UF grad who left Scouts over ban expresses hope for acceptance
Published: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 6:18 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 6:18 p.m.
The young men didn't want to leave Hawaii.
It was summer 2010, and Ian Williamson and his friends — all Boy Scout instructors — threw a party to celebrate the season's end in Waikiki. They were playing a drinking game called "Never Have I Ever," in which people take a drink if they've done something unusual.
The group asked if anyone had kissed another man — and Williamson, now 24, took a sip. His friends were shocked, but he said he was tired of keeping the secret.
"I didn't know how people would react," he said, "but it was a really positive reception. But then it sunk in. I said, ‘Oh crap, I can't be in the Scouts anymore.' "
Boy Scouts of America this week had been considering removing the ban on gay membership, according to published reports. The national executive board, which has more than 70 members, was expected to vote on the issue, but instead the organization on Wednesday announced that the decision would be delayed until May.
The Boy Scouts last month said the organization was considering removing the national sexual orientation restriction and leaving the decision to local chapters. Its willingness to reconsider marked a change from the stance it took last summer when it reconfirmed its current policy banning any openly gay individuals from participating in the Scouts.
Williamson, who started in scouting at age 11 and is an Eagle Scout, said the organization was instrumental in his upbringing and helped shape his career path. Also, he said, it helped him feel like part of something growing up.
"Any opportunity you can give a kid to fit in," he said, "you should do that."
If the organization were to change its policy and remove the ban on openly gay members, the decision would impact Scouts across America, including more than 5,000 Scouts in North Florida.
The North Florida Council of Boy Scouts covers 12 counties, including Alachua. It goes up to the Georgia line and across Live Oak and Lake City.
There are 5,244 active Scouts in the Council and about 1,729 volunteers. Of those, about 1,400 are Boy Scouts and 3,600 are Cub Scouts.
Jack Sears Jr., Scout executive and CEO of the North Florida Council, said in an email to The Sun that the area council would "continue to provide the best Scouting program to as many local youth as possible."
"This is an important and complex national issue; however, we cannot permit a policy debate to negatively impact the quality of the program we deliver to the Scouts themselves," Sears wrote.
Williamson, although currently banned from participating in the scouting program that helped shape his youth, openly praises the organization for the impact it had on his life.
Scouting taught him lots of useless skills and even more useful ones, he said. Williamson, who is from Plant City and graduated in 2010 from the University of Florida with an anthropology degree, is NRA-certified in pistols, rifles and archery. He's a calm and confident young man with a short haircut and glasses.
The camaraderie of the Scouts growing up gave him some of his favorite memories, he said. Friends he made are there for life, he said. After he grew up in the Scouts, at 18 he said he wanted to keep doing it. He wanted to pass on his experiences to a younger generation.
He signed up to travel to Alaska to work at a Boy Scouts camp there. The first time he ran a shooting camp, he stayed one lesson above his students. The work gave him a zeal for educating others, and he said he wants to become a teacher.
Though he loves the Scouts, he said he thinks the policy on gays is archaic. He points to the ending of the ban on gays in the military and its seamless transition.
"It's becoming a non-issue," he said.
Williamson said he has been asked to return to his job with the Scouts but was forced to say, "I can't; your membership policy prohibits me from taking a job."
Once, when he still worked with the Scouts, a group of disabled campers took his shooting course.
There were 40 of them, and it was one of the most stressful afternoons of his life.
"More than half of them didn't hit a target," he said, "but you could just see the sheer glee in their faces."
That's what scouting is, he said — being able to give people those types of experiences. Sure, it was hard, but he'll never forget it.
"Despite memberships issues," Williamson said. "I still think it's a phenomenal program."
Williamson said he wasn't shocked the Boy Scouts delayed the decision, given the wide array of people and opinions involved, although he said he'd hoped the Scouts would change the policy this week.
But it wasn't that long ago that the organization was adamant its opinion wouldn't be reversed, he said. He expressed concern this could have just been a public-relations move with no intent of actually considering a change, but he said he thinks the policy ultimately will be reversed in May to allow openly gay participants.
While the move might alienate some members or corporate sponsors, it also might attract many as well, he said. He expects the overall effect will balance out.
Although the Boy Scouts is considering ending its ban on openly gay members, there are still many people out there who feel reversing its decision would negatively impact the beloved organization.
Williamson called the idea "completely silly."
"I think it's a ridiculous argument to make that allowing gay people in will weaken the Scouts or will weaken any of their core values," he said. "There are lots of ways to be morally straight."
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