These three lines of defiance, written in December 1991, were all that it took to propel Dr. Michael Cahn and Boy Scout Troop 260 of San Jose, Calif., to the center of a national controversy.
These words, written more than 20 years ago, can be seen as the start to an enormous shift in Boy Scouts policy, which may be coming to a head in the next few weeks.
At the time, being the first troop to openly push back against the Boy Scouts' antigay policies didn’t go unnoticed. “I got a lot of hate mail,” says Cahn, who is now 81. “But I didn’t mind that.” People would write, 'Go away you goddamned faggot.… You guys don’t belong in scouting.' And I laughed at that.” Or others claimed it was a Jewish conspiracy, since he was (and still is) very active in the local synagogue. However, none of these insults came to bother him. “I’m like an egg: You boil me, I get harder.”
These days, Cahn is a decidedly unretired physician who still does things like lead ski trips to Lake Tahoe, attend weekly troop meetings, and work 30 hours a week at his medical practice. “Have you ever seen an 81-year old ski?” he jokes. This guy clearly doesn’t quit. And that’s why, two decades after almost being cast out from the Boy Scouts for approving the lines above, he’s still at it. Soon, it seems, his persistence will be vindicated. The Boy Scouts are now poised to enact the very type of policy that almost made Cahn a pariah. Although he’s remained quiet since then, he’s never backed down from his beliefs.
Gay-rights initiatives, especially considering the recent changes in some very “American” institutions, are only gaining momentum. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy was repealed last year. In the November election voters approved gay marriage in four states. President Obama referenced the Stonewall riots New York City in his second Inaugural Address, and said, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.”
And most recently, the Boy Scouts of America leaked that it may allow individual troops to decide if gay members are welcome. This would be a complete turnaround for the organization that has consistently defended (reaffirming as recently as July) its practice of barring gay or atheist members from its ranks.
I thought I could make something happen, I could help make it happen. I could influence grassroots.
Just 13 years ago, in 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts of America was allowed to discriminate based on faith and sexuality. “Forcing a group to accept certain members may impair the ability of the group to express those views, and only those views, it intends to express,” the Court stated. But since then, the organization has not fared as well in the court of public opinion. In the past year, former members have been returning Eagle Scout badges en masse. Liberal religious institutions have stopped sponsoring scout meetings. Like Chick-fil-A, the Boy Scouts have become linked to a larger political idea.
If the Scouts are heading to a tipping point, perhaps it can be traced back in part to a meeting in 1992 in Christ the Good Shepherd Church (a liberal church adorned with a rainbow fish emblem), when Cahn’s son Mark proposed to the Troop 260 council a proclamation of nondiscrimination. Though the proposal didn’t arise because of any particular member’s sexual orientation, “by having a policy in place,” the older Cahn says, they wanted to make it clear “this is not a decision we will have to make on basis on someone who we know and like.”
Mark, who was a science teacher in a local high school at the time and served on the troop advisory committee, says his intentions of proposing the statement were informed by the antigay bullying he saw at work.
“As a teacher, I saw the effects of what happened to gay children at school who either came out and then had to deal with—they were treated terribly, actually,” he says. “They were bullied and teased and sometimes much, much worse…. This was just wrongheaded all the way around.” He wanted the Scouts to be a place where none of that mattered.
The measure passed unanimously through the Scout council, and they sent a note to the scouts’ families. For several weeks, no one outside of the troop really noticed. But when a local politician caught on to the story and brought it to the attention of a San Jose Mercury News reporter, the story quickly flowed along the national newswires, and then to The New York Times.
Mark Cahn (left) witb his father Michael. "The first obligation is you have to do what’s right," Michael Cahn says. "Then whatever consequences come along, you have to deal with that."(Courtesy of Mark Cahn)
That’s when the national Boy Scouts organization took notice, and threatened to not renew the troop's charter when it expired in February 1992.
“We can't let some little troop go off on its own and make its own rules,” a Boy Scouts spokesperson told reporters.
But Cahn stood his ground, saying at the time, “We feel that if you see something that's wrong and you ignore it, then you're part of the problem.”
Cahn’s persistence paid off. In the end the Boy Scouts decided that since the troop did not specifically recruit or let a gay member into the troop, they did not technically break any rules. By the end of February, Troop 260’s charter was renewed. “They do not have any gays and have agreed not to seek any gays,” a Boy Scouts spokesperson explained. But he made it clear: “If they have gays, they cannot be members of the Boy Scouts America.”
But other scouts who have been vocal haven’t always been given a pass. Dave Rice, a former scout associated with Scouting for All, a nonprofit dedicated to promote gay inclusion in the Boy Scouts, was sent this letter from the organization for being too outspoken about his beliefs:
Cahn has also been involved with Scouting for All, serving on its national advisory board, but is careful where he lets his opinions be known. He never talks about it with the troop, for instance. “They know where I am on it because their parents have told them,” he says.
So why did the Cahns stay in an organization that went against their beliefs? Some might say he and his son are hypocrites. But they say they stayed because they actually did believe in the Scouts, more than the antigay policy could push them away.
“I thought I could make something happen, I could help make it happen. I could influence grassroots,” the older Cahn says. “I didn’t do what I did because I wanted people to throw verbal rocks at me. I did it because I thought it was right. And I stuck with this thing because again I thought that was the way to do it. “
While Cahn says he’s felt vindicated all along, he feels the possibly of lifting the ban to be an indication that the organization can grow stronger while shedding some of its political baggage.
“I’m 81 years old, man, the odds were not in my favor,” he said of seeing a change in policy. “But the fact that you’re not going to see change doesn’t mean you can’t fight for it.”