Webb Athay has the Boy Scouts of America in his blood. Like his father and his grandfather, the Davidson County resident earned his Eagle Scout badge and became a troop leader and was involved with the Scouts for more than 33 years. But on Dec. 31 — the last day before the Scouts enacted the new national policy of no longer denying membership to openly gay youths — he walked away, taking his six sons with him.
He wanted to make sure they were all Eagle Scouts before the policy change, he says, "while being an Eagle Scout still means something." His youngest, 18, scraped under the wire, serving as a newly minted troop leader for just 10 days before the policy cutoff.
"I cannot condone or support the new policy. When they made that decision, I knew I was gonna get out," says Athay, 51, who formed the first chartered North Carolina chapter of Trail Life USA. Trail Life is a national organization "established on timeless values derived from the Bible" after the Boy Scouts passed the resolution to allow openly gay Scouts in May 2013. The organization held its first national leadership meeting in September 2013 and began holding local troop meetings this month. Athay, whose new troop meets in Davidson County, says Trail Life participants are comprised almost entirely of former Boy Scouts.
"The new youth policy is not about condoning homosexuality, or forcing chartered organizations to do the same," says Mark Turner, Mecklenburg County's Scout executive. He estimates that about 2 percent of Charlotte Boy Scout troops converted to Trail Life troops in response to the change. "This change allows Scouting to be more compassionate in its response to a young person who expresses a same-sex attraction by no longer calling for their automatic removal from the program." Scouting policy still prohibits any sexual conduct — homosexual or heterosexual — by youth of scouting age.
For Charlotte resident and Q-Notes editor Matt Comer, who was dismissed from his Winston-Salem Boy Scout troop at age 14 after coming out as gay, the policy change is a "tremendous step forward." Comer remembers being taken into a room alone by an adult troop member after he was mentioned in a local news article about the Gay-Straight Alliance he started at his high school.
"It was very intimidating," he says. "It was full of bigotry, to say the least." The troop leader used Biblical examples to tell Comer that homosexuality was "shameful and a sin. He was saying that everything I was, was wrong."
Charlotte's Trail Life chapter, which incorporated most former members of Boy Scout Troop 413, began meeting Jan. 7 at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews. It leans heavily on an anti-gay Biblical interpretation. Mike Ross, Christ Covenant's senior pastor and head of the Charlotte Trail Life chapter, wrote in a church statement that "The Bible never speaks approvingly or even neutrally about the gay lifestyle. The Church believes that the gay lifestyle is a self-destructive, degrading and diseased way of life that destroys the body and damns the soul."
Comer says Trail Life leaders have been open about the fact that they will encourage gay youths to seek conversion therapy — a "discriminatory and harmful" range of treatments aimed at changing an individual's sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. The American Psychological Association officially denounced conversion therapy in 1997, stating, "homosexuality is not a mental disorder."
Stances like Christ Covenant's, says Comer, "use the Bible as a cover for bigotry. People like this are using Biblical beliefs to justify discrimination."
Athay says he objected to the Boy Scouts' new policy for religious and moral reasons, "Trail Life caters very specifically to certain congregations in North Carolina," says Turner, the Scouts' Mecklenburg leader. Turner thinks local exodus from Boy Scout troops in favor of Trail Life is "not significant" and doesn't expect movement to increase.
The fledgling organization, which is open to boys in kindergarten through 12th grade, is trying to distinguish itself from the Scouts in other ways, apart from the anti-gay policy. "Trail Life is more manly and outdoorsy than Scouting and a little harder," says Athay, who cites more time spent in the field, outdoors and camping. "We don't want it to become urbanized." Though troop leaders must sign a statement of faith, Athay says Trail Life would welcome atheist or agnostic troops, adding, "if a member didn't have a church affiliation, we would be happy to help them find one of the churches that supports Trail Life." Athay's troop is sponsored by Open Door Baptist Church in Lexington.
Though the Boy Scouts of America's new policy is polarizing enough to have spawned the Trail Life splinter faction, it still "doesn't go far enough," says Comer. While openly gay boys are now free to participate in Scouting, that changes the day they turn 18.
The Scouts said in its official resolution that the organization does not "proactively inquire about sexual orientation of employees, volunteers, or members," but adult membership will still not be granted to individuals who are openly gay or "engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA."
Comer says this sends a negative message not only to would-be adult leaders, but to older Scouts approaching the age threshold. "This is essentially telling young men who have reached the achievement of Eagle Scout that once they turn 18, they're not good enough," he says.
Currently the only option for openly gay Scouts to remain involved with their troops after they become legal adults, according to Turner, is the Venturing Program. Venturing is a youth-development program open to boys and girls between the ages of 14 and 20 and does not share the Scouts' merit badge system. Openly gay Venturers who reapply as leaders or volunteers after turning 21 will be rejected under the current policy.
But the policy will continue to evolve, says Comer, not only because of continued external pressure from advocacy groups but because the troop parents and leaders who have shepherded openly gay Scouts up through the merit ranks "will not look them in the face when they turn 18 and tell them they have to leave. Through discourse, hearts and minds will change."
At the fringes, however, Trail Life leaders look to Scouting's past to steer their organization's future. "The Trail Life program is more like Scouting the way I remember it," says Athay. "We don't want a boy to sit there and explain his way into a merit badge, we want him to show, go and do."
Though Athay says Trail Life is offered as an alternative for those who reject the Boy Scouts' new policy on religious grounds, supporters of the policy say it transcends simple membership requirements. Turner emphasizes that the change was made for the sake of Scouts' security and safety, not to make a statement about sexual orientation, citing national BSA leader Wayne Brock's statement that "every baby boy is evidence that God is not yet discouraged with men. Every boy is an invitation for us to try again. And every boy deserves our best efforts. He can be any kind of boy ... and there is a place for him in Scouting."
"The Boy Scouts have shown a good-faith effort to include and ensure the safety of gay youth," says Comer, who says that he would still gladly be involved with Scouting if given the chance, despite being thrown out 13 years ago. "The same cannot be said for Trail Life."