By mid-week at Boy Scout camp, it was usually pretty clear who was skipping showers. After all, it was close quarters in those dank tents. I remember spending a week every summer with hundreds of other prepubescent boys in North Carolina's great outdoors -- where home became a world of latrines, ticks and total lack of privacy -- and loving it. Every day brought a merit badge free-for-all that began with throwing on our starchy beige uniforms at Reveille and pledging allegiance before breakfast.
Scouts spent every waking (and sleeping) moment together during those annual campouts, and nowhere was this more evident than during afternoon swims at the lake. More than a rule or expectation, the Buddy System was our one real duty: stick together and look out for each other. God help you if you weren't clutching your buddy's wrist when the lifeguard blew the whistle.
The irony of the Buddy System wasn't lost on me this week, when a committee of the Boy Scouts of America affirmed its long-standing discriminatory policy. "We do not grant membership to individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals," they said, adding that "same-sex attraction should be introduced and discussed outside" of the BSA.
This language sounds more direct and deliberately bigoted in a year when President Obama affirmed his support for same-sex couples who want to wed. While the leader of the free world says it's okay to love, the BSA insists there's no place for it. In my younger years, Scouting offered an incubator for becoming a young man. When Dad volunteered as an assistant Scoutmaster for my troop, he taught us how to light a grill, use a pocketknife properly, and clean a cast-iron skillet. I'm sure he never expected to shoot pool with his son at a gay bar in West Hollywood years later.
When I called my younger brother Scott this week in California, he had not heard the latest news in the BSA saga. No surprise there -- he packs his schedule to capacity. When he's not overseeing student affairs at a major university, he's tutoring students prepping for their SATs. Or running marathons. Or squeezing in a disciplined CrossFit workout and the occasional reality show audition. Scott once spent months traveling the country aboard a cruise ship, where he led an events team charged with entertaining tourists. He later earned his Master's in higher ed administration from Harvard -- they even named him class marshal. LinkedIn seems to have been created for Scott.
Yet in addition to my brother's laundry list of achievements, Scott also happens to be gay. A gay Eagle Scout, at that. And though he once trained as a camp counselor, today Scott wouldn't be allowed anywhere near a campground, much less a Scout meeting.
This summer marks a milestone for Scott; he came out to the family 10 years ago, on June 18, 2002. He was 19. While the news did not surprise me, it blindsided my parents. At the time we were a conservative, church-going family from the South just beginning to grasp and adapt to Scott's bombshell news.
When we spoke this week, I asked Scott to define "morally straight," one of the tenets of the Scout Oath we were made to recite as kids. "There's a difference between having morals about not killing someone and not stealing from them," he told me, "and there are different morals about being accepting of human beings because of how they are born."
James Dale, a fellow Eagle Scout whom the BSA banned in 1990 after learning that he is gay, elaborated further in an email:
"Unfortunately Scouting has continued a hateful and destructive policy telling young people that gays are not 'moral,'" Dale wrote. "Every day this outmoded policy continues the less relevant Scouting is becoming. Paid Scout executives are alienating the organization from fair-minded Americans."
Another milestone this summer arrives next week: July 29 will mark 20 years since Lambda Legal fought the BSA for discriminating against and expelling Dale. Such bigotry is illegal in New Jersey, and, in 1999, the state's Supreme Court ruled against the BSA's ban. It was a brief victory; the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the decision the following year. Boy Scouts of America et al. v. Dale held that requiring the BSA to reinstate Dale "violates the Boy Scouts' First Amendment right of expressive association." In simple terms, the Court protected the BSA -- a private, Christian-based organization -- to exclude anyone of its choosing. This has also included atheist Scouts and Scoutmasters.
The arrogance and ignorance of this week's affirmation cannot be overstated. BSA executives have for years erroneously aligned being gay with being a pedophile, and this latest precedent a secret committee made official this week will do nothing to prevent more youth bullying and suicide.
Eagle Scout Zach Wahls, the son of two lesbian mothers, is petitioning BSA national president Wayne Perry and his staff to out the members of this unnamed committee. As of this writing, Wahls stands about 5,000 supporters short of his 50,000-signature goal through Change.org.
A public records search reveals that Perry gave $50,000 to the super PAC backing Mitt Romney, Restore Our Future, earlier this year; Perry contributed another $30,800 to the Republican National Committee in April. Is it not contradictory for the BSA leader to support the candidate opposing the president of the United States? After all, Obama -- as has every president since 1910 -- serves as honorary president of the BSA. Perry and Obama, in a matter of speaking, belong to the same Buddy System.
Scott and I earned our Eagle Scout award a few months apart. The rank requires longevity, dedication to a community leadership project, earning an eclectic selection of required merit badges, and doing it all before we get interested in girls -- or boys. We Eagles knew our first aid, our knots, and could even make a life preserver out of a pair of jeans in the middle of a lake -- I'd be lying if I said I retained everything I learned. But the point of getting that far was to demonstrate our commitment to a well-rounded knowledge of personal responsibility, respect for others, smart financial decisions, fair leadership and independence in the world and in the wild.
"I saw it as stepping stones -- I just wanted to get to the top," Scott admitted to me about the years he hid his sexuality while a Boy Scout. "It taught me that I wanted to be fair across the board. I hold everyone to the same standard, and I expect the same from everyone. So I think I learned that from the Boy Scouts."
Though Scouting taught us plenty about public service and volunteering our time, it fails today to recognize true leaders like my brother. It frowns upon those young men who want to engage peers of other faiths, cultures and identities. The BSA's latest assertion to exclude interested applicants willy-nilly represents a truly broken brotherhood.
Scott's coming out a decade ago strengthened our family. Mom has grown into the go-to public speaker for her PFLAG chapter in North Carolina, and she frequently addresses the top brass at corporations like McDonald's and Duke Energy, urging them to recognize the rights of LGBT employees and their spouses. Mom is an outspoken gay-rights activist. This week I asked her to check the closet for her sons' Scout merit-badge sashes. Mine boasted 28 patches. Mom had to dig deeper for Scott's; his was packed away in the attic. His merit badge count: 32. Showoff.
As for Dad, when he proudly walked into Mother Lode to have a drink with Scott last year in Los Angeles, he remembers Charlie the bartender choking up. "You're the first dad we've ever had in here," he told him.
I once wore my Eagle Scout award as a badge of honor, a proud rite of passage attained by few other boys on their own paths to manhood. But 11 unnamed BSA officials undermined that stepping stone this week. They proved that playing politics means exploiting religion and alienating and intimidating an unknown number of boys at their most sensitive age. One thing that stuck with me from my days in Scouting was how we always made sure to leave our campsites cleaner than how we found them. We never made them worse.
The Boy Scouts of America has not only reneged on its commitment to God and country -- it has destroyed the landscape, and crushed its own Buddy System.