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Robin Pfeifer distinctly remembers the date: Feb. 1, 2019. It was the day the Boy Scouts of America officially became Scouts BSA, and opened its ranks to both boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 17. Pfeifer joined that same day. They had been eager to be a part of the rebranded BSA since the organization announced it would allow girls’ troops back in 2017. In full support of the decision, their mother, Sonja Kueppers, founded a girls’ troop for Pfeifer to join: Troop 1123. Now they just needed an organization to charter them.
A chartering organization agrees to support a troop, sometimes financially, but not always. Importantly, the organization’s “objectives, mission, and methodologies” need to comply with BSA and follow scouting rules.
Kueppers initially asked Takoma Park Presbyterian Church, but the church declined. They already had a Girl Scout troop, church leaders said. Next on the list was Silver Spring’s Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, which agreed to charter Troop 1123 for a short time, but after a few months, Pfeifer says, the boys’ troop began organizing activities without the girls.
“We wanted it to be more together, especially because we have a lot of nonbinary scouts,” Pfeifer says. “We didn’t want it to be a whole separate thing where we have a girls’ troop and a boys’ troop and then the nonbinary people are like, ‘oh, we have to pick.’” So the search continued.
Later that year, the troop approached the Washington Ethical Society, an organization that Pfeifer’s family and other troop members were already part of, and it was a near perfect match—two entities seeking to carve out an alternative and more inclusive space in traditionally exclusive arenas.
But it took a little convincing.
Amanda Poppei, WES’s senior leader at the time, says BSA’s exclusionary history gave her pause. BSA had lifted bans on gay and transgender scouts and scout leaders within the past decade. The Ethical Society focuses on building a community for “individuals, youth, or adults who might not be able to find [one] in a traditional religious setting.” Poppei says this goal clearly intersects with WES’ Scouts BSA story now, but at the time, like much of WES’ congregation, she was dubious that the two organizations would be compatible.
“Things don’t change overnight,” Kueppers noted.
“Sonja saw the potential for a troop that could make a difference in scouting,” Poppei says. But “Scouts BSA had a history of boxes, of people being allowed in the box or not in the box.” WES’ self-described “nontheistic” and “humanistic congregation” didn’t align with this history.
Poppei remained skeptical but she ultimately decided to defer to the congregation. For several months Kueppers held open discussions at WES to explain her vision for Troop 1123, while leaving room for people to push back, ask questions, and express concerns.
WES member John Daken was a former Boy Scout himself. He remembers breaking ties with the Scouts in the 1990s when BSA became increasingly hostile to gay communities. Around that time, BSA made headlines for its expulsion of a gay Eagle Scout over his sexuality because, BSA argued, Scout law requires troop members to be “morally straight.”
Daken says Kueppers’ vision indicated that BSA was working to “shed an unfortunate history.” She presented the idea as “a movement for global peace and global understanding,” she says, and if the Ethical Society were a part of BSA’s historic decision to allow women, it could have a real impact.
“There’s a lot of queer people and a lot of neurodiversity in scouting,” Pfeifer says. “These people need the outdoor activity, and they’re able to find it in Scouts BSA. It’s one of the few nonacademic places where you can find success through rank advancement, working as a leader, and excelling, without being in school.”
Kueppers says some WES members were concerned about BSA’s exclusion of openly agnostic or atheistic members. Some felt the Ethical Society’s nontheistic principles contrasted with the Scouts’ pledge: “I will do my best to do my duty to God.”
Kueppers notes that BSA has an agreement with the Unitarian Universalist Association, of which WES is a part, that gives UUA-affiliated troops the ability to admit nonreligious members. She helped Poppei and the congregation become familiar with the UUA-BSA relationship and the work the Universalist Church had done to move BSA “in the direction of justice and equality,” Poppei says. “I think that made a huge difference.”
In November 2019, WES voted to charter Troop 1123. “There were folks who remained skeptical,” Poppei says, but the yearlong charter allowed WES an escape hatch if the congregation felt the troop didn’t match their values.
Troop 1123 became one of Scouts BSA’s inaugural, single-gender troops permitted under the new policy. The troop’s members were scouting novices adjusting to an institution that was itself in the midst of a major, contested transition.
