"The World Has Shifted"

As the Boy Scouts of America consider change, father-son Eagle Scouts share what admitting gay members would mean to them.

January/February 2013

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"The World Has Shifted"

Photo: Courtesy Steve Conley

The Boy Scouts of America appear headed toward an historic decision. After a century-long ban on gay members, and a reaffirmation of that ban as recently as July, the organization announced last week that it would consider lifting the ban. A vote to end the blanket exclusion of gay Scouts and leaders could come as early as Wednesday's BSA executive board meeting.

Such a change would be especially meaningful to Steve Conley, a long-time advocate for lifting a ban that affected him personally. Conley, '59, is an Eagle Scout who went on to become a high-level volunteer in the organization. He is also the father of Chip Conley, ’82, MBA ’84, who was an Eagle Scout himself—and who is gay.

The younger Conley was out of Scouts by the time he realized his sexuality. But as an adult, he turned his back on the organization out of dismay with its position, even stopping donations, such as gift certificates for Scout fund-raisers. Not that he expected such gestures to accomplish much: The Scouts seemed so firm in their stance there was little reason for hope.


A boy scout sash adorned with a variety of merit badge logos.Photo: Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum

 "The Boy Scouts senior leaders seemed so behind the times that I just thought any efforts I made to try and turn them around would fall on deaf ears,” says Chip, a successful hotelier and entrepreneur.

But his father remained committed to an organization he believes does immense good. There are few other places where boys learn to set and achieve goals, become leaders and love the outdoors, says Steve, a recipient of the BSA’s Distinguished Eagle Scout Award, one of its highest honors. Still he was—and is—disgusted by the policy.

“I think the BSA is marvelous,” he says. “I just think their discrimination is intolerable.”

The father and son are among an untold number of Eagle Scouts to have attended Stanford, one of a small number of universities with a scholarship dedicated to students who reached Scouting’s apex.

Since 1944, nearly 400 Stanford students have received funds through the Dofflemyer Scholarship Fund for Eagle Scouts. The number of recipients accounts for only a portion of those who met the qualification for the award.

After his son came out as gay, Conley stayed active as a volunteer in Scouts, rising to the Western Region Executive Board, which oversees 13 states and other regions. He wanted change, and thought it best to work for it from the inside.

As a leader on the executive board, he signed petitions, wrote letters and made stands in meetings to try and force an end to the ban, he says. At annual meetings with perhaps 40 volunteer leaders, a dozen probably agreed with him. But virtually all the paid staff remained unified in support of the ban, at least publicly.

“I remember one Scouting executive saying he agreed exactly with what I was saying, but he couldn’t take a position because he’d get fired,” Steve says.

In his arguments, Conley says he rarely mentioned his son, wanting to make the issue moral, not personal. For the most part, the sides remained civil, though he says because of his advocacy, one executive blocked him from receiving an award honoring his work as a Scout and a Rotarian. Conley did receive the award once the executive left.

Conley stepped down from his leadership positions a decade ago, but still gets riled up when the issue makes headlines, such as the recent news of a Boy Scout in Moraga, Calif., who was denied his Eagle award for being gay.

He was surprised as anyone to learn the Scouts were edging towards a change—one he suspects is rooted in enlightenment as much as realization the policy would eventually doom the organization. The BSA has seen declining numbers in recent years. Though reports say the change would likely allow local Scout organizations to continue the ban, Steve says he applauds the effort, and believes in five years all scouting troops will be open to gay members.

“It would be a very big decision,” he says. “It would remove the one negative that exists about Scouting. The Boy Scouts are a wonderful program and it ought to be available to all kids."

Chip Conley says he still considers BSA a worthy institution—earning his Eagle badge was one of his primary childhood experiences, teaching him discipline and determination. But it is badly behind the times, in his opinion, something it seems the BSA may be realizing.

"If the BSA follows suit with what we're seeing in the rest of 21st century American society, it just suggests they finally woke up and saw the world has shifted," he says.

UPDATE: On Wednesday, February 6, the Boy Scouts of America said it would postpone a decision until May.

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