05/01/2014 04:14 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Spilled Milk : Scouting for My Son's America

Sometimes it's tricky explaining America to an 8-year-old.

When our daughter was that age, the trick was explaining marriage. Why even though she and fifty guests had gotten all dressed up one hot June day and witnessed her parents' very real, very legal wedding, just a few months later voters saw fit to ban marriages like ours in California. Just as they had in 48 other states. She found this upsetting. We did too.

It took five years, but all that finally got sorted out by the Supreme Court, and now marriage for all is once again safe and legal in California, as well as 16 other states and counting. Not that Elizabeth is paying much attention lately. She's 13 now. The only marriage she cares about these days is her fantasy wedding to hunktastic Chris Hemsworth, star of Thor.

Now it's our son James who's turned 8. This time the America I find myself having to explain is the Boy Scouts of America.

Since he was first able to toddle into our home office, James has had lots of questions about a framed black-and-white photograph that hangs next to the door. Because in it I'm a kid, like him. A prepubescent 13, smiling up at my mom as she pins an Eagle Scout award to my uniform as my Scoutmaster looks on. My dad, who rarely takes a bad picture, stands behind me wearing an expression that can only be described as... puckered.

2014-04-30-SMGettingEagleScoutAward.jpg"Dude, what is Pop doing with his face?" asked James a few months ago. "He looks like he's about to lean over and kiss the back of your head."

"There's a lesson in this for you," I tell my son. "He's telling me to stand up straight. Never talk when someone's taking your picture. It's always a bad idea. You end up spending the next forty years in a frame looking like a fish."

He laughs and moves on. "Did it hurt when Mimi pinned that thing on your chest?"

"Nope. It felt great."

"Do you still have it?"

I do. I lead my son over to a bookcase in our office where my Eagle Scout pin now resides. He asks if he can hold it. I open the glass door, carefully lift it out and place it in his moist, eager palm.


The Eagle Award is the highest in scouting. Like most medals, it inspires awe in young boys. One of my first Scout outings was to a tiny church in Mountville, South Carolina, where I watched Monty Crisp receive his. Following tradition it was pinned on by his mother as his dad looked on, fishlike. I knew in an instant I wanted a moment just like that with my parents one day, whatever it took.

The Eagle Scout Award is a beautiful thing to behold, a majestic silver replica of our national bird suspended from a ribbon striped in red, white and blue underneath a silver scroll emblazoned with the Boy Scout motto, "Be Prepared." Whenever I touch it, I half expect the eagle to start singing "God Bless America."

I had no idea how much work, sweat, discipline and dedication, and how many years it would take to earn that thing. There's a reason only 5 percent of all Scouts make Eagle. Sticking with it was the hardest thing I'd ever done. There were a hundred times I wanted to quit, to chuck it all and sleep in on Saturday mornings. My parents made sure I didn't.

Family is key in scouting; my mom kept my uniform clean, sewed on my merit badges and hauled my pals and me to countless remote locations for camping trips. Then made sure I knew how to clean my pots and pans and launder my filthy clothes when I got home. My dad's unpredictable hours as a doctor kept him from playing a regular role at our weekly meetings, but he volunteered every spring by giving free physicals to all the boys going away to Scout camp.

"Can you pin it on me?" James is asking now, holding out the medal. "The way your mom pinned it on you?"

"I can't, buddy. The pin is broken." But I have something else in mind.

Soon we're upstairs, in the back of my closet, the section I call the archives. Buried in the shadows, it's a timeline of my life, on hangers. I pull out the burgundy shirt I wore when James and his sister were born, and the black jacket with the giant red"R" on the front, awarded to writers who managed to survive the sitcom Roseanne. There's the ACT UP t-shirt I wore to protest the AIDS crisis in New York, the Honey Bun costume from my high school production of South Pacific, and finally, at the very back, I spot what's left of my Boy Scout uniform, the familiar khaki green shirt and matching merit badge sash.

They're in pretty much mint condition, thanks to my mom. They were lovingly folded in tissue by her and sent back to California with me a few years ago, after one of her ruthless purges of the family attic.

In about three seconds James is in the shirt, asking what the numbers on the sleeve mean.

