Being denied Eagle Scout status was the last straw in a gay teen’s battle with bullies. Meet the Moraga family that is fighting back against the Boy Scouts.
Courtesy of Peter Crooks
Sitting at the kitchen table in her Moraga home, Karen Andresen chokes back tears, as she discusses the unexpected battle she and her family have been fighting since October. Soft-spoken and reserved, Karen does not seem like the type to take on the Boy Scouts of America.
The scout organization suddenly denied her son Ryan his Eagle Pin—despite Ryan getting written administrative approval for the project and completing it before his 18th birthday. The reason the Andresens were given for the denial, in the 11th hour, was that Ryan is gay. After years of watching Ryan endure bullying and bigotry, Karen simply had to speak up about the unfair treatment of her son.
Two days after Ryan was denied scouting’s highest honor, Karen posted a petition titled “Boy Scouts: Don’t Let Your Antigay Policy Deny My Son his Eagle Award,” on the Change.org website.
“I had never even heard of Change.org,” says Karen, who was referred to the website by a representative from Scouts for Equality. “I was just so frustrated. Ryan’s scoutmaster had approved of the project all along and encouraged Ryan to stay in scouts until he got his Eagle.”
Karen simply wanted to make a statement against the Boy Scouts’ policy, but she unexpectedly sparked a fevered debate about the scout’s discrimination against gay teens. Her petition went viral, and was linked to countless Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. TV news trucks lined up outside the Andresens’ house, putting Karen and her family in the position of equal rights advocates, with a national profile. Although the Andresens find the spotlight uncomfortable, they aren’t about to give up now.
“This isn’t over,” Karen says. “They messed with the wrong mom.”
“Ryan was a very shy boy,” says Karen. “We encouraged him to try everything—baseball, lacrosse, outdoor hockey. But he did not like team sports. He was extremely shy in school and always sat in the back of the classroom, frightened to raise his hand.”
Ryan did, however, enjoy Cub Scouts, as well as hiking, camping, and other outdoor activities. During fifth grade, he graduated from Cub Scout to Boy Scout, and Karen and her husband, Eric, signed up their son for Troop 212, a Moraga scouting institution well-known for its advanced hiking and camping trips, and its community involvement. The troop is sponsored by the Moraga Valley Presbyterian Church.
Unfortunately, immediately after joining Troop 212, Ryan had a bad experience at the troop’s annual summer camp week at Bucks Lake in the Sierra foothills. Karen shudders at the recollection of a particularly cruel hazing ritual, called Name Night, which Ryan eventually told her and Eric about. “One year, the boys smeared ‘faggot’ in charcoal on his sweatshirt and made him wear it,” she says quietly.
Karen and Eric were unaware of the camp hazing at the time, but by eighth or ninth grade, Ryan’s anxiety about going back to camp was alarming.
“He would get so anxious about going; we could tell he was dreading it,” says Eric. “And then he started to explain about Name Night, and we started to realize how serious the [bullying] had become.”
“I wish I had known more about Troop 212 before I signed him up because I would have signed him up for a different troop,” says Karen. “But we are members of the church, and the troop had such a long history there. I thought it would be a good fit.”
Sadly, for Ryan and his parents, the bullying Ryan faced in Boy Scouts also occurred at his middle school as well as at Moraga Valley Presbyterian. “The same boys from scouts went to Joaquin Moraga and were also at church,” says Karen.
By the time Ryan went to Campolindo High, he felt like an outcast. He left the school after his sophomore year and transferred to a private high school in Berkeley. Tired of the bullying in scouts—and being told by former troop leaders to “stop being a girl” when he complained, Ryan says—he wanted to quit Boy Scouts altogether.
The Andresens addressed the issue with troop leaders, who made efforts to put a stop to the bullying at summer camp. At this point, Lafayette resident Rainer Del Valle, who did not respond to a request for an interview in e-mails and a letter sent by Diablo, had taken over duties as Troop 212’s scoutmaster. Eric Andresen became more involved as the troop’s committee chairman, working with Del Valle to plan the troop’s trips and activities.
“Ryan stuck with it because he was encouraged by his scoutmaster,” says Karen, shaking her head. “He wanted to quit, and Rainer told him to stay on the scouting path until he had earned his Eagle.”
Just after New Year’s, 2011, Ryan told his father he was gay. Ryan says that he had realized he was attracted to boys when he was in middle school, and by the summer of 2010, he had told a few friends. He was a little tentative telling his father initially.
“He floated it out there at first, saying, ‘I think I might be bisexual,’ ” Eric recalls. “And then, when we talked about it, he told me he was gay. And the thing that impressed me was how certain he was. He was only 16, but he knew.”
Ryan’s parents were surprised but accepting.
“I had never considered that I might have a gay son,” Karen explains. “It wasn’t a problem; it was just a surprise. It’s still something that’s new to me.”
“After the realization that your child is gay, you start to consider all the discrimination he will have to face,” Eric says.
As the family processed the announcement, Ryan decided to take a break from Troop 212. Eric broke the news to Ryan’s troop masters.
“I took Rainer Del Valle and [Troop 212’s scoutmaster emeritus] Tom McIntosh to lunch shortly after Ryan had come out. I told them that Ryan is gay. They offered no protest whatsoever,” says Eric, adding that Del Valle kept in touch with Ryan during his absence and encouraged him to stick with scouting.
Although some scouting councils have antidiscrimination policies, the Boy Scouts of America famously won a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2000 ruling that, as a private organization, it could keep gay adults and teens from participating as scoutmasters and scouts.
