The BSA's National Council voted at last year's annual meeting to accept openly gay youth, after a monthslong process with protests on both sides. Gates planned to tell Scouting's leaders Friday that a continued fight over the issue threatens BSA's future.
"Given the strong feelings the passion involved on both sides of this matter, I believe strongly that to re-open the membership issue or try to take last year's decision to the next step would irreparably fracture and perhaps even provoke a formal, permanent split in this movement with the high likelihood neither side would subsequently survive on its own," Gates said in prepared remarks.
Gates, 70, who also served as director of the CIA, is a visible advocate for Scouting as it faces a storm of bad publicity.
The Scouts reached out to Gates as he was retiring from the Defense Department and asked him to join their leadership, said Wayne Perry, the departing BSA president. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, who was expected to become president this year, agreed to wait another two years to allow Gates to serve now, Perry said.
"We need America to know what the Boy Scouts can do for the youth of America," Perry said, adding that Gates "immediately can reach an audience that we wouldn't otherwise reach."
Gates earned his Eagle Scout award as a 15-year-old growing up in Wichita, Kansas. He has long credited that achievement for giving him the confidence to excel in nearly five decades of public service, and he stayed involved in Scouting during his career. He has recalled skeet-shooting with young Scouts while he was director of the CIA.
Along the way, Gates became known as someone willing to speak frankly about problems in the institutions he led, often at the risk of offending others. Gates warned BSA's leaders Friday that "maybe it's time for blunt talk."
Over the last decade, the Scouts have faced small, but consistent declines in membership. Also, high-profile sponsors and corporate donors, including Disney and Lockheed Martin, have cut funding over the exclusion of openly gay adults. Meanwhile, a handful of conservatives who opposed the inclusion of openly gay boys started their own organization, Trail Life USA.
Gates told the AP that he wanted to move the Scouts past that debate and focus on what unites the membership. He said he would push for a heavier focus on local marketing and sharing positive stories about Scouting efforts that are sometimes drowned out by debates over gay rights or child abuse lawsuits filed against the Scouts in several states.
He said he would emphasize to sponsors that "welcoming gay youth is an important step forward."
Gates led the Defense Department when it phased out the ban on openly gay soldiers known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," something gay-rights groups have cited as a hopeful sign for them. But Gates said Friday that the Scouts were different from the CIA or the military, where "I could give an order and people would follow it, at least most of the time." In an organization driven almost entirely by volunteers, officials have to respect differences in opinion, he said.
"The key at this point is to keep focus, again, on the top priority, which is, how do we develop the best possible program for kids, and how do we keep their interests at the forefront?" Gates said.