The Boy Scouts of America opened a three-day meeting on Monday in which the group’s national board will consider lifting its controversial ban on openly gay members. A group of current and former scouts — and scout leaders — opposed to the ban rallied outside the meeting at the Boy Scouts’ headquarters in Dallas. Ahead of the historic decision, we’re joined by Eagle Scout Zach Wahls, founder of the group Scouts for Equality. Wahls’ lesbian parents were actively involved in his Boy Scout activities, and he wants others to be allowed a similar opportunity. He is the author of "My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family." [includes rush transcript]
NERMEEN SHAIKH: The Boy Scouts of America board members opened a three-day meeting on Monday in which they will consider lifting its controversial ban on openly gay members. The group’s national executive board is expected to vote Wednesday on the ban, which was reaffirmed just last year.
On Monday, a group of current and former scouts—and scout leaders—rallied outside the Boy Scouts’ headquarters in Dallas. Among them was Jennifer Tyrrell, who was removed as a den leader of her son’s pack in Ohio because she’s a lesbian. Tyrrell described her experience last year while receiving an award from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
JENNIFER TYRRELL: About a year ago, this guy right here, Cruz, came to me and said, "I want to be a Boy Scout." I was hesitant. Before I knew it, I was living a life of merit badges and knots. But I loved it. Soon they asked me to be a den leader, an opportunity that I embraced. The year that followed was truly one of the most memorable experiences a mom could ever imagine. Together, we did community service projects. We served food at soup kitchens. We collected toys during Christmastime. We worked on a conservation project building birdhouses for a state park. They’ll be completing that tomorrow without me. Sorry. So here’s Cruz, growing into a leader, and I had a front row seat. Then last week I receive a phone call from the local scout leader: "The council’s saying you’re being kicked out of the program." I was shocked. I had done nothing wrong. I was forcibly removed as den leader because I’m gay.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was former Boy Scout leader Jennifer Tyrrell speaking last year. On Sunday, President Obama was asked about the ban during an interview on CBS with Scott Pelley.
SCOTT PELLEY: Should scouting be open to gays?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Yes.
SCOTT PELLEY: Why so?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, because I think that, you know, my attitude is, is that gays and lesbians should have access and opportunity the same way everybody else does, in every institution and walk of life. And, you know, the Scouts are a great institution that are promoting young people and exposing them to, you know, opportunities and leadership that, you know, will serve people for the rest of their lives. And I think that nobody should be barred for that.
AMY GOODMAN: Former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has also weighed in on the debate. He said changing the Scouts’ policy will cause a "mass exodus" of members and that, quote, "Scouting may not survive this transformation of American society," unquote. A 2000 Supreme Court decision upheld the group’s right to ban gay members.
We invited the Boy Scouts of America on today’s program; they said they’re not scheduling interviews at this time. But we are joined by Eagle Scout—by an Eagle Scout whose lesbian parents were actively involved in his Boy Scout activities and wants others to be allowed a similar opportunity. Zach Wahls is with us, founder of Scouts for Equality, a fraternity of sorts for Eagle Scouts and their fellow scouts who oppose the ban. He’s also the author of My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family.
Zach Wahls, it’s great to have you, straight from Iowa here in New York City.
ZACH WAHLS: Thanks for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us your story.
ZACH WAHLS: So I joined the Cub Scouts when I was six years old. Like Jen’s son Cruz, my moms got involved with my experience right away. Jackie, my short mom, was a den mother, a kind of mama grizzly, if you will. And she was, you know, revered by all of the other boys in my den. When we moved from Wisconsin down to Iowa, my moms stayed involved. And when I got to Boy Scouts, Jackie became our rank advancement coordinator. So, any time you earned a merit badge or moved up a rank, Jackie was the one keeping track of all that stuff—as you might imagine, a very busy job for her, but she was committed to the program, and like Jen, she understood the importance of the values and the experience. And then I got my Eagle Scout when I was, you know, 16 in 2007. I graduated out of the program.
And then, when Jen’s petition reached 275,000 signatures, I delivered it to a national board meeting, similar to the one taking place right now down in Dallas, and it was a very big success. We got a lot of press coverage, and people were starting to really ask a lot of questions about what this ban meant for the program. At that delivery down in Orlando, Florida, I met a number of other Eagle Scouts who were interested in bringing this ban on gay people in the Scouts, you know, down. And we started this organization, Scouts for Equality. Currently, we represent more than 3,500 Eagle Scouts across the country, an additional 2,000 or so parents, scout leaders and other scouts who didn’t quite make it to Eagle. And we’ve been leading this campaign for the last seven months. And I think what we heard last week, with the BSA considering this policy change after 35 years, is a huge testament to the work that we have done and the support that we’ve had.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So what do you think—what do you expect will happen? And can you say what you think the significance is of what President Obama said on CBS?
ZACH WAHLS: Absolutely. So, we expect the BSA to pass this proposed change. We think it will be close. But the BSA has put it on its formal agenda, and they don’t do that if they think that there’s even a chance that it won’t pass. That being said, a lot of councils across the country, local governing bodies, have spoken out against the proposed policy change, requesting more time to, quote-unquote, "study the issue," kind of similar, actually, to what we heard to some opponents of lifting the ban of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" in the military. And I think President Obama’s endorsement is probably the most high-profile endorsement of the policy that we’ve seen. In the 2012 presidential election, candidate Mitt Romney also endorsed ending the ban, but it didn’t get a lot of press coverage because the Boy Scouts had reaffirmed their ban in July of last year.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ve got Texas Governor Rick Perry, an Eagle Scout himself, who wrote about scouting in his 2008 book, On My Honor. He said Saturday he opposed a change to what he called scouting’s "century-old values."
