Morally Straight--but not Narrow
I'm an Eagle.
In October 1978, my mother pinned a badge like this one to my uniform. It was the culmination of a ten-year journey, an accomplishment and honor achieved by only a small percentage of Scouts. My father became an Eagle sometime around 1940, and there was never any doubt in my mind that, as difficult as it proved to be, I would someday attain this rank, as well. All four of my younger brothers became Eagles, too. There was no way any of us was going to be the lone standout. And who wouldn't want to be an Eagle Scout? A paragon of honesty, reverence, and service? I bore this distinction with pride for a quarter of a century.
Until, that is, Scouting went south.
I mean that quite literally. In my youth, Scouting was a center-left organization, honoring diversity of creed and ethnicity, promoting global citizenship, responsible membership in the commonweal. Scouts were environmentalists, diplomats, public servants. Yes, there was a certain coziness with the armed forces that made me uncomfortable, but really, the Scouting of the 1970s was not unlike the GI Joes I played with in my youth, more about exploration than regimentation. It was the era of the first Star Trek, and we were all on a mission of enlightenment.
Something happened in the 1980s. Perhaps it had its birth in Watergate. The malaise of the Carter years may have fed into it. By the time Ronald Reagan took office, the nation had lost its humanist center. Diversity was for hippies. America was done with seeking to understand others. The radical right was running the show now. Across the nation, institutions that had made great progressive gains during the 1970s retreated, took on a hard conservative edge. It happened to my church, United Methodism, which began its long descent into homophobia. And it happened to Scouting.
The headquarters of the BSA was on Fifth Avenue, in New York City, until 1979, when it was relocated to Irving, Texas. This geographical shift to the conservative evangelical part of the United States was reflected in an erosion of Scouting's inclusive nature. By the time I reentered Scouting as an adult leader in 2000, the organization had become much like the United Methodist Church. Local pack and troop leaders often were far more liberal than the national leadership, but had to keep their opinions to themselves. This was nowhere more true than in the treatment of gay men and youth.
Scouting clung to the discredited association of homosexuality with pedophilia well into the last decade, and grew increasingly strident in rejecting gays from membership and leadership. When gay Eagles, and other Eagles sympathetic to their cause, began returning their badges in protest, the national office blew them off as mere thousands--although given the small percentage of Scouts who become Eagles, those thousands represented a significant portion of the membership. In 2002, furious at yet another article defending homophobia in the national Scouters' leadership magainze, I considered sending my own Eagle badge to Irving. But I couldn't do it. It mattered too much to me--just as I'm sure it mattered to every one of those Eagles who surrendered his badge in protest.
What appalled me most in the national organization's flippant response to these protests was their utter insensitivity to the plight of the minority. They could claim in those days that a majority of Americans agreed with them; and this was, after all, the period in the recent past when state after state was amending its constitution to prohibit gay marriage. But Scouting, as I understood it, was grounded in defending the rights of others to be different. The religious emblem program has badges for every world religion I know, and this includes faiths that anathematize each other. The US Constitution exists, not to enshrine the tyranny of the majority, but to protect the rights of the minority; and constitutional democracy is the creed every Scout adheres to, whatever his religious preference may be. It was simply unAmerican of the national organization to treat this significant minority as if it didn't matter.
This is why I gradually dropped back from leadership in my son's Scout troop, and was only slightly disappointed when he asked not to participate anymore. But still I held out hope that Boy Scouts, like Girl Scouts, might someday acknowledge that gay youth had as much right as anyone to be in this program, and to have gay mentors who could also wear the uniform of a Scoutmaster.
Today the BSA finally opened its doors to gay youth, so we're partway there. Gay men, though, will have to wait for a further thaw in the moral glacier that encases Irving, Texas. Even so, I can honestly say that today, for the first time in over a decade, I am proud to be an Eagle.