DALLAS — Robert Gates, the new president of the Boy Scouts of America, said Friday that he would have moved last year to allow openly gay adults in the organization but said he opposes any further attempts to address the policy now.
Gates took over an organization this week that serves about 2.5 million youth, but faces continued membership declines and fights over its inclusion of openly gay boys, but not adults. Gates, the former secretary of defense who oversaw the end of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, addressed those issues Friday, a day after Scouting’s national leadership elected him president.
“I was prepared to go further than the decision that was made,” Gates told The Associated Press in an interview in advance of a speech before the group’s national leaders at its annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn. “I would have supported having gay Scoutmasters, but at the same time, I fully accept the decision that was democratically arrived at by 1,500 volunteers from across the entire country.”
The BSA’s National Council voted at last year’s annual meeting to accept openly gay youth, after a long process with protests on both sides.
“Given the strong feelings — the passion — involved on both sides of this matter, I believe strongly that to re-open the membership issue or try to take last year’s decision to the next step would irreparably fracture and perhaps even provoke a formal, permanent split in this movement — with the high likelihood neither side would subsequently survive on its own,” Gates said in prepared remarks.
Gates, 70, who also served as director of the CIA, is a visible advocate for Scouting as it faces a storm of bad publicity. The Scouts reached out to Gates as he was retiring from the Defense Department and asked him to join their leadership, said Wayne Perry, the departing BSA president. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, who was expected to become president this year, agreed to wait another two years to allow Gates to serve now.
“We need America to know what the Boy Scouts can do for the youth of America,” Perry said, adding that Gates “immediately can reach an audience that we wouldn’t otherwise reach.”
Gates earned his Eagle Scout award as a 15-year-old growing up in Wichita, Kan. He has long credited that achievement for giving him the confidence to excel in nearly five decades of public service, and he stayed involved in Scouting during his career.
Over the last decade, the Scouts faced small, but consistent declines in membership. Also, high-profile sponsors and corporate donors, including Disney and Lockheed Martin, cut funding over the exclusion of openly gay adults. Meanwhile, a handful of conservatives who opposed the inclusion of openly gay boys started their own organization, Trail Life USA.
Gates told the AP he wanted to move the Scouts past that debate and focus on what unites the membership. He said he would push for a heavier focus on local marketing and sharing positive stories about Scouting efforts that are sometimes drowned out by debates over gay rights or child abuse lawsuits filed against the Scouts in several states.
He said he would emphasize to sponsors that “welcoming gay youth is an important step forward.”