The new year is ushering in a new era for the Boy Scouts of America as the organization officially welcomes boys to join and participate in local scouting troops, regardless of sexual orientation. And while organizations like GLAAD (formerly the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) were expecting a large number of scouting troops to leave the program in protest, locally less than 5% of troops in the Western Arkansas Council have departed due to the policy change.
The Fort Smith-based Westark Council has about 6,500 members in its 17-county area – which includes Northwest Arkansas over to Mountain Home and south to Pope County.
Ross Murray, director of news at GLAAD, told The City Wire that he was surprised at how welcoming the organization as a whole has been to the inclusion of gay scouts.
"And what we've seen, the fallout from the policy change (on gay scouts) has been pretty minimal. Most dropped charters have been filled by more inclusive organizations. The fallout has not been as strong as we feared or people had predicted."
He said the policy change approved in May 2013 was a positive step forward.
"We are very thrilled that gay youth are no longer going to be told by the Scouts that they are not welcome because they are gay," he said. "This is a significant step for gay boys who want to be involved in a civic organization. This is a cause for celebration."
In the run up to the May vote, Assistant Scout Executive Christian Swaim of the Western Arkansas Council of the Boy Scouts of America said "support from the council has been to keep the (current) membership standards in place."
Swaim said then that the Western Arkansas Council would support the Boy Scouts of America "and the scouting program here in Arkansas” no matter the vote result. Fast forward more than eight months, and Swaim said there has not been much reaction to the change in policy. But that is not to say all chartered Boy Scout troops embraced the change.
"What we've had is we've had the charter partners…we've had some charter partners that have decided they are not going to continue a relationship with the Boy Scouts since they're the actual owner of the unit," he said.
In all, he said about 10 charter partners out of 221 chose to not renew their memberships with the Western Arkansas Council. While the number represents a 4.53% decline in charter partners, Swaim said the situation is not alarming.
"For the most part, we've been able to find a new charter partner for all of the units," he said. "The charter partners, as far as the number of scouting kids we have, it shouldn't affect the numbers at all."
Even as the Western Arkansas Council has been able to find new charter partners for all of the units that dropped over the policy, what is still unknown is how many individuals will choose to leave the Boy Scouts for other organizations, such as church-based programs.
"A lot of (families) haven't specified. A lot of them, we don't know where they will go. And like I said, as far as numbers, as far as individuals leaving the program, we will know after a re-charter in the Spring."
But if any of the 6,500 individuals involved in the Western Arkansas Council leave the program, Swaim said it would likely be impossible to know why they are leaving the Scouts unless the family specifically says something about how the policy made them decide to leave.
"I don't know that there's a way to determine. We won't know if they were going to just leave Scouting anyway or if it was over the policy."
Of the calls his office has received since the vote was taken in May, Swaim said it has not focused on complaining about the policy at all and instead many of the calls have been about "how do we manage the process, how do we work with our units within the policy change all of that stuff."
Murray of GLAAD said the process of including gay boys in the Boy Scouts should go relatively smooth, especially considering leadership changes at the top of the scouting organization.
"(Former U.S. Secretary of Defense) Robert Gates has been selected to oversee the Boy Scouts," he said. "He was the one who oversaw the end of (Don't Ask, Don't Tell) policy in the military. There was very little fallout. If that's any indication of how he will lead the Boy Scouts policy change, then that leaves us very hopeful."
While Murray calls the policy change allowing for inclusion of gay scouts a "significant step for gay boys," he said there is one wall his organization will be fighting to bring down as they move forward in their fight for gay rights — the ban on gay leaders.
"Part of (fully including gays and lesbians in scouting) will be realizing how little change there will be with the Scouts. There have always been gay scouts, but they've always been afraid to come out."