Boy Scout merit badges Credit: Douglas Muth/Flickr
Most people remember certain dates: their children’s birthdays, their wedding anniversary (one would hope).
For me, January 7, 1999, doesn’t mark any such occasions. But it’s one of the most significant dates in my life.
That’s the official date I earned the rank of Eagle Scout. I’m looking at it right now, in fact, enshrined on a plaque that has hung directly above my desk — wherever and however many thousands of miles it has moved — for 13 years.
I’ve been asked if I’ve ever considered taking down the plaque and sending it back to the Boy Scouts of America. It’s understandable for people to think that someone like me would look unfavorably on the BSA and the Eagle Scout award. I am, after all, technically barred from serving in or volunteering with the Boy Scouts.
I happen to be gay.
But the answer is an emphatic “No.” I have never considered renouncing the Eagle Scout rank as a sign of protest.
That's true even recently, as the organization has been in the headlines over the so-called "Perversion Files" it kept over several decades. The files contained names of leaders deemed ineligible due to alleged abuse of youth, but — as with Jerry Sandusky and Penn State or the Catholic Church — the many allegations went largely unreported to law enforcement.
The BSA was in the news again earlier this year over a rehashed issue — declining to overturn its ban on gay members and adult leaders.
Instances like these have left many people — including Eagle Scouts — understandably disgusted and fed up with the national organization's disconnect between the venerable Scout Law and the actions of high-up leaders. In a June 17th Daily Beast column, Naka Nathaniel explained why the BSA's actions led him to return his Eagle Scout award. And, heck, he’s not even gay. He even said that until the BSA reverses course on its controversial anti-gay policy, he wouldn’t want his son in Scouting.
I fall on the opposite side. Were I blessed with children, I’d absolutely encourage them to participate in the Boy Scouts. I’d even encourage a daughter of mine to participate in Venturing, the BSA’s co-ed program for 14- to 21-year-olds — despite the fact that my sexual orientation prevents me from volunteering or being otherwise involved as a parent.
Let me be clear: Those who criticize and condemn the BSA for its actions are right on many points, the most prominent of which is that the anti-gay policy should be overturned and that its leadership has failed to protect youth in the past. My fellow Eagles, who have renounced their award over the policy, are more than justified in showing their protest.
It’s just not an action I will take.
The BSA has come a long way since its founding in 1910, after it was transported from England, where Lord Robert Baden Powell started the program in 1907. The Boy Scouts of America took time to establish itself in the United States, and the organization had its share of power struggles and controversies 100 years ago. Today, those power struggles and controversies continue.
But aside from the struggle and controversy, there's a hugely positive aspect of the BSA that has endured as well. The foundation of the program is designed to develop young men (and women) into future leaders, outdoorsmen and good citizens in their communities, nation and world (yes, there are merit badges for those last three points). It is because of the Boy Scouts — and the prompting of national parks-loving parents in my troop — that I am an unabashed outdoor junkie.
More than a source of fun backpacking and camping though, the Boy Scouts helped me to develop countless skills and values that I carry with me today. I learned both self-reliance and teamwork (called the “patrol method”). I learned how to be a leader and role model for others inside and outside of the program; lessons I practiced on the literally thousands of youth I and my fellow camp staff taught over nine summers.
A large part of being a good role model lies in setting a positive example. Which is where my current stance on the Boy Scouts comes in. I know there are other gay Eagle Scouts out there. I’ve met them. Whether they choose to renounce their Eagle rank is up to them, but I won’t do so.
Youth — boys and girls, gay, straight and everything in between — need to know that there are adults out there who have gone through what they do as tweens and teenagers. If a young adult is struggling, it’s helpful to lead by example, to say “It’s OK. It really does improve. I’ve been there.”
With this latest controversy about the "Perversion Files," Eagle Scouts have an obligation to stand up and defend the beneficial program and goodness of Scouting, as well as to denounce the failed practices and institutional hubris that led to such gross nonfeasance in protecting children.
And if that message comes from a somewhat unlikely source — a gay Eagle Scout, for example — perhaps the message will be louder.
There are two people who have helped enhance a positive message in this realm: Zach Wahls and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, though to my knowledge neither is gay.
Wahls inadvertently made national news (and a subsequent book deal) last year when video of his impassioned testimony defending same-sex marriage before the Iowa House Judiciary Committee went viral online. The University of Iowa student made a point of saying he is an Eagle Scout when describing the good upbringing his two moms provided.
Secretary Gates, who served under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, is past president of the National Eagle Scout Association. He was also a key voice and leader in the push to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for the U.S. military. I don’t know his personal opinion on the Boy Scouts’ anti-gay policy, but the parallels between it and the military’s former policy are striking.
Wahls and Gates are two people with whom I’m honored to be associated as a fellow Eagle Scout.
Someone else comes to mind, too. Though I venture to guess we differ on many public policy questions, Hans Zeiger and I share a commonality. Zeiger was a young conservative commentator before being elected to the Washington state legislature. He authored the book Get Off My Honor (with a forward by Oliver North, no less) in which he outlined what he perceived as left-wing attacks on the Boy Scouts of America and, thus, his Eagle Scout award.
While I don’t think there’s an “assault on the Boy Scouts of America,” as his book’s subtitle purports, I do share the sentiment that his honor — the Eagle Scout rank — was well-deserved, something of which he should be very proud.
I, too, am a proud Eagle. And I’m not going to give back my award willingly. Rather, I will display it as I demand the BSA leadership show the kind of honor they demanded of me.
That honor is mine, dang it, and I earned it — on January 7, 1999.