The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) have been in the news a lot lately and for all the wrong reasons. As an internal debate rages about whether or not the 103-year-old organization should end its decades-long ban on gay youth, most people our age aren't asking, "Why should they end it?" We're asking, "Why has it taken so long?"
To a generation that grew up with Ellen and Neil Patrick Harris, the idea of excluding gay people from the program never really made sense. But there's another question I've often heard in my work as the Executive Director of Scouts for Equality — a Scouting alumni organization working to end the ban — that's much more troubling: "Who cares?"
Instead of spending this space trying to convince you that the Boy Scouts should end their ban, I want to show you why you should care about this storied institution's decision. (In case you were wondering, the latest polling puts support for ending the ban at a solid 75% among those aged 18-29. Those who support the ban? Only 22%, a three-to-one difference.) Even if you aren't an Eagle Scout — even if you never were a Boy Scout or a Girl Scout for even a day — the future of Scouting will affect everyone. Scouting is an organization and an experience worth saving for both quantitative and qualitative reasons.
I joined the Boy Scouts when I was six years old. I still remember the big, bright poster outside my kindergarten classroom that promised me, in all caps, "THE GREAT OUTDOORS." Even at the tender age of six, I was a sucker for adventure. My moms — a lesbian couple raising children in a Midwestern town of fewer than 20,000 people — were a little apprehensive at first, as the Boy Scouts of America's (BSA) ban on gay youth and parents was already working its way through New Jersey's court system. But they could see the gleam in my eye, and when local Scouting leaders agreed to look the other way, they let me become the latest Tiger Cub Scout of Pack 381 in Marshfield, Wisconsin.
And I loved it. Over the next 12 years, I made lifelong friends, developed an even deeper love for our environment, played more Magic: the Gathering than I care to remember and learned the skills that prepared me for life. "Entrepreneurship" was one of my very first merit badges, which helped turn the small gardening service I used for spending money into a full-fledged lawn service company. It taught me how to read a balance sheet and monetize an idea. Scouting taught me how to lead and how to execute.
It wasn't just me, either. Almost every single Eagle Scout I've ever met has conveyed nearly the same thing. Not necessarily about growing a business, but about leadership and cooperation and getting things done. I still had a lot to learn when I graduated out of the program at the age of 18, but I was in a much, much better place than I would have been if I hadn't been a part of the organization.
It is difficult to overstate the quality of the programming that Scouting has to offer. You don't exist as America's pre-eminent youth development organization for more than a century without doing something right.
Beyond providing an incredible experience to the young men who go through the program, the sheer size and scope of the program must also be taken into account. Despite a 20% loss of membership since the Boy Scouts affirmed their ban in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2000 decision, Dale v. BSA, the BSA is still home to 2.7 million young men and an additional million adult volunteers. Weighted against the 2010 census, that's about 10% of male American youth aged six to 18 years old. That's an awful lot of people.
And even if you don't join the Boy Scouts outright, the organization holds a prized place in our society. There's no scientific way to assess this, but I'd say that Scouting is likely somewhat less American than baseball, but probably more American than apple pie. It is difficult to overstate the importance of the cultural message sent when such a quintessentially American institution includes young gay men.
As the BSA moves towards the full acceptance of LGBT people, it both reflects and sends a message to the echelons of conservative America. "Gay people are our friends, family, neighbors ... and our Scouts," is a powerful message — and it's why Scouting is an institution worth saving.
Zach Wahls is an Eagle Scout and the Executive Director of Scouts for Equality. If you haven't yet, you can join the fight for inclusion at http://www.scoutsforequality.com/