ADVERTISEMENT

A local campaign is being waged to persuade the Boy Scouts of America to allow gay members, and an Eagle Scout is leading the effort.

Matthew Wilcott, a 29-year-old Town of Tonawanda resident, says it became a matter of conscience for him to take a public stand in trying to influence a vote set for next month to allow openly gay boys and adults to be part of the Boy Scout experience that benefited him since he started as a Cub Scout in Cheektowaga.

“Sexual orientation shouldn’t have any bearing. I have some friends who were Boy Scouts and were gay. It didn’t change my viewpoint on them in whether I wanted to work with them or go on a campout. Some told me they were gay, and some I didn’t know about until a couple years later,” Wilcott said Thursday.

Russell D. Etzenhouser IV, executive director of the Greater Niagara Frontier Council, which includes units in Erie and Niagara counties, said he is aware of Wilcott’s stance and respects him.

“He is someone who represents one side of the discussion, and I think he does it very well, and I certainly respect Matt as a member of our camp staff, and I appreciate his willingness to have a civil discussion,” Etzenhouser said.

A total of 391 people have registered their support with his online petition at change.org, part of a national effort to influence some 1,400 to 2,000 voting members of the Boy Scouts’ National Council. The vote is scheduled for May 23 at the annual meeting in Dallas.

Exactly what the resolution will state has not yet been determined, but it will be released April 23 for review. Scouting’s Executive Council, which normally handles policy questions, was originally scheduled to vote on allowing local sponsoring organizations of Scouting units to determine if homosexuals could participate in their Scout groups.

That was delayed in February after the proposed action raised intense debate from those for and against the change. Now members of the National Council, made up of representatives from local Boy Scout councils and committees across the country, will decide the issue at its annual May meeting.

Wilcott, employed as a teacher at Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart in Eggertsville, remains active in Scouting, working as summer camp program director at the Greater Niagara Frontier Council’s Camp Schoellkopf in Cowlesville. He stresses that his efforts to change the way Scouting treats gays are motivated from his personal beliefs.

Growing up in Scouting, he said, it had never occurred to him that the organization excluded gays, and it wasn’t until a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision barring homosexual Scout leaders that he began to consider the issue, reflecting on those he knew as a Boy Scout and summer camp workers who were not heterosexual like himself.

Then last year, when he learned of a young man in California whose Eagle Scout application had been rejected because he was gay, Wilcott said he decided to take a public position.

“What I’m trying to say is, I have workers and they do great things, and it has never dawned on me that either sexual orientation, gender or religion has ever hindered my opinion of them as a worker,” Wilcott said.

He began working at Camp Schoellkopf when he was 15 as a counselor-in-training and over the years advanced to his present post as second in command at the camp.

His experience as a teacher at different schools, he said, also instructed him on how difficult it can be for youngsters in coming to terms with their sexuality.

“As a teacher in schools and having seen young people struggle with being gay and trying to find a safe place to fit in, some of them have found the Boy Scouts as a safe place to fit in,” he said. “I don’t think it is right to deny them that opportunity or to take it away from them. A boy deciding to finally make that big moment in his life to come out and then to be denied membership is not right. They should be able to live openly, if they chose to, and be treated equally.”

After Scouting’s Executive Council delayed action, councils across the country began holding sessions with their local Scouting communities to obtain insight on how people felt. Wilcott said he attended one of three recent sessions and offered his opinion.

Executive Director Etzenhouser said of the three local meetings: “There is a large diversity of opinion. I wouldn’t categorize either way.”

The Greater Niagara Frontier Council, he said, will have four individuals eligible to vote in May and they are committed to representing the local Scouting community.

“We have gotten a lot of feedback. What they want to do is represent the sense of what our Scouting community in Western New York wants. They are very committed to that,” Etzenhouser said.

email: lmichel@buffnews.com