Exclusive: Jennifer Tyrrell on Family, Life, and Equality After The Boy Scouts

By: Sunnivie Brydum
January 10 2013 3:21 PM

Jennifer Tyrrell wasn't thrilled when her son said he wanted to join the Tiger Cub Scouts, the youngest division of the Boy Scouts of America. She was familiar with the organization's ban on gay members, leaders, or parents, and as a mother raising four children with her longtime partner, Tyrrell worried that her son would be subjected to bullying, ostracization, and antigay rhetoric at the hands of fellow scouts, or even pack leadership.

Tyrrell surprised herself by falling in love with the scouting tradition. She became increasingly involved in her son's troop, first as a den mother, leading pack meetings, and eventually stepping up to the position of pack treasurer when the former treasurer abruptly resigned. 

That's when the trouble started. Tyrrell noticed large sums of money were missing from the pack's accounts, and started asking questions. That's when she got a call from BSA's national headquarters, saying it had been brought to leadership's attention that she was a lesbian, and as such was no longer eligible to volunteer her time to her son's pack. She was removed from her position, and despite national campaigns sparked by a Change.org petition, partnership with GLAAD and Zach Wahls' Scouts for Equality, Tyrrell has, to this day, not been reinstated.

For her ongoing, outspoken advocacy, Tyrrell garnered national headlines and, last month, was named one of Parent magazine's Parents of the Year.

SheWired caught up with Tyrrell to find out what her family's life looks life after scouting, how she's fighting to change the system, and how it felt to get national recognition simply for standing up for her family. 

SheWired: You were just recently named on of Parent magazine's "Parents of the Year." Congratulations! How did that feel? Were you ever expecting something like that?

Jennifer Tyrrell: No, I never expected it, but it was really welcome. The media attention's been dying away from [our story], so it's nice to have that honor, and to be honored publicly, because then people start to see the LGBT community in a more positive light, so I appreciate that a lot.

Why do you feel that scouting is important to kids? Or do you believe it is?

I do, actually. At first, I was very hesitant to sign him up — I knew of their policy. It was hard to tell a six-year-old 'No, you can't go do what your friends are doing,' so we went, we signed up. And what I found out is that I loved it, and it was great. Of course, at the Cub Scout level, they don't do a lot of the older boy stuff, but as far as my pack was concerned, I had my first-graders volunteering at the soup kitchen, serving meals to the homeless; we collected food for needy families in our area. We made cards for the people in the nursing homes. We did a lot of involvement in our community. I was trying to instill in the kids early on to give back to the community, and for me, that was the biggest part of scouting, was just teaching them to be good people in general.

I think scouting is actually a great program, and it has a lot of really good opportunities for kids, and that's why originally I was willing to overlook the policy, because nobody had a problem with it. 

Within the members of your troop, and within the immediate troop leadership, there wasn't any problem with you being an out lesbian, is that correct? 

Right, absolutely. There was never any problem. In fact, I had my local rally [after being ousted], and all the scouting parents were at the rally with me. They all spoke out publicly to the newspapers, all the media, they've sent emails asking to have me reinstated. [They've been] bery supportive. They didn't care that I was gay. It never really came up, and the kids of course don't know or care. So it was just a non-issue. 

And actually, my sexuality never came up until BSA brought it up. Then it became an issue. And then the parents, all of a sudden, had to start having the conversations with their kids that they didn't necessarily even know how to have. "Why isn't Jen here, why can't Jen come back?" So then the parents had to have this talk with their kids that probably didn't need to be had. 

Right — and that wouldn't have been the case if they had just let you continue what you were doing. And it was the national chapter that put the kibosh on your leadership, right? 

Yes. Of course, it's a national policy and local chapters are supposed to adhere to the national policy, but I find more frequently they're willing to overlook it, because there's such a need for volunteers that they're willing to overlook it to get people to volunteer because you really have to give up a lot of your time. So a lot of them are willing to overlook those things, and it's more of a 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' atmosphere. 

How much time on a weekly or monthly basis were you volunteering to your son's troop?

Oh my goodness… I would say it was the equivalent of another full-time job. You have lots of planning, preparation; each child has a file, you have to keep attendance records… There are trainings online that you have to actually pay for, and then attend. You're very devoted — you have to be. 

Wow. And it sounds like it was actually a pastor at the church where you were holding the scout meetings who eventually filed the complaint with BSA?

