By: Eric Blu Martin, Seattle Pride
For those who believe the biggest hurdles of the LGBTQ community are centered in marriage equality, I present Scoutmaster Geoffrey McGrath. He’s had an action-packed couple of months leading Seattle’s 98th Rainier troop of the Baden-Powell Service Association. The 98th Rainier used to be Troop 98 and Pack 98 of the Boy Scouts of America until McGrath (who is openly gay and an Eagle Scout, himself) contributed to a news item profiling troops in the BSA. He was asked about his husband, and answered honestly and openly. After all, “scout’s honor” is not only real, but is the main ideal of the Scout Law.
According to McGrath, it all started “on the heels of last year’s Pride parade where we had “warm wishes” expressed from Rob McKenna,“who is the current Council President of Chief Seattle Council of Boy Scouts of America. BSA, nationally, had said that there were to be no Scouts marching in Pride parades. That is their position,” says McGrath.“The Scout Executive of the local council stood pat on the national party line, but the Council President, who hires the Scout Executive, did not. He actually encouraged our participation…gently. He didn’t over state it, but he did wish us well.”
McGrath took those “warm wishes,” coupled with the positive crowd responses as the color guard marched during last year’s parade, and formed Troop 98…an inclusive scouting unit. The charter was issued last October to Pastor Monica Corsaro of Rainier Beach United Methodist Church. There was a lot of positive energy around the new, experimental scout group. According to McGrath, the charter was issued with no doubt on either side that the troop would be fully inclusive of both youth and adult members.
“Chief Seattle Council accepted our charter application with eyes open, and they were excited to do so. They felt like it was a new era in progressive scouting, and it was consistent with our city’s values.” The charter application was challenged on the national level by BSA, who was well aware of McGrath and his role in organizing the color guard for last year’s Pride parade. The local council successfully defended their position to allow Troop 98 into the Scouts, with McGrath as Scoutmaster. Things were rolling, but the local council didn’t issue any sort of press release regarding such a historical event, “It’s their news, they can release it or not,” McGrath opined.
Over the next six months, Troop 98 did the usual Scout things: camp outs, sleeping in snow caves, hiking, shooting, etc.
“Word of our fully inclusive unit began to get around. A reporter from New York City hadheard about us while she was working on a story in Salt Lake City. She reached out and asked if we would be willing to share our story about this new, progressive unit during this period of annual membership decline year over year in BSA,” McGrath says.
Pastor Corsaro not only agreed to share their story, but also reminded McGrath that his duty was to be fully transparent when answering questions. During fact checking on the reporter’s part, national BSA was asked about the unit (and McGrath in particular). “That’s the point where BSA officially asked me if I was an ‘open and avowed homosexual.’ They called and talked to me on a Monday morning, and they kicked me out. This was all before it went to press,” he recalls.
Just like that, the story changed from a nice piece about a potentially new model of scouting, to a “breaking news” item about the Boy Scouts of America kicking out their first openly gay scoutmaster. Certainly, McGrath and the troop were a bit surprised by it.
“We expected that if they didn’t want us, they wouldn’t have accepted us back in October. We were very surprised to find them not defend their own decision. That was very disappointing to us. We expected that they would support and defend the kids as well as the scoutmaster. Their failure to do so, I think, is a cautionary tale and pretty appalling,” says McGrath.
McGrath received notice on April 1 that his membership had been revoked. Two weeks later, Troop 98 lost their charter. “They [BSA] sent letters to the parents, and after they sent letters to the parents did they send notice that the charter had been revoked,” says McGrath.
“During the two months following the charter revocation, we attempted to work with BSA to see if we could find some accommodation to work together. But 75 percent of all BSA units are chartered religiously, “says McGrath. “The largest individual chartering organization is the LDS church [Mormons], followed by the Methodist church, and followed by the Catholic church.”
Indeed, Troop 98 had only a small pool of BSA troops to pull support of any kind from. He found that community-based troops such as neighborhood units were, by and large, supportive, as were fully-affirmative church sponsored units such as from the United Church of Christ.
“Even some of the conservative scouting units are tired of the politics related to this, and are talking about alternatives to side-step these issues because BSA is so slow to make its change. Many of these units have serving gay adult leaders in them as scoutmasters or assistant scoutmasters or den leaders.”
McGrath’s undoing was being honest – and public – about who he was.
“BSA, in its announcement, claimed ‘It’s not because he’s gay, but because it became a distraction,’” McGrath recalls. “But they generated the distraction.”
What it boils down to is the same antiquated culture of shame that would see gay men deemed to have psychological issues or unwed mothers sent to convents. For whatever reasons, it is apparent that the BSA is using shame in this instance as a tool to control its culture, i.e., “Let this be a warning to the rest of you ‘out and proud’ scout leaders…”
In May, 2013, a majority of BSA’s National Council voted to allow gay youths to openly participate, stating that sexual contact of any kind is not allowed by its members of any orientation. The ban previously in place was lifted as of January 1stof this year. Adults who are “open and avowed homosexuals” [as the BSA would call McGrath] are still banned. There is currently no plan within the organization to discuss the matter further. To be sure, it is Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell all over again. The problem, here, is that there are no gay role models for gay youth scouts to identify with among their ranks. It is these very youths who need the most reassurance that they aren’t the abominations that [in many cases] their own families have led them to believe they are.
“The new policy makes it that kids can’t get kicked out solely for being gay. But in some units if they’re five minutes late for a meeting and they’re gay, that’s good enough reason to show them the door. Now, that’s not all units, but some,” he states. “I’ve had contact, nationally, from kids this has happened to who are struggling with what to do about their units and the horrible situations they are experiencing.”
BSA’s 1,400 member National Council is made up of primarily straight men. The immediate question is: what level of empathy and thoughtfulness was put into the decision to even allow openly gay youth members? Were children’s counselors consulted? Were any LGBT youth specialists involved at all in the discussion of how to properly train straight male scout leaders in the guidance of these now out and proud scouts? BSA didn’t respond to requests for these questions and others to be answered.
“What I think is critical is that LGBT adults have been excluded from being able to advocate for LGBT youth. And it is critical that we not abandon the youth to the problematic “protection” and “defense” and “nurturing” that they’re getting from the straight community. It is now our time. We have to speak out and support those kids. We have to stop accepting that private organizations can have full participation in American society while they continue to discriminate. The BSA employs people, but no openly gay people.”
Currently, McGrath has his hands full being a Scoutmaster with Baden-Powell Service Association…a busyness that he loves. “BPSA is fully inclusive and coeducational. Were BSA to change, I’d love to [return]. But we have girls in our unit and wouldn’t leave them by the side of the road to return to BSA. It is the fully-inclusive future that all of us want, and it’s possible to live that scouting life now.”
McGrath and Troop 98 will be joined by nearly 100 supporting troops and allies in leading the 2014 Seattle Pride Parade as the Official Color Guard again this year. “The future of our country is the youth, and we must take a stand against the discrimination shown by the Boy Scout leadership,” says Adam McRoberts, Communications Director for Seattle Pride. “We are honored to have Troop 98 and other boy scouts represented at Seattle Pride and look forward to the day where all can serve equally in the Boy Scouts of America.”
The Seattle Pride Parade takes place on Sunday, June 29, at 11:00 a.m. in Downtown Seattle.