As a long-time legal affairs contributing writer for TIME.com, I've written many articles about gays rights and legal issues, usually from the perspective of what the law says and what people on both sides of the issue think it says, or should say.
Today, I am thinking of the Scouts' decision from Thursday in far more personal terms, though Scouting itself hasn't been a factor one way or the other in my life for almost two decades. These are my own views, quite distinct from the work I do and responsibilities I have as a journalist.
I am a gay guy who was a Boy Scout from the time I was 11 till I was 18. I was vaguely aware during that time that the rules precluded openly gay members. On the other hand, I knew zero openly gay people during this time and had no concept of what it would be like to be an openly gay person, other than to be very, very much at odds with friends, family, Church and community. From little league to football to Scouting to catholic high school to, well every aspect of my life as I knew it ... being gay was not just unspeakable, it was in a very literal sense, unfathomable.
This rarely was communicated to me in a violent or personal way. Aside from the playground epithet or casual slur directed to the universe -- which were routine -- no one I knew made any mean-spirited comments toward me personally. But then I was open neither to myself nor to friends or family about my sexuality.
That's hard to explain to youth these days, when coming out is often an experience of middle school or high school. For me, there was no question, or inkling, of coming out at those ages. The very idea would have shocked me, and confused me.
After I turned 18 I remained a Scouting leader, though my participation was vastly limited by college and friends and work. I stopped entirely when I was in my early to mid 20s, as I no longer had time even to be sporadically involved, and links to kids and other leaders I had known as a teenager had mostly slipped away as all of moved on. Still, some of those relationships, with youth and adults, blossomed into adult friendships and I am glad they did.
I write these things now to reflect on the BSA's decision to alter its long-standing position about gays in Scouting. Yesterday was a momentous day. Here are some of the thoughts that this gay former scout had:
1. The best thing about scouting was the independence it taught most of its members -- independence, albeit limited in scope and duration, from family, from school authorities, from other adult supervision. Once a month you were in the woods with buddies your age and kids a few years older and younger and for the most part you kids called the shots. If a fire needed to be built, you built it. Food needed cooking. You cooked it. Cleaned it. Adult leaders were mentors and guides -- and when they were really good at it -- role models rather than rule-givers. Mainly, they established boundaries.
My best friends to this day, some of them, are the men whom I was close to when we were boys. There was something magical about being out under the stars, or hiking up over mountains, or standing alone, at age 11, for instance, in an ancient Hemlock grove in a West Virginia forest so deep you couldn't quite make out your hand in front of your face. In this age of hyper-involved parents, when the only real independence many kids experience is amid the wilderness of the Internet, it would be a shame if the Scouts ceased being a vital organization for youth.
2. The Scout Oath and Scout Law were important. They helped reinforce norms of behavior in the broadest sense -- honest, trustworthy, loyal, brave, clean, and all the rest of the 12 (yes, I remember them). Some of these norms kids broke from or ignored and entirely rebelled against as they grew up. That was ok too. Like all powerful moral codes, they served as an important backboard against which to bounce your own views and character as you develop.
3. This silliness about allowing gays in violates the Scout Oath to be "morally straight" is hard to explain. It stems from the worst kind of semantic confusion. That's not what the word means in the Oath. Its use as a synonym for heterosexual is a separate meaning of the word, arrived at by analogy and tantamount to slang, and almost entirely unknown to us at the time. Even a cursory look at the Oxford English Dictionary will show this to be true.
4. Telling kids they could not join because of something they had no control over -- namely, whether they were attracted to boys or girls -- was not just bad policy, it was immoral in the very deepest way. It inflicted harm on people who often were least prepared to cope with it. When I was young this mostly a silent kind of oppression, and frankly for the most part unexamined or discussed by either me or my friends. Homosexuality was, as I said, unfathomable. But for some kids today, now that issues of sexuality are addressed so much earlier, it is very much a matter of life and death.
5. That the Scouts have ended this policy means they have stopped inflicting this immoral and often damaging harm on young boys. They should be proud of themselves for making this change and a little horrified that it was necessary.
6. That the Scouts continue to discriminate against adults who are gay is sad. It's wrong, because it is discrimination based on immutable characteristics and is absolutely unconnected with any interest the scouts could have other than to maintain a worldview that is at odds with basic facts about sexuality and is hurtful. It does not protect children, as gays are no more likely to be a threat to children than straights, and it does not present a good role model as gays are no less likely to be model citizens and exemplary men than straight men. In fact, it shames the organization in the eyes of the boys it is attempting to care for, mentor, as they themselves are coming of age in a time when the lies about homosexuality are being revealed to be just that, lies.
7. Still, adults excluded from Scouting are equipped with more than enough survival skills to avoid real harm. They are, after all, adults -- and the program is for boys. The BSA Is hurting itself by excluding gay leaders, but the harm it is doing to boys by that decision is much, much less than the harm it had been during before yesterday's announcement.
8. For that reason, I applaud the Scouting movement for its steps today.