Today, following a nationwide vote of 1,400 Scout leaders, the Boy Scouts of America decided to open up Scouting to boys who happened to be gay. In a way, this is a bit of news I’d been waiting to hear for more than 15 years.
Sometime during my sophomore year of high school, achieving the Eagle Scout rank became an extremely realistic expectation. I’d earned all of the required merit badges, and more. I’d already served as my troop’s Senior Patrol Leader (the highest-ranking youth position in any Boy Scout troop, and a democratically elected one), and I was a member of the Order of the Arrow (which is kind of like a cross between an Honor Society for Scouts and a particularly wholesome fraternity). All I needed to do to become an Eagle was to plan and lead my fellow Scouts in a suitably ambitious service project, and to pass a Board of Review (in which a Scout in line for advancement to any rank is grilled by a panel of adult troop leaders and parents, in order to assure he has the strength of character to deserve that higher rank). Neither task was anything to cough at, but for all intents and purposes, the growing pains were over, and all I needed to do to make Eagle was exercise a few familiar muscles a little harder.
Unfortunately, this was the mid-’90s, and another story was unfolding on the national stage for the BSA. Queerness was losing its stigma in American society, and to come out as queer while still in one’s teens became increasingly common. The BSA’s leadership came under pressure to determine whether openly gay boys would be allowed to participate in Scouting, and it determined they would not. The BSA, like a lot of national organizations, isn’t some monolithic entity — it’s organized into regional councils, which in turn are made up of several smaller districts. Some districts turned a blind eye to the official ruling barring gay kids from Scouting. Others didn’t. Word came down from a few older boys who had gone before an Eagle Board of Review (and from a relative who was a Scoutmaster, or the ranking adult leader in a troop) that our local district had added a question to the Board: “Should homosexuals be allowed in the Boy Scouts?;” and that the “correct” answer was “No.”
And I couldn’t fathom giving that answer. I believed gay kids should totally be allowed in the Boy Scouts. I knew gay kids who were Scouts, and it was no big thing. Any boy who could commit to being a good Scout, I thought, should be allowed in the Boy Scouts. I knew I could finish my Eagle Project, go before the Board of Review and, when the time came, lie about my beliefs where this one question came in. But to do so would contradict everything Scouting had taught me about quality of character.
I thought a lot in those days about the Scout Law: “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.” I can still rattle off the Scout Law any day or night of the week — every Scout memorizes it upon joining his troop, and it’s the code of character to which every good Scout aspires. And to my mind, banning anyone from an organization purely because of their sexual orientation broke nearly every aspect of the Scout Law. It betrayed the trust and loyalty friends have in friends and citizens have in fellow citizens, which is itself unhelpful, discourteous and unkind. It obeyed nothing but the most hateful and vitriolic voices in our society, an unclean capitulation that exhibited a lack of bravery. And as I was, at that point, feeling more reverence toward humanity in general than to any religious text or sectarian party line, discrimination didn’t feel at all reverent.
I loved Scouting, but I felt it was more important to be what I considered a good citizen, and my idea of good citizenship didn’t level with taking the highest honor of an organization that discriminated against people based on the traits with which they were born. So, I decided I would ride out this storm until it blew over. Obviously, it didn’t blow over in time. To qualify for Eagle, a Scout must complete his requirements by his 18th birthday. I aged out. A few of my friends did make it to Eagle. I don’t begrudge them that at all. I rationalized my decisions in a manner entirely consistent with my teenaged mind. They did the same with their decisions. We’re all adults now, and the Eagle Scouts I’m still in touch with are among the most honorable people I know. And, for the record, after I aged out, one of my fellow Scouts carried out the Eagle Project I’d conceived — the construction of a gazebo on the old green of our hometown of Bristol, CT, just like the one that had stood on the same spot in the early 1900s. The new gazebo is still there, and it looks great.
That said, I can’t underestimate how sad I felt to see the organization I loved take take a turn against what I knew was right, and how heartbreaking it was to forfeit the Eagle designation, for which I’d hungered since I was six years old. Scouting was the saving grace of my youth, particularly before I discovered “my tribe” of young bohemian weirdos at school and threw myself into playing music. I couldn’t wrap my mind around team sports. I was classified early on as a “nerd,” but I couldn’t keep up with the kids who were interested in science and much freer with their nerdiness. Middle school, where I was at the absolute bottom of the social pecking order, was a daily nightmare of proportions I won’t publicly describe. But every week, I’d come into my troop’s meeting, surrounded by kids from other schools who only knew me in the context of being a Scout, and I was welcomed and respected. Scouting brought me close to boys from other towns and cities for the first time. I started my first punk rock band with guys from my troop. The visceral pleasures of running around in the woods with your friends were undeniable. But Scouting made me a better and stronger person, too. It taught me how to build a fire, how to tie good knots, how to administer the Heimlich maneuver and CPR — and also how to quell disagreements, how to rally a group of people around a common cause, how to turn hard work into a good time for everyone.
Growing up, I never heard or saw very many signals that suggested, in any meaningful way, that queerness was wrong or bad, and I’m thankful for that. It wasn’t something that was discussed around the house at all. By the time I entered puberty, I figured that if I were somehow drawn to the quiet, mousy girl in the back of the classroom, it totally made sense that some men were attracted to other men and some women were attracted to other women, because, as I saw it, everyone had a “type,” and you don’t just pick and choose who your “type” is. But as I grew, I came to recognize this all wasn’t just a matter of “I’ll do my thing and you do your thing,” and that gay people weren’t allowed the same civil rights as hetero people. As a Scout, an American and a human being, I knew I needed to stand up wherever I could for the rights of everyone who lives in this society and takes part in it and cares about his or her fellow citizens and performs good works.
In general, the rights of all matter. But because of my bias, I suppose, I’ll be particularly vocal for the rights of all those who live according to the values Scouting taught me. And while the BSA hasn’t yet opened the door for worthy adult leaders who happen to be gay (and I hope it doesn’t take another 15 years for this to change), I’m glad those values will be shared now with kids who previously had been excluded.