From the outset, Pfeifer and Kueppers were integral to shaping Troop 1123. Pfeifer began overseeing troop operations as senior patrol leader. “At first, it was just kind of, ‘I don’t know who else will do this, so I guess I will,’” Pfeifer says. “I was kind of surprised that I was good at it. I never thought of myself as a leader, but in scouting I have been.”
Poppei wasn’t surprised to see Pfeifer excel in the role. “It’s consistent with who Robin is and who Robin was even when they were a little kid,” she says.
Pfeifer says Troop 1123 struggled to integrate themselves into the Ethical Society at first, especially as they navigated their entry into Scouts BSA as well. Even under the new Scouts BSA, all new members have to register as either male or female, including those who identify as nonbinary, something Troop 1123 chose to see as a formality rather than a guiding principle. Pfeifer notes that a lot of troop members began identifying as transgender or nonbinary only after joining Scouts, with one individual deciding to move to a local boys’ troop after transitioning. Pfeifer explains that scouting reflects the community you’re in and D.C. is fairly liberal, with leaders and scouts that are more accepting than other regions the troop has visited.
As the troop grew, so did its members from outside WES. Poppei says these were kids who might not have fully fit into the religious and gendered “boxes” that BSA had historically pushed on scouts. They were “kids I imagine might not have felt so comfortable in a traditional Scouts troop,” she says, but have “felt served by and empowered by this troop.”
“It was a major part of the conversation as to whether or not to sponsor the troop,” Poppei continues. “We were really working against the boxes and barriers the world puts up around us.”
In 2022, when Rev. KC Kvasnička-Slack took over for Poppei as senior leader, they were surprised to find an affiliated Scout troop. Slack associated BSA with religious principles that did not match individuals who “identify as they do,” referring to Troop 1123’s trans and nonbinary members.
“You have these queer and trans kids who want to learn to camp and want adventure experiences that, for so long, have been this secret, boy knowledge,” Slack says. The troop provides members with “a huge support system,” Slack explains, as it positions them in “a world that does not recognize [them] in [their] fullness, and asks: How can we navigate this?”
Troop 1123’s unique identity was central to Pfeifer’s experience. “I feel like I fit in there,” they say. Other scouting contexts have been less inviting. Pfeifer says BSA members don’t always ask for each other’s pronouns. So Pfeifer felt pressure to bring it up.
“I haven’t had that much practice,” Pfeifer says. “I’ve only identified as nonbinary for two or three years, but in general I’ve just become more comfortable and confident talking to people, and I think a big part of that is from scouting.”
Four years into WES and Troop 1123’s alliance, the relationship is still going strong. In March, Pfeifer spoke to the WES congregation about the various ways BSA ethics and WES values align and how the congregation has shaped the troop. They noted that some shared values between the two organizations make more sense than others. Scout law requires members to be “loyal, helpful, friendly,” for example. Those are traits familiar to WES members. But others, like “obedience,” don’t jibe quite as well.
WES might not seem like the most obedient group, Pfeifer acknowledged in their speech, drawing some knowing laughs from the congregation. “Sure we have leaders, but we don’t really emphasize obeying them,” they said. But obedience can also apply to community values, Pfeifer said, which WES prioritizes in the same way scouting does.
In October 2022, Pfeifer advanced to Eagle Scout, the highest rank of Scouts BSA. For their Eagle Scout project, they worked for five months with other troop members to repair and rebuild the Ethical Society’s outdoor space. WES saw the hard work Troop 1123 was doing, and current troop members say they’re now motivated to pursue an Eagle project of their own.
To become an Eagle Scout, a scout must appear before a board of review to present their project and showcase the work they have done, the lessons they have learned, and how these can be further applied in leadership. Maceo Thomas, the membership coordinator at WES, sat on Pfeifer’s board of review. Pfeifer’s answer to a question about how the Scout law of obedience applies to WES values sticks out in his mind. “They had an answer that demonstrated an understanding that even adults have not fully figured out,” Thomas says.
Pfeifer’s clearly impressed other members of the congregation as well. After Pfeifer’s speech in March, Slack says WES members approached them to say, “Wow, I did not want to vote for this but seeing what it has done for our youth, I’m so glad we did.”
Poppei agrees. While she did not initially understand Kueppers’ vision for Troop 1123, watching the troop members connect with the congregation and break open “Scouts BSA’s boxes” was well worth it. “I get this,” she says. “I get this vision.”