The Eagle Scout Project
By August 2012, Ryan was ready to start working on his Eagle Scout project and application, which needed to be completed before his 18th birthday in early October. Ryan decided to address bullying for his project and went back to his former middle school with the idea of building a Tolerance Wall, with the help of Joaquin Moraga students.
He spent about 30 hours communicating with the school’s principal and school district administrators, collecting supplies, and making posters to promote the project. Ryan took time off from high school to be at the middle school during lunch periods so students could create tiles. The students decorated their tiles with messages such as “Be True, Be You” and “Be Nice or Pay the Price.” After each session with the students, Ryan took the tiles home and varnished them. Once the tiles were ready, Ryan spent a weekend with his father, his Eagle Scout counselor, and a couple of friends installing the Tolerance Wall outside the art classroom at Joaquin Moraga.
“Nearly 300 kids participated in the project,” says Ryan, who raised $500 in donations to pay for the supplies. “They each designed a tile that had messages about bullying and respecting differences, then I put the tiles together. I’m so proud of how well it turned out.”
The Andresens said scoutmaster Rainer Del Valle had been excited about the project: He signed and approved the Tolerance Wall proposal on August 31. The application was also signed by local Eagle Project Coordinator Ed Isely and by Joan Danilson, principal of Joaquin Moraga Intermediate, who is a big fan of the project.
“I think it is pretty magical for Ryan to want to come back here and do a project about tolerance,” says Danilson. “I think Ryan’s wall will become an icon at our school. It’s going to be remembered forever.”
Ryan finished his Tolerance Wall project in late September and looked forward to receiving his badge.
On the last day of September, however, Rainer Del Valle arranged a meeting with Eric Andresen at Moraga Valley Presbyterian Church between Sunday morning services.
“I had no idea what the meeting was about,” says Eric. “Ryan was home putting the final touches on his Eagle Scout binder.”
At that short meeting, Del Valle and two former Troop 212 leaders told Eric that Ryan would not be approved for his Eagle Scout project because he is gay.
“I was in total shock. Absolute disbelief,” says Eric, who then broke the news to his son.
“I told Ryan that they had decided to exclude him from being an Eagle Scout,” says Eric, his eyes welling with tears at the memory. “He took it better than I did. He told me about learning about Martin Luther King Jr. marching for civil rights in school and that he could relate to that experience.”
An Emotional Debate
Just over a week after Karen Andresen’s petition went online, the Andresens received a letter from John Fenoglio, scout executive from the Mt. Diablo Silverado Council in Pleasant Hill. Fenoglio wrote, “Based upon your son Ryan Andresen having notified his Troop leadership and Eagle Scout counselor that he does not agree to scouting’s commitment and obligation of ‘duty to God’ and that he does not meet the membership standards of Boy Scouts of America, we are compelled to revoke his registration with the Boy Scouts of America immediately.” The Andresens say the “duty to God” clause is a mystery, as Ryan has never professed atheism. Diablo’s calls to Fenoglio were not returned.
Neither Ryan, nor Eric, nor Karen has received more information or communication from Del Valle, or anyone involved with Troop 212 or the Boy Scouts, they say. That’s not to say there has been no response. Karen’s petition drew more than 400,000 signatures, and the Andresens have received countless calls and e-mails of support. In October, Ryan and Karen appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’ and Anderson Cooper’s television shows.
Troop 234, another Boy Scout troop in Moraga, sent Ryan a letter of support. The letter read, “Your Eagle project is a truly positive reflection of your character and shows your dedication to scouting. Many of the members of our patrol leaders council and troop have signed your mother’s petition. Troop 234 has never, and will never, discriminate against anyone based on any factor. You are always welcome to attend our events and outings.”
The national Boy Scouts office has not been so welcoming. When the Andresens held a press conference outside the Mt. Diablo Silverado council offices in mid-October, the association provided reporters with a statement that read, “Ryan Andresen proactively notified his unit leadership and Eagle Scout Counselor that he does not subscribe to BSA’s ‘Declaration of Religious Principle’ and additionally does not meet scouting’s membership standard on sexual orientation.” Diablo’s calls to the national office for further comment were not returned.
In November, the Moraga Town Council issued a proclamation honoring Ryan’s antibullying efforts and thanking him for the Tolerance Wall. More than 30 state legislators, including Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, senate president pro tem Darrell Steinberg, speaker John Pérez, and assemblymember Nancy Skinner have offered support and recognition on Ryan’s behalf. U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer has voiced her support as well.
Considering that just a few years ago, Ryan was too shy to raise his hand in class, he was articulate and thoughtful in the spotlight of national television.
“We’re not any different; we’re not inadequate,” Ryan told Anderson Cooper, when asked what message he wants to share about why gay teens should be able to be in the Boy Scouts. “Boy Scouts is an amazing opportunity; I’m so blessed that I have gotten to go through it.”
Now, Ryan is balancing his time between senior year in high school, college applications, and his newfound passion for bringing awareness to youth bullying issues. Later this month, Ryan will be the keynote speaker during Respect All Differences week at Joaquin Moraga Intermediate.
The Andresens will continue to campaign for equality in the Boy Scouts and are hopeful that Ryan’s Eagle Scout challenge will prove a tipping point for boys in his position in the future. Time will tell, but the Boy Scouts recently lost funding from UPS and Intel, two of its major corporate sponsors, due to its exclusionary policies. January kicks off Friends of Scouting campaign, the largest local Boy Scouts fundraiser, and Ryan’s story will undoubtedly have an effect on donations, especially in Contra Costa County.
“Hopefully, we will see a change in the national policy within five years,” says Eric. “Our main objective is to continue to support Ryan, first and foremost. We will continue to let him know that we’re behind him all the way, and that we love him.”