Friday, May 16, 2008

Should I Turn in my Eagle Scout Badge?

Yesterday I got a little postcard in the mail that stirred up surprising emotions for me.

It was a postcard from the National Eagle Scout Association. At the top of the card it said, "Dear Eagle Scout John D. Wrathall," my old name. My pre-marriage name. (Göran and I gave each other the name "Gustav-Wrathall" at our wedding ceremony in 1995.)

The card informed me that the NESA was compiling an "Eagle Scout Roll of Honor," and I should call a certain 800 number to ensure the accuracy of my record.

Of course, the Boy Scouts of America has a policy that excludes "avowed homosexuals" from its ranks -- both leaders and scouts.

At the time that I was coming to terms with my gayness, it occasionally occurred to me that my being gay might be considered incompatible with my being an Eagle Scout. But at the time, I had other things to do than sort all that out. I guess in practice I've lived a sort of "Don't ask, don't tell" policy with the scouts. I sort of figured if somebody in the scouting organization knew that I was gay, they might strip me of my rank. But I didn't feel the need to draw attention to the fact.

There was a time when I felt great anger about the BSA policy. But I no longer harbor any ill feelings against the BSA. In my ward, when I've been asked if I would contribute financially to scouting, I have gladly opened my wallet. I am proud of the fact that I achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. I am grateful for the skills I learned through scouting, the most important of which, I think, was learning to relate to other young men and boys in a mature, nurturing way. Becoming an Eagle Scout was a kind of rite of passage for me. It was also closely identified in my mind with family and Church -- both of which have assumed increasing importance to me the older I get.

It is not with any pleasure that I consider the possibility of severing ties with the Boy Scouts. In a way, scouting helped impress upon me the importance of virtues like honesty, integrity, and respect for sexuality, all of which were key values in my coming out process, and in my decision to enter into a committed relationship and to seek to honor that relationship.

Nevertheless, by means of this little postcard, I am being asked to stand up and be counted. I'm not sure I ought to live with "Don't ask, don't tell" any more.

In typical fashion, the postcard asks us to respond within seven days. You're either an Eagle Scout, and proud of that fact, or you're not.

I feel I ought to write a letter to the Boy Scouts of America, telling them what scouting means to me, and what a struggle it was to come to terms with being gay, and what it has meant to me to accept my sexuality, and to seek to build a positive life based on love and commitment to my partner. I also feel I ought, in light of the BSA's current policy on gays, to resign and turn in my badge. But I feel a great sadness about that.

But is it a grandiose and meaningless gesture? Will anyone care? Or is taking care of this piece of unfinished business the best way that I can live the scout law to be "trustworthy" and honest?


Abelard Enigma said...

Personally, I think you have reason to be proud of your Eagle rank. It is the result of a lot of hard work and dedication. The fact that the organization who issued it now has a "no gays allowed" policy doesn't diminish the amount of hard work and dedication you put into earning that rank.

Writing a letter and resigning your rank might give you momentary emotional satisfaction - but will largely be a meaningless gesture in the long run as it would likely be opened and read by a secretary who has no power nor authority to do anything about it.

Perhaps supporting an organization, like Scouting for All, might be a more meaningful way to protest current BSA discrimination policies. You can send your Eagle badge and other scouting awards to them. They will hold it in trust for you until the day if/when the BSA ends their discriminatory policies. They can also include your name on a growing list of others who have done the same.

J G-W said...

Abelard - Actually, resigning my rank would give me no emotional satisfaction whatsoever (though at one point it probably would have, when I was still very angry at the BSA). Fortunately, inertia kept me from resigning back then when it might indeed have been a meaningless gesture.

Now for me, it is more a question of integrity. I'm not sure how I feel about retaining my Eagle rank just by default. I am not ashamed of my participation in scouting, and I am not ashamed of the person I have become. But if the BSA has a "no gays allowed" policy, doesn't that mean they should take away my rank and take me off their lists?

Maybe for me it's less a question of resigning than of bringing the organization's attention to the fact that I am gay, and then letting them do what they will with that information. But as you say, who in the organization really cares? In a large sense since I am basically a scouting "alum," and not actively involved as a leader or participant, it could be a moot point.

Still, it has emotional significance to me, and it feels like something I want some resolution or closure on.

Thanks for bringing my attention to Scouting for All. I will definitely check that out. Perhaps they can help me to do something that feels meaningful and gives me the closure I desire.

Todd said...

I received that same postcard recently as well. I'm a gay Eagle from a non-LDS background, and my feelings are conflicted. Given the binary options of doing nothing or interacting with a robot on the telephone, I've done nothing. I doubt the automated telephone system will say, "Press 3 to confirm your name, address, homosexuality, and dissatisfaction with the BSA's homophobia."

About eight years ago I participated in a Scouting for All protest outside of the BSA office in Kennewick, Washington, shortly after the Dale decision, affirming the BSA's constitutional right to exclude gays, came down. We were all surprised how many drivers in that conservative corner of America honked and waved positively at us, though I suspected a few read the signs incorrectly! We generated some local media coverage, and hopefully raised awareness. Only one driver pulled over and started arguing, and even he was relatively civil.

