SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Girl Scouts are opening a troop at a gay pride center in Salt Lake City that officials say will welcome transgender youth and children from LGBT families.
In an era where the Girl Scouts of the USA has struggled with declining membership and recruiting enough adult volunteers, the idea was conceived by a Utah staffer who helps create troops outside the typical scouting mold.
Though the national organization says it isn't the first to openly invite transgender youth, the new group is drawing attention in conservative Utah where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups have long struggled to find acceptance and were only recently given anti-discrimination protections.
"Girl Scouts is all about empowering girls to become leaders who make the world a better place," said Shari Solomon-Klebba, who has helped start troops at shelters and refugee centers. "Why not at the Pride Center?"
She went looking for leaders and found volunteer Olivia Cloe, a 39-year-old cardiac ultrasound technician whose grown son is gay. Cloe said that when she was a kid with a single parent, scouting helped her find friends even though she moved around a lot.
"It gave me somewhere safe to go. It gave me something productive to do," she said. Cloe also lives near the Utah Pride Center, and she said she wants to help create similar bonds inside and outside the LGBT community.
The new Utah troop had its first meeting Monday with five girls ages 7 to 11. They made friendship bracelets, learned the Girl Scout handshake and sang songs. Salt Lake City mother Sarah Hemmert said she brought her two daughters because her family includes members who don't conform to the gender they were born with, and she wants her girls to be in a place where their family dynamic is accepted.
"They loved it. They had a great time, and they want to go back," she said.
Though there aren't any transgender members of the group now, Utah Pride Center Director Sheila Raboy said that she expects some to join. It'll also help LGBT parents who want to help their kids with scouting, she said.
"These girls will be able to enjoy the Girl Scouts the way girls who are from regular, heterosexual families are able to enjoy it," she said.
Raboy said she's planning to reach out to the Boy Scouts as well in the coming months. Utah has a robust history of involvement with the Boy Scouts, which in 2013 started accepting gay scouts but continues to bar openly gay adult leaders. The Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is the organization's biggest sponsor, supported that decision.
There are no prohibitions on LGBT leaders in the Girl Scouts of the USA, Director of Communications Joshua Ackley said in an email message. Any adults can volunteer, though all are vetted and undergo a background check.
The Girl Scouts consider diversity one of their core values, and in an era when the rest of the country was segregated the organization welcomed scouts of all races, Ackley said.
Nationally, transgender kids recognized as girls by their families and communities can join the Girl Scouts, though requests are handled individually, he said. It's not clear how many troops are affiliated with LGBT-pride groups because the national organization doesn't track that information, Ackley said.