When I was a kid, the Boy Scouts were the center of my universe. Between the ages of 10 and 13, it felt like every spare moment was filled with meetings and camp-outs, hikes and service projects. While the time spent outdoors was wonderful, my greatest memory from that period was the sense that my actions were meaningful, that I was able to make an important difference in my world. I've almost forgotten what that felt like, but was reminded last week, when I decided to send my Eagle Scout medal back to the Boy Scouts of America in protest of their policy on homosexuality.
Most of my time in the Boy Scouts was spent with Dan Robarge, my best friend in the troop. Dan didn't get his Eagle until a few years after me and didn't come out of the closet until a few years after that. When we were in the scouts together, I had no idea that he was gay. To be honest, I probably wouldn't have handled it very well: growing up in a conservative suburb in the early 1980's, my life was circumscribed by my troop, my church and the Catholic school I attended -- three organizations that didn't look very kindly on homosexuality. As a young man, I absorbed the prejudices in my community. Among my friends, jokes about homosexuality were common, a handy, automatic insult that seemed weightless. After all, we didn't -- couldn't -- know anyone who was gay.
Except, of course, we did.
The irony is that the Boy Scouts constantly emphasized tolerance and inclusion. It's where I learned my first lessons in diversity, where I first built friendships with people of other races. It would have been the natural place for me to learn that, just as America has room for different religions and cultures, it also has room for different sexualities. Instead, I learned that lesson later, on my own.
I left the scouts a few years after I got my Eagle, and Dan and I fell out of touch. By then, he was working at Camp Rock Enon, the campground that my troop visited every summer. Recently, when I contacted him to talk about this piece, he told me about the sad end of his career at the camp. One summer, as he was growing more aware of his sexuality, he discussed it with a few of his fellow Boy Scouts. It isn't hard to figure out why: the camp had always been a safe place for us, an area where we could be ourselves. Unfortunately, as Dan learned, there were limits on the freedom and safety that existed within Rock Enon's borders. Not long afterwards, he was informed that the camp no longer required his services.
Following the recent furor over the Boy Scouts' decision to ban gay men, I've tried to understand how the group can justify its discriminatory policy. Certainly, it can't be a matter of safety: numerous studies have shown that child molesters are more likely to be heterosexual than homosexual; for that matter, molestation can hardly have been the issue when the group decided to bar a lesbian mother from working with cub scouts.
The argument that young men are not emotionally capable of dealing with complex issues of gender and sexuality doesn't really hold water, either. In the Boy Scouts, I learned how to apply tourniquets and treat snakebites, tend fires and build shelters. I lived on wild plants and led my patrol on midnight hikes through swamps. In short, I learned how to deal with complex, life-threatening situations. The notion that I wasn't mature enough to handle the concept of loving relationships between men seems laughable.
The lessons I learned in Boy Scouts, from tolerance to woodcraft, to an abiding love of country, were learned with Dan Robarge by my side. And, while it's hard to measure the impact that a few years can have on a life, I imagine -- hope -- that our time together added to Dan's world as it added to mine. Most important, I know that barring Dan, and people who share his sexual preference, will make the Boy Scouts a smaller, more petty place, both for the people it leaves out, and for those it leaves behind. Thinking of that, of the opportunities lost and the lessons wasted, I decided to send my Eagle Scout medal back to the Boy Scouts of America. I hope that I may, in some small way, help change its policy -- and in so doing help it return to the concepts of inclusion and tolerance that it taught me so many years ago.