What is most galling about the ban on gay scouts and leaders is the rationale proffered that the policy is aimed to prevent child molestation! The conflation of homosexuality with pedophilia is retrograde in the worst way, and openly gay men are probably the least likely leaders to molest boys, because we know so many people still hold this prejudiced assumption about us. Most all of the scoutmasters who have molested boys have no doubt been quite closeted, married to women, etc.

The anti-gay policy also exposes the BSA's pretense that it is non-denominational. As more and more religions accept open, active gay people as members and leaders, it is clear that the BSA's policy is rooted in a specific religious point of view. Sadly, the BSA appears to have become the exclusive domain of socially conservative religious people. I suspect this is because these socially conservative religions (particularly the LDS Church but also Catholics and others) sponsor a majority of troops and thus enshrine their anti-gay theology as BSA policy.

My own troop was wonderfully diverse, with Jews, Buddhists, Christians of most stripes (except LDS folks who had their own troop), and some nonreligious people, who had to engage in a bit of "ceremonial deism" at boards of review and the like. I fear these types of troops will decline, as more liberal minded parents keep their boys out of the Boy Scouts because of its discriminatory practices.

I was not out of the closet when I was a scout, but my troop was never particularly homophobic. In fact, I know of at least two other now openly gay members of my old troop, one of whom is also an Eagle Scout. Certain aspects of scouting seem a bit hokey in retrospect, but the basic mission of teaching leadership and instilling a love of the outdoors was a positive influence in my life.

Thanks for your post. You are not the only frustrated gay Eagle Scout out there who received the mailer. If I can manage to find an address to send it, I will join you in writing a letter expressing my displeasure.

p.s., I have since received two or three more mailers, after ignoring the first one, so don't worry about the "7 day deadline."

Eleanor's Papa said...

The BSA issue was front and center during the years that I was a gay rights lawyer. But I could see Dale coming -- the constitution _should_ protect private associations who chose to limit the membership in accordance with their actual mission. The problem was that BSA was trying to have their cake and eat it too -- insist that they could descriminate, but also demand that schools and other government agencies operate troups and give them special breaks. It was my suit against the City of Chicago that caused BSA to open up the Explorer program to all. And all the BSA lawsuits forced them out of the closet to finally admit that homophobia is a core value.

In recent years I've heard BSA spokesmen complain that although they "won" Dale, it feels like they lost. Discrimination shouldn't be appeased or ignored, and should not be sponsored with my tax dollars.

Beck said...

I'm an eagle scout and received no such invitation. So, what's up with that?

I guess I'm the closeted married guy who's been a scout leader for years... That must make me a potential molester that they're really looking for, right? :)

John, I agree with Abelard that you earned it and it was along time ago and you received the good that came with it. As much as you may want to reach closure, I think it was closed a long time ago and you're not being dishonest or less trustworthy for recognizing that was part of who you were at the time you participated in the program.

J G-W said...

Todd, Beck: Thanks for the thoughts and support. Maybe the most meaningful thing I can do is get connected to Scouting for All. That seems constructive as opposed to the merely negative gesture of sending in a resignation letter.

E's Papa: I remember when you were involved in the BSA litigation. You're right (and so is Todd): the BSA can't claim to be "nondenominational" and yet espouse the values of only certain denominations; it can't claim to be inclusive and exclude; it can't claim access to the resources of the whole community, when it excludes contributing members of the community it claims to serve.

I too remember feeling that I fundamentally agreed with the Dale decision. If a private agency wishes to discriminate, they may. But then they must accept private club status.

I know members of the scouting community locally who deplore the anti-gay policy and who in practice ignore it the best they can. Hopefully there are more folks like that involved nationally who will try to move the organization as a whole in a different direction.

Todd said...

I think I have somewhat more mixed feelings about Dale. State laws which ban private organizations from discriminating on a basis of sex or race have been held to be constitutional; whereas, the NJ law at issue that included sexual orientation was not upheld.

Even though a core value of the KKK is the inferiority of people of color, it may not legally exclude such people from its membership--though I'm betting this scenario hasn't come up outside of the law school classroom. I know there are problems equating sexual orientation with race, and we supporters of gay rights sometimes alienate people in the black civil rights movement by drawing analogies too freely. Even so, I'm not sure why a non-religious organization should have a free hand to discriminate based on sexual orientation but not on the basis of certain other core human characteristics.

Regardless of the legal reasoning, the BSA has certainly relegated itself to one side in the culture wars, to its own detriment.

J G-W said...

Todd - I agree that heterosexism isn't somehow morally different or better than racism or sexism.

And things do get tricky when you're dealing with certain organizations of a quasi-public nature. Organizations like the YMCA, the Boy Scouts, etc. have claimed to have a general mission of public service to the entire community -- even though they were privately founded and sponsored. Maybe they should be held to a more public standard. I can see the argument either way.

