On Thursday, the Boy Scouts of America will vote on a revision of their membership standards. Under the proposed standards, the Scouts will not deny membership to any boy on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone. The standards also affirm that “any sexual conduct, whether homosexual or heterosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting.”
As both a proud Eagle Scout and a celibate gay Christian, the vote, and the debate that has proceeded it, is personal.
Growing up, Scouting was an important part of my life. I was seven when I first joined a local homeschool Cub Scout pack and was an active member of that pack and the connected Boy Scout troop until I was 18. I have fond memories of monthly meetings, campouts, summer camp, Scouting for Food, and Eagle Projects. It provided my main source of friendships with boys my own age, and I’m proud to call several of my fellow scouts close friends even today.
The BSA has always been a place where boys become men. The mission of the Boy Scouts of America is “to prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Scout Law.” Through the many activities required of a scout, boys develop independence, life skills, leadership, and fellowship, which help them transition from adolescence into adulthood. This is an important mission, and the BSA plays an indispensable role in giving boys the tools they need to become active and capable men.
The culmination of every scout’s journey is a project where he is called on to provide a lasting benefit for his local community. However, the abilities necessary to complete this challenge do not emerge overnight—they are learned over the years through the completion of merit badges. While in Scouts, I developed skills like knot tying, swimming, first aid, navigation, CPR, personal management, and many others. Gaining experiences through leadership, camping, and service are also part of advancement.
As an older scout I began passing down knowledge and experience to younger scouts helping them advance through the lower ranks of the program. Organizing hikes and activities also brought me out of my shell, and I began to develop many skills that serve me as an adult.
In addition to skills and activities, Scouting develops character through challenges. We pushed vans out of the mud, we dealt with sprained ankles, dehydration, swamped canoes, torrential rain, lightning strikes, lost friends, bad food, smoky fires, freezing nights, sweltering humidity, and so on. These experiences and memories have left a mark on my life, and have equipped me both to become the man I am today and to work through adult challenges.
I only began to realize I was gay in my last few years as a scout. At that point, it was a secret that shamed me into silence. But later, after beginning college, I was able to talk with several of my old scout friends about my sexuality. All of them have been supportive and understanding. Even more importantly, I learned that they still would have been supportive had I found the courage to share sooner. The brotherhood and camaraderie that we formed in scouting would have provided an ideal opportunity to be more open, unlike many other peer settings.
As the BSA’s policy stands today, a merely “avowed” gay member, even if he holds to the BSA’s policy against all sexual conduct, could no longer be a scout. While I didn’t know about the policy at the time, if I had shared my struggle with homosexuality just a few years sooner, I could have been kicked out before I completed my Eagle Scout rank.
It saddens me that the current policy denies boys the opportunities and experiences I had as part of the Boy Scouts, simply because of unchosen sexual attractions. It also sets up a culture of fear and dishonesty, and encourages boys to remain silent or to lie about their sexuality. The average age of a boy coming out about his homosexuality is in the mid teens. This is the most crucially formative time of involvement in scouts and the current policy forces any questioning youth to choose between being honest or being a scout.
One mark of a Boy Scout is bravery. Talking with my friends about being gay was one of the bravest things I’ve ever done. To punish this by exclusion from scouting would have been the worst possible response. I am thankful for my 11 years in the Boy Scouts of America and hopeful that the BSA will make a place for other young men like me when they vote on Thursday.