Change is coming quickly to the Boy Scouts of America after years of turmoil and debate over its membership policy, with an openly gay 17-year-old in Maryland achieving the highest rank of Eagle Scout.
On Monday night, Boy Scout Troop 52, one of the nation's oldest, formed a circle and gave Pascal Tessier sustained applause and some handshakes and pats on the back. His achievement comes just weeks after the organization lifted its ban on gay youth.
Scoutmaster Don Beckham walked to the middle of the Scout circle after a series of announcements about supplies for the next campout and announced the 17-year-old Tessier was officially the troop's newest Eagle. For Tessier, it represents six years of work, 27 merit badges and projects in service, leadership and outdoor skills. He put all that at risk, though, to advocate publicly against the Scouts ban on gays.
"A Scout is brave,'' Beckham told the troop, quoting from the Boy Scout Law after presenting Tessier his Eagle badge.
"To be a leader, there are going to be situations where you are going to have to stand up for what you believe is right,'' Beckham said. "You may be asked to make personal sacrifices, to potentially give up your dreams because you are helping to make something happen that is important for a lot of other people. ... And when it's a principle that you believe in, use your Scout training and stand up for what is right because a Scout is brave.''
Tessier's mom, Tracie Felker, looked on with other parents and said it was "a new era.'' The fight over the Boy Scouts' membership policy has persisted for decades, including a Supreme Court decision in 2000.
For more than a year, Tessier, who lives in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Kensington, has been one of the most prominent openly gay scouts speaking out to change the Scouts' longstanding ban. After a vote last year, the organization of 2.5 million youth members officially opened its doors to include all boys, regardless of sexual orientation. A ban on gay adult leaders remains in place.
While there is no official tracking of gay members, Tessier is likely the nation's first openly gay Eagle under the new policy, according to the advocacy group Scouts for Equality.
For Tessier, it's "a huge sigh of relief'' to finally have his Eagle badge approved by the Scouts' national headquarters in Irving, Texas.
"Even if I had been kicked out along the way, I wouldn't have changed anything,'' he said. "The whole experience was something worth having, not only for myself but also for all the other people involved - and for all the people it affects.''
Even though he had a supportive troop with its own all-inclusive policy, Tessier said he wanted to speak out about the Boy Scouts' national policy after seeing other gay scouts or leaders kicked out or denied the Eagle rank in recent years, including the high profile case of Ryan Andresen, a California teen. Despite the success in changing the Scouts' policy, Tessier said he plans to continue advocating.
After a vote last year, the policy changed Jan. 1 to include all boys, regardless of sexual orientation.
In a Dec. 2013 interview with NBC4, Tessier called the policy change bittersweet. Once he turns 18, he can no longer participate in scouting activities as an openly gay man. He told News4's Chris Gordon that he will continue to fight for equality.
"I want to see adults be able to say, 'I am openly gay and want to teach them how to become leaders'," he said.
"On my 18th birthday, I'm planning on applying to be an adult leader for the Boy Scouts so that we push the issue,'' he said.
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Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout who has gay parents and formed the group Scouts for Equality, compared Tessier's experience with University of Missouri football player Michael Sam, who came out publicly before the NFL draft.
"This is about showing people that you can be honest about who you are and setting that example and showing that's OK,'' he said. "That's what Pascal is doing.''
Since 1912, more than 2 million Scouts have earned the rank of Eagle. About 55,000 boys earn the honor each year.
Boy Scouts spokesman Deron Smith said the organization remains focused on delivering a premiere program focused on character development and values-based leadership. There's been no mass exodus of members, as some opponents of the policy change predicted last year.
"The BSA has never inquired about the sexual preference of its members, employees or volunteers,'' he said. "We believe every child deserves the opportunity to be a part of the Scouting experience, and our policies allow kids who sincerely want to be a part of Scouting to experience this life-changing program, while remaining true to the long-standing virtues of the Boy Scouts of America.''