Should homosexuality disqualify someone from membership in an organization that promotes leadership, tolerance and integrity? Two Kensington brothers are willing to put that question to the test.
Lucien Tessier was in seventh grade when he figured out that he was gay, although he didn’t tell anyone until the middle of 10th grade at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. When he decided to come out, he did so to a couple of close friends at school.
“And high school being what it is, everybody knew by the next day,” Lucien, now 20, says. “Suddenly people I didn’t know knew me.”
That the news spread like wildfire isn’t surprising to anyone who has attended high school. But what happened next did amaze Lucien’s parents, Tracie Felker and Oliver Tessier of Kensington.
“By the next day, Lucien had 200 more friends on Facebook,” Oliver says. “Kids went out of their way to support him.”
At the time, Lucien was a Boy Scout, a member of an organization that explicitly bans gays. He’d joined Cub Scouts in 1998, when he was 5, and he was 7 when the Supreme Court ruled in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale that as a private organization the BSA had the right to set “membership standards.” (The landmark case was about former Eagle Scout James Dale, who was asked to leave his post as assistant scoutmaster of a New Jersey Scout troop after he stated that he was gay in a newspaper article about teen health.)
Tracie says she recalls thinking that the ruling was a shame, but back in 2000 it seemed remote from her day-to-day concerns: She and Oliver were the parents of two small boys (Lucien’s brother, Pascal, is four years younger), and they didn’t give much thought to their children’s eventual sexuality.
Lucien loved scouting. Early on, he decided that he wanted to become an Eagle Scout, which is scouting’s highest rank and involves earning at least 32 merit badges as well as organizing a large service project.
In sixth grade, he joined Boy Scout Troop 52, which is sponsored by All Saints Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase. Founded in 1913, Troop 52 is one of the oldest continuously running troops in the country, with a preponderance of professional leaders among the parents—including, in recent years, a head of the Federal Aviation Administration, a member of Congress, a Navy rear admiral, and a D.C. superior court judge. Nevertheless, according to Lucien’s former scoutmaster, Michael Hughes, parents are encouraged to step back and cede responsibility for running the troop to the boys themselves.
Fostering leadership is one of scouting’s primary goals, and in that regard, “Lucien was a standout,” Hughes says. The boy became a leader of his six- to eight-person patrol and helped to plan the troop’s monthly campouts at Seneca Creek State Park in Gaithersburg, which in winter took place even in sub-freezing weather.
“Lucien was very smart and could have burned through the badges very fast, but instead he focused on helping the younger scouts,” Hughes says. “He was at meetings every week, leading groups of kids on hikes on weekends.”
Oliver and Tracie had no idea that Lucien was gay before the evening he told them, after first telling his friends earlier that day. But both say the news, though surprising, wasn’t hard to accept. Nothing about their son—nor their warm relationship with him—changed as a result of his coming out.
“What I found difficult was the idea that I didn’t know,” Tracie says. “You think you know your children so well. You’ve watched them from the time they were born. You know what they like to eat, what their breathing sounds like when they’re getting sick. I thought I knew everything about [Lucien], and there was this huge part of his interior life that I was oblivious to. It was really humbling.”
“Not the last time we’d be humbled, by the way,” Oliver adds, laughing.
Lucien says he became aware of scouting’s ban on gays about the time he came out, but he didn’t see any reason to quit. His friends in the troop who went to B-CC with him knew that he was gay, “and if someone asked me directly, I would tell them. But I never advertised it or paraded it around,” he says. “It’s possible that the other parents and the scout leadership knew. But it was never discussed.”
Hughes says he didn’t know that Lucien was gay when he was in the troop, but if he had, “it wouldn’t have altered anything, because I wouldn’t have considered it disqualifying.” Service and kindness are two of the most important tenets in scouting, according to Hughes, “and Lucien showed these in abundance.”
Hughes, who teaches English at Alice Deal Middle School in the District, says the very values scouting embodies conflict with its anti-gay policy. “We teach tolerance and respect for others, even those you disagree with,” he says.
But Hughes, whose own son is an Eagle Scout, says scouting instills another value that makes walking away from the organization feel wrong. “This concept is very dear to us as Americans: You don’t shut down the system, but stay in to improve it. We don’t leave America when we don’t like what it does.”
For the Tessiers, the fact that the BSA didn’t accept homosexuality “didn’t make any difference in our general attitude towards scouting,” Tracie says. Oliver, a management consultant for nonprofits, has been a Life Scout—one rank below Eagle—since 1964; Tracie, in addition to working as a product manager for Oracle, has volunteered as a Cub Scout den mother, badge coordinator and scout committee chairwoman. “We were still devoted and involved,” she says.
When Lucien Came Out, Pascal was in sixth grade and a rookie in Troop 52. Like his brother, he enjoyed the outdoors. Both boys went on hundred-mile backpacking treks every summer, as well as on troop excursions to wilderness areas such as the Boundary Waters in Minnesota. Half of the Tessiers’ basement was given over to camping equipment.
By this time, the family had formed strong friendships with other families in the troop. If other parents knew that Lucien was gay, Tracie says, nobody ever brought it up with her.
In the end, they decided that “if the BSA wasn’t knocking on our door telling us to withdraw, and nobody in our troop was saying it, we saw no reason to get out.”
Lucien completed his service project, the restoration of a hillside at the Tregaron Estate, a century-old woodland park in the District, and underwent an interview with a panel of scoutmasters from other troops in preparation for receiving his Eagle badge. The subject of his sexual orientation did not come up, he says, and he became an Eagle Scout in June 2010.
Two months earlier, Pascal also had come out. For the Tessiers, the revelation that their younger son was gay caused less of a commotion than an overdue history project might in some households.
Pascal was in eighth grade at the time. He’d just acquired a boyfriend, news that reached his father via a convoluted parent-child grapevine. “I think we’d wondered [if Pascal was gay] a little bit,” Oliver concedes.
“I was going to tell you,” sighs Pascal, who’s now 16. “I just hadn’t yet.”
“Because we’re so scary as parents,” Oliver says jokingly.
But as easygoing as the Tessiers are, the corrosive aspect of what amounted to a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy was beginning to weigh on them as Pascal started working toward his Eagle badge.
“Why is it that a boy can be considered a perfectly fine participant at ages 7 to 11,” Tracie says, “but then when puberty hits and his sexual identity emerges, he is no longer a valuable scout?”
The Tessiers say that between the time Lucien and Pascal came out, American society seemed to evolve quickly. And with the repeal of the ban on gays in the U.S. military and the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland, Oliver says, “homosexuality has become much more mainstream. So as circumstances change, the BSA becomes more marginalized.”