By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — TOWN OF TONAWANDA — A local man who is leading a drive to persuade the Boy Scouts of America to allow gay members said he supports the organization’s proposal to partially alter its policy.
The proposition, which was released late last week, would allow for gay children to be part of the organization — but not gay adult leaders. The organization’s 1,400 National Council members will vote on the proposal at a meeting in Texas at the end of May.
“I support it because it is a step in the right direction,” Town of Tonawanda resident Matthew Wilcott said. “But make no mistake, the proposal is still discriminatory against adults. It tells them that they are not good enough role models and that they don’t stand up to the morals of the organization to lead the youth.”
Wilcott, 29, is a teacher the Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart and grew up as a Boy Scout in West Seneca. He is now an Eagle Scout, the highest rank in scouting, and serves as a counselor for the Greater Niagara Frontier Council’s Camp Schoellkopf over the summer.
Wilcott began his campaign after learning about a 17-year-old scout in California, Ryan Andersen, who completed all his work to become an Eagle Scout before the Boy Scouts kicked him out of the organization for being gay.
“At that last moment, he was denied his badge, even though all his masters had known he was openly gay,” Wilcott said. “That is ridiculous and not right. It became something I wrestled with morally.”
After hearing about Andersen’s story, Wilcott got involved with the Scouts for Equality organization and began an online petition at www.change.org to encourage the Greater Niagara Frontier Council to vote against the anti-gay policy. That petition now has 470 signatures.
The announcement of the organization’s proposal last week comes after almost a year of discussion. Last summer, the BSA reaffirmed its ban on gay scouts and scoutmasters after an internal review of the policy. But the organization was quickly criticized by activists, like Wilcott, who said the process was internal and secretive. Several sponsoring companies and other organizations that support the nonprofit have stopped donating — or threatened to stop giving to the Boy Scouts — over the policy
National leaders then relented and decided to release surveys to scouts and their parents to obtain feedback on the policy.
“It was a big step forward for them to actually step forward and ask for opinions,” Wilcott said. “It was nice because people on both sides of the issue were able to be heard.”
The Greater Niagara Frontier Council also actively sought to get feedback from local members through emails, letters and phone calls. The body also held three meetings to allow scouts and their families to express their opinions on the issue.
“Our charge is to represent the local consensus,” Russell Etzenhouser, scout executive for the Niagara council said. “We have received a very diverse set of opinions, and very passionate ideas on both sides. Some say we ... need to change this right away, while others say we should hold on strong to our core values and not give in to change. Finding a common ground is the challenge of the situation.”
In a statement released last week, the BSA said the survey results were also varied — with some supporting the change, and some strongly against it. But the majority of respondents agreed that youth should not be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation, according to the BSA.
Some church organizations and conservative groups expressed concern about allowing gay adults to be leaders in the organization, however, and the proposal reflects respondents’ opinions, the BSA said.
Wilcott is hoping the four local members who will vote in favor of the measure next month, despite the continuance of the ban on adult gay leaders.
“The policy can incur psychological damage to children who feel like they are not accepted,” he said. “This at least recognizes that everyone is different, and it will be historic if the organization reverts its policy — but more work has to be done.”Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000, ext. 4150