GOV. RICK PERRY: Scouting is not a place where sexuality should be the intersection of. Scouting is about teaching a substantial amount of life lessons. Sexuality is not one of them. It never has been. It doesn’t need to be.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Texas Governor Rick Perry. Your response, Zach?
ZACH WAHLS: Well, to be clear, Mr. Perry is not alone in his opposition to the policy. A lot of folks are trying to fall back on these, quote-unquote, "traditional moral American values," by which they’re actually referring to this biblical literalist fundamentalism that has become popular in America over the last 40 years or so. If I think about what are truly American traditional values, I think there’s probably nothing more American than the idea of "live and let live." It’s really why we founded this country, had the revolution in the first place. And so, when I think about what these folks are trying to talk about, I simply have a hard time believing that this is really what is most important here.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And do Girl Scouts confront exactly the same situation as the Boy Scouts?
ZACH WAHLS: Not at all. The Girl Scouts, as you might imagine, are way out in front of the Boy Scouts on this one. They haven’t had a ban on gay folks—or even, believe it or not, young trans girls are allowed in the program, as well as nontheists. Currently, the Boy Scouts of America also excludes those who do not believe in a higher power.
AMY GOODMAN: What’s the test?
ZACH WAHLS: There’s—it’s really kind of on your word. They’ll ask you, and they won’t necessarily try and confront you directly, but you have to be able to say that you do believe in God, whatever that means to you.
AMY GOODMAN: And if you say you don’t, they kick you out?
ZACH WAHLS: You can be removed. Now, like the ban on gay members, it is a "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" situation sometimes. But usually, when you’re in your final stage of review for your Eagle Scout, you will get asked a question about it.
AMY GOODMAN: You have been vocal about these issues for a long time—marriage equality, equality in the Scouts. I want to play an excerpt from Zach Wahls’s address on January 31st, 2011, to an Iowa House committee, as it considered a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. This video went viral: 15 million views in a month.
ZACH WAHLS: The question always comes down to: Well, can gays even raise kids? And the question—you know, the conversation gets quiet for a moment, because most people don’t really have an answer. And then I raise my hand and say, "Actually, I was raised by gay couple, and I’m doing pretty well." I scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT. I’m actually an Eagle Scout. I own and operate my own small business. If I was your son, Mr. Chairman, I believe I’d make you very proud. Now, over the next two hours, I’m sure we’re going to hear plenty of testimony about how damaging having gay parents is on kids. But in my 19 years, not once have I ever been confronted by an individual who realized independently that I was raised by a gay couple. And you know why? Because the sexual orientation of my parents has had zero effect on the content of my character.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Zach Wahls speaking in 2011, two years almost to the day, at the Iowa House, considering a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. What happened, Zach?
ZACH WAHLS: So, after I gave that speech, the House actually went on to pass that constitutional amendment on a vote of 62 to 37, with one abstention. It died the next day in the Senate. However, that video was uploaded—without my knowledge, actually—to YouTube, where it proceeded to go ludicrously viral, racked up about 20 million hits over the course of a year. It was the most watched political video of 2011 and changed my life forever.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So what is it that you learned from being a scout that helped you get involved in this campaign, to begin with?
ZACH WAHLS: Yeah, absolutely. So the Scouts—you know, there’s a scout law, right? A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.
AMY GOODMAN: You got ’em all.
ZACH WAHLS: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. But the idea that somehow this should be a program where we want to say, "Well, these values are only applicable to some young men, to people who happen to be straight," that’s, frankly, antithetical to everything that scouting is about. And I think, actually, the United Church of Christ put it superbly well in their recent endorsement of ending the policy. They said that this ban is inconsistent with the values of dignity and respect that have always been the foundation of the scouting program. They’ve been enjoined in their endorsement of the policy by various Presbyterian clergy, a number of United Methodist ministries. And the ELCA and Episcopalian Church are both expected to endorse the policy, sooner rather than later.
AMY GOODMAN: And the people in your group, Scouts for Equality, Eagle Scouts for Equality, are not necessarily gay or straight.
ZACH WAHLS: Absolutely not. In fact, our entire paid staff is—consists of four straight Eagle Scouts. There’s about 50 years of scouting experience among us. And we’re doing this because we love the program, and we want it to be available to, you know, young men in the future. If I ever have sons, I truly hope that this program exists and is available to them to, you know, learn and grow and have, you know, the same experiences that I did growing up.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Zach, for being with us. Zach Wahls, founder of Scouts for Equality, an Eagle Scout whose lesbian parents actively involved in his Boy Scout activities. He’s the author of My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family. We’ll certainly follow this BSA vote, Boy Scouts of America.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Dan Ellsberg, leading whistleblower in this country, and Jacob Appelbaum, who just lost a federal case, because, well, he is afraid what it means that his Twitter account, his email can be read by the government without his knowledge. Stay with us.