-L- said...

Wasn't sir Baden Powell gay (the dude who started the Boy Scouts in England)?

J G-W said...

-L- Some of his biographers think so, Tim Jeal one of the most prominently quoted. Of course, even the biographers who say he was gay refer to him as a "repressed" homosexual (in other words, a non-sexually-active homosexual).

Anonymous said...

I am a 15 year old boy scout. I realized I was gay about 2 years ago, and I am still a proud boy scout. Recently, I was at an Eagle ceremony, when the Scoutmaster asked everyone who was an eagle scout to stand up. He said to the new eagle scout that "From now on, regardless of your activity in the troop, you will always be an Eagle scout".

If you want closure, go to a large scouting event dressed in rainbow clothing. When (if) they kick you out, tell them that you are an eagle scout. If they let you stay, great, there is a victory for us.
If they still make you leave, then you get your closure.

The point is that scouting contributed to a large part of your character (at least it has to mine). Whether or not you have the badge makes no difference. You will always be an eagle scout. How much pride you place in that is up to you.

J G-W said...

Anonymous -- thanks for your thoughts about this... And congratulations on earning the rank of Eagle Scout! I think at this point in my life, I'm inclined to keep it, and not make a fuss about it. Perhaps someday the BSA will change its policies, and the organization will be able to acknowledge all the contributions that have been made over the years by gay scouts. (Including Baden-Powell?) And my pride in my own accomplishments as a scout will be untarnished by any sense that the organization discriminates against me or thinks any less of me...

Anonymous said...

Your Eagle Scout rank is something that you earned and I think you should keep the symbol of your accomplishment. I understand the desire to protest against the current BSA leadership, but you might come to regret giving up your badge. I do think that the BSA will eventually come around to a different thinking on this topic, although it make several generations of leadership. You've got a better chance of influencing the organization from inside than from outside.

I am sad when I think about the impact this policy has on Scouts who worked for years to achieve ranks in Scouts at the same time they're coming to terms with their own sexuality. In every case, you're talking about a person who has devoted many hours to the BSA and it must be really a bad feeling when you realize that the organization you devoted so much time to will shun you if you show who you really are.

At the same time, it's important to remember that BSA leadership is generally comprised of parents who are trying to protect their kids. I think you're talking about people who really don't understand the subject. You're talking about people who think being gay means you might also be a pedophile, which couldn't be further from the truth. In a misguided attempt to protect kids, they're punishing other kids who have done nothing wrong besides being born gay.

There are (of course) some really kooky people out there who view homosexuality as a simple lifestyle "choice". I am a heterosexual, and I can tell you that I don't prefer women because of a simple choice. It's much more fundamental than choice. I don't do it because my parents wanted me to. I don't like women because society tells me to. It's something I was born with. It's not a choice for me. In fact, I'm thinking that anyone who thinks homosexuality is a lifestyle "choice" is probably bi-sexual or possibly in serious self-denial about their own homosexuality. For me, it just doesn't make any sense. I personally have a clear preference for women, and it's not anything like "flipping a coin" for me.

I do think our society has the potential to change, and I do think that includes the BSA. Maybe someday a new generation of leadership in the BSA will find a way to stop this discrimination against gays. One solution would be to ban all forms of sexual activity on BSA events or activities. Ultimately, something along those lines would accomplish the child-protection that the BSA is striving for, but would not discriminate against Scouts who happen to discover their homosexuality after years of devotion to the organization.

I personally think that a gay man can teach my son how to tie a square knot and how to be a good person. Being gay doesn't make someone a bad person. It's going to take time. Hang in there. Let's try to find ways to make people understand and maybe the next generation will benefit. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

First of all, your Eagle Scout rank demonstrates your personal integrity and character. You will always be an Eagle Scout. The current BSA administration's policies cannot diminish the merits of your accomplishment.

J G-W said...

Thanks, Anonymous. I'm inclined to think so.

DJ_Gayburn said...

I found myself riding that same train of thought just the other day. I was all set to find my area council (I've moved quite a ways from the Troop i was with when i made Eale) and storm in there to hand deliver my medal and certificate with a nicely worded letter stating why.

Then it dawned on me. They will be more than happy to have you turn in your Eagle badge and have any record of your association with Scouts erased.

If you, I, or anyone else were to relinquish our Eagle Badge, the symbol of years of lessons learned, personal growth and blood, sweat, and tears THE SCOUTS WIN!!!

If they don't want me as an out and proud gay man to be an Eagle Scout than they can COME. TAKE. IT.

J G-W said...

D.J., ultimately I've come to the same conclusion you have. I think it's important to acknowledge I am gay and I am a scout. I worked to earn my eagle rank -- I followed the same rules everybody else did. I just happen to be gay, and have found happiness in a long-term relationship with my husband. I'm openly gay, so, if they want to strip me of my rank, they can. But I won't resign it.