I don't know for certain, but I know that the pack treasurer stepped down, and they asked me to be the treasurer. I didn't really want to, but no one else would do it, so I agreed. And less than a week — before I even had full control of any of the accounts or anything — I started realizing that there was something not right. Things weren't balancing. So the financial record-keeping was horrible, so I started asking a lot of questions. I couldn't find money that was supposed to be there, and so apparently I kind of asked too many questions, and that's when I got the phone call saying, "Oh, somebody called the pastor of the church and told him that you were gay." He wouldn't have any way of knowing — he was never there, he was never present. I never even met him.

So do you feel that this was an act of retaliation?

Absolutely. But once it was brought to the attention at the national level, there was really no choice, I guess. 

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Tyrrell and George Takei, serving as Grand Marshalls of the 2012 Toledo Pride Parade

In light of your story, and the BSA doubling-down on their ban, we've seen some major corporate sponsors step away from the Boy Scouts. What is your feeling on these steps people are taking to try and show support, but that will also ultimately impact the funding the kids who are doing the scouting would receive?

It's a double-edged sword. I've struggled with this from the beginning. On one hand, it's what needs to happen, I guess, to open the eyes, per se, of the people a the national BSA. Because money is really the only thing they're going to listen to, I guess. Because clearly, there's been tons of reports, and doctors, saying this policy is damaging. The American Medical Association has previously stated that it's damaging to teach kids, first of all, that people that are LGBT are wrong, that they're in any way different. It leads into bullying, both on the part of kids that happen to be LGBT, or if they have parents that are. It sends the message that it's OK to treat people differently. There's just been so much scientific research that this is very detrimental to kids, and that hasn't been enough to change the policy. 

The problem is, [BSA is] saying that people like me aren't of moral standing, and that we're not good, moral citizens. And that's also refuted time and time again. So, they're not listening to reason, they're not listening to science, they're not listening to all the right reasons to do it. So I think money's going to be the ultimate mover in this, sadly. Because it's going to affect the kids, and that's tough. But I guess you just have to remember that it's not the people that are pulling their funding that's hurting the kids, it's the BSA that's insistent on keeping this policy… Ultimately, it's really the BSA's decision, and they need to go ahead and try to make the right one. 

Given that we have seen some increased media attention and pressure on BSA to change that policy, do you have any hope that they might actually have a little bit of movement on that?

I always have to have hope, of course. And I feel like it's inevitable. That's just the way society is finally evolving. So it's inevitable it's going to happen. I just hope that, for everyone's sake — the sake of institution, the sake of the kids — that it happens sooner rather than later, before they lose more funding. … Scouting attendance…[has] been dropping steadily over the years. I don't understand [why],  at a time when it seems that [BSA] would want to be encouraging more people, any people, and all people that are willing, to join, I don't understand why they're not. But it's going to either evolve with the rest of the country and the world, or it's going to fall to the wayside, unfortunately. 

How have you handled talking about this to your youngest sons, who don't have an understanding of why this is problematic? Have you been able to explain to them in a way that they feel is satisfactory, so that they can kind of understand what's happening?

Yeah, I feel like they understand to the best of their ability, at least. But they know we're not a typical family anyway, already. Fortunately they're not really too many issues with that, so they're pretty comfortable with themselves and they're comfortable with us. So we just tell them that not everybody in the world is as accepting as we are or as most people are, and that's what we're trying to change. We're trying to make it so that all kids can feel like they belong, and that's the best we can do at that age.

What comes next for you and your family?

We're continuing to work behind the scenes, not as much publicly. But GLAAD, of course, is always a big help, and Change.org, and Scouts for Equality, which was started by Zach Wahls, are all working behind the scenes and trying to come up with ways to persuade more people to state their public opinion about equality. We're going to keep fighting until it's resolved. So, hopefully, that'll be sooner rather than later.

I have a couple of speaking engagements planned, and …  I'm meeting with some political figures, just locally mostly, for me in Ohio, trying to work that angle, to get involved politically. Because we definitely want equality in the Boy Scouts, but ultimately we want equality in every aspect of our life. So I'm trying to be more involved and more aware and get people moving, and vote, so we can have all-around equality. 

I think with voices like yours leading that fight, I am optimistic about our future. 

[Laughs] You know, I always wondered why I had such a big mouth. Now I guess we've figured it out. 

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