WASHINGTON — The Boy Scouts of America is not a progressive group, and implementing change is tough.
The massive youth organization, based in Irving, Texas, is a highly decentralized mass of thousands of nonprofits — 70 percent of which are controlled by religious institutions.
And from 2010 to 2012, Rex Tillerson — Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state and the CEO of ExxonMobil — headed the Boy Scouts as a national push began to let openly gay boys join the group.
Tillerson wasn’t president of the organization in 2013, when the group finally allowed gays to participate, but he was “intimately involved” in the push, according to Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout who co-founded Scouts for Equality, a national campaign to end discrimination in the Boy Scouts.
“My understanding is that he saw the writing on the wall,” Wahls said. “He supported the policy change even though that changed the conservative culture. This is a guy who is able to write an eight-figure check for fun. He has a lot of institutional power within the Boy Scouts.”
Tillerson’s fellow Boy Scouts board member, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, recommended Tillerson to Trump for the defense chief job.
The Exxon CEO, an Eagle Scout who lives in Bartonville, north of Fort Worth, is a rock-ribbed conservative who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates over the years and leads a company accused of misleading the public on the effects of climate change. But he saw liberalizing Boy Scout membership policies as a way to save an organization in decline.
“You don’t get to be CEO without having a keen knack for trends and knowing which way the wind was blowing,” Wahls said. “Some were surprised in BSA, but to me it actually makes a lot of sense. Even though Exxon doesn’t have a perfect score on the corporate equality index, it does have a pretty good score. He’s certainly not a pioneer, but I wouldn’t see him as being reactionary on this issue.”
While gay scouts were admitted in 2013, it wasn’t until 2015, under Gates’ leadership, that the organization accepted gay leaders, though that was a change Tillerson helped to start. Gates served as the national president of Boy Scouts of America from 2014 to 2016 and his consulting firm does work for Exxon.
Tillerson “was very adamant that they allow gays to serve in the Boy Scouts,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, who follows Boy Scout developments and whose Fort Worth district ends about a half-mile from Boy Scout headquarters.
Catholic, Baptist and Mormon organizations, the three biggest sponsors of local scouting groups, derided the changes as being against their religious beliefs. In a compromise, individual scouting troops are still able to exclude adults if they choose — a concession that infuriated some liberal groups.
But the calibrated changes proved to be the right move, as religious organizations chose not to defect from Boy Scouts and membership has stabilized after years of decline.
“Changing something and getting everybody on board takes time,” Wahls said.
Social conservatives such as Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council blasted Trump’s pick of Tillerson largely over his advocacy for accepting gays in scouting but also for his company’s donations to Planned Parenthood.
Perkins said Tillerson “not only led the charge to open the Boy Scouts to gay troop leaders but whose company directly gives to Planned Parenthood is upsetting at best.”
The Boy Scouts of America declined to make an official available for comment, but in an email praised Tillerson for his leadership of the organization. He remains a member of the organization’s national executive board.
Tillerson, the email said, “was instrumental in leading the organization through an important period of growth and development, while upholding the long-standing traditions of character and good citizenship that are essential to Scouting’s mission.”
The Boy Scouts’ board has been filled with prominent business leaders over the years including Tillerson, Gates, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney and current AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson.
And on Jan. 20, Trump will also be a formal part of the organization.
“Donald Trump is not a Boy Scout, but as president of the U.S. he is going to be the honorary president of the Boy Scouts of America,” Wahls said.