hope that the one place where she has felt excluded will now meld into the rest of a life in which she has felt vastly more accepted during the past two decades.