They hike and learn about nature as part of their “scouting experience.” Someday, they may earn patches for tree identification or community service. But do not confuse these youths, who meet about once a month in Belmont or nearby towns, for Boy Scouts.
They belong to Chapter 404 of Navigators USA, one of the groups around the country spurred into creation by the long and controversial debate over whether the Boy Scouts of America should include openly gay youth members and adult volunteers.
A year ago, the organization’s national board voted to accept a compromise: openly gay youths would be welcome, but not gay adults. Once an openly gay Boy Scout turns 18, officially he is no longer welcome.
Navigators formed, first in New York City, as a coed group that would welcome youths and adult leaders of “every race, creed, lifestyle, and ability.” Members promise to do their best “to create a world free of prejudice and ignorance.”
“I think that groups like the Navigators, it’s clear that they value the scouting experience while they also value inclusion in a very big way,” said Zach Wahls, executive director of Scouts for Equality, a national group formed in 2012 to reverse the organization’s ban on gay members and leaders.
In the years since the Boy Scouts began publicly debating whether to allow openly gay participants, new scouting groups with differing views on the issue have sprung up. Nationally, the Boy Scouts lost 6 percent of its members last year, 2 percentage points more than in the previous year.
Some who believe that homosexuality is wrong, often based on their religious beliefs, decided to leave after the vote to allow gay members. Others were frustrated that the organization agitated over allowing gay Scouts, and ultimately banned openly gay Scout leaders.
The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, condemned the Boy Scouts of America for allowing gay Scouts, but agreed to allow individual churches to decide whether to sponsor troops.
The local Navigators are sponsored by the First Church in Belmont, a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Some members who were concerned about the lack of inclusion in Boys Scouts decided to look into creating a chapter.
“We went through the religious education classes and got a tremendous level of interest,” said Gabrielle Garschina-Bobrow, one of its leaders.
Families are so busy that meeting once a month seems to work best, she said. On Mother’s Day, the group hiked an oceanside trail in Rockport.
John Stemberger, a lawyer in Orlando, put his practice on hold last year to oppose allowing gay youths or leaders in the Boy Scouts. After the vote to allow gay Scouts, he
helped create Trail Life USA. The group became official Jan.1, and there are 376 chartered troops in 44 states, including one in Rockland. Another 282 are in the process of registering, he said.
Stemberger said he was not worried about gay adult volunteers because Boy Scouts policy prevents an adult from spending time alone with a child.
“It was the boys I was concerned about,” he said. “Here they are, brimming with testosterone.”
However, he said, Trail Life USA, a Christian group, does not reject boys who are attracted to other boys.
“We would deal with that as a ministry issue,” he said. “We would deal with that as any other behavior that we would consider inappropriate. We wouldn’t push him away. We would try to win him over.”
Still, he said, the group would not “allow a boy to be openly loud and proud about that.”
Its membership standards state: “In terms of sexual identification and behavior, we affirm that any sexual activity outside the context of the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman is sinful before God, and therefore inconsistent with the values and principles of the program.”
Not everyone frustrated by the compromise left the Boy Scouts.
In Belmont, Kate Searle, a recent volunteer for Cub Scout Pack 384, decided that withdrawing her son from the organization would mean giving up and turning it over to those who agree gay adults should not be allowed as leaders. So she stayed, continuing her work with Scouts for Equality.
“I joined this movement because I wanted to provide my son with the scouting experience but wanted to change the movement from within,” she said. “Boy Scouts owns some of the finest outdoor spaces in the country, and there’s no reason to just abandon that.”
Searle paid her own expenses to go to Texas last year for the historic vote. She said she was grateful to witness the moment, though disappointed the board did not allow openly gay adults to serve as volunteers.
“They couldn’t muster up a majority for gay adults,” she said. “But I think they will in the future.”
Searle said it was a hard decision for her to stay in the Boy Scouts after the vote, though she believes the rules will continue to evolve. In the meantime, she is happy her son is getting the Scout experience.
Michael King, a children’s ministry leader at Mount Hope Christian Center in Burlington, hosts a Royal Rangers group for boys, an Assemblies of God program that has been around since 1962. Like Boy Scouts, the Royal Rangers earn badges and race in the Pinewood Derby.
Although the church believes only men and women should get married, its leaders do not tell children not to attend Boy Scouts.
“You still want to honor what the word of God says,” King said. “I don’t know if that necessarily means not being part of an association because of one thing that you disagree with.”
And, he added, “We definitely encourage kids to interact as much as they can with the community that they’re in. It’s better than being in front of the TV.”