"That was my troop number. 111. Your uncles and I were all in Troop 111."

2014-04-30-SMScoutSash.jpgJames wants to know what it was like in the Boy Scouts. I tell him about the camping trips, show him the three-fingered Scout salute, recall what I can of the Scout Law and explain how to make apple turnovers outdoors, in tin foil. As my son cradles my merit badge sash I explain how the embroidered fabric circles represent some of the skills I learned in scouting: how to paddle a canoe, sail a boat, save a swimmer from drowning, make a tourniquet from a tuxedo, tie knots. I even demonstrate two I still remember, the square knot and the bowline.

That night, James wears my merit badge sash to bed. Ever since, it's been hanging on his bedpost.

Like his cousins -- my brothers' boys, who followed their dads into scouting -- James can't wait to become a Boy Scout. Unlike his cousins, James has not one dad but two. Which is where things get tricky.

Especially after what happened in Seattle last week. Though the Boy Scouts of America would be lucky to have James, I'm not so sure anymore that after he finds out James will have the Scouts.

I'm referring to the troop that had its Boy Scout charter revoked by the national office after refusing to fire its Scoutmaster, Geoffrey McGrath. An Eagle Scout himself, McGrath, 49, had founded the troop at the request of his church, Rainier Beach United Methodist. He accepted the challenge, he said, because he loves scouting and because the low-income and immigrant children in his area of south Seattle had few after-school activities.

After discovering that McGrath is openly gay and married, the Boy Scouts of America demanded that the sponsoring church fire him. When the church refused, the troop's Scout charter was revoked.

The Boy Scouts of America has always had a problem with the gays. Not that they haven't made progress. The Scouts and the gays. The B.S.A. allows gay Scouts now, having last year discontinued their delightful practice of kicking them out and stripping them of their awards. Gay Scoutmasters though? That's still a big no-no. Sending a clear red, white and blue message that being gay is somehow inconsistent with Boy Scout values.

What happened in Seattle might never have occurred had the leadership of the Boy Scouts of America located their nuts and decided to adopt the policy they themselves drafted a year ago. A policy that would have addressed a changing America that has finally begun to acknowledge the fact that "openly gay" does not equal "Scout molestor."

According to a draft option on the table as late as January 2013, "the chartered organizations that oversee and deliver scouting would accept membership and select leaders consistent with their organization's mission, principles or religious beliefs," according to Deron Smith, a spokesman for the Boy Scouts' national organization. Individual sponsors and parents "would be able to choose a local unit which best meets the needs of their families."

Meaning that the many Scout troops that have no problem with gay leaders -- like that Methodist church in Seattle -- could hire a motivated, experienced, compassionate leader like Geoffrey McGrath.

A discrimination opt-out, if you will.

For a brief moment, this gave me heart. Though not an ideal solution, I had hope that when the time came, that policy might allow our family might find a troop for our son that would welcome us all.

It hasn't happened. Pressure from the huge block of religious organizations that sponsor so many individual Scout troops prevailed. So the ban on adult Scout leaders of the homosexual persuasion continues to be the law of the scouting land.

Meaning that when James, looking at that photo in my office and dreaming his big dream of becoming an Eagle Scout, asked his final question -- "So when I'm a Scout, could you be my Scoutmaster, Daddy? Like Uncle George is part of Dawson's troop?" -- there was only one way I could answer. With every parent's universal code for no.

"We'll see."

James has always had a rock-solid moral compass, adhering fiercely to one particular tenet of the Boy Scout Law: "A Scout is true to his family."

All this makes me fairly certain that when the day arrives that I have to explain to James why I could never be his Scoutmaster, he would turn his back on the whole thing. In a heartbeat.

Back in February, when he heard me discussing Arizona Senate Bill 1062 -- the one that almost became law, the one that would have allowed businesses that asserted their religious beliefs to deny service to gay and lesbian customers, James asked what that meant. I told him that it would mean that if we ever visited Arizona -- which we never would because that place is a furnace -- there would be some restaurants that would allow him and his sister to come inside and eat their food, but not his dads.

"Are you kidding me?!" I'd never eat at a place like that!"

We haven't had a discussion about what happened in Seattle. It's not an issue for us yet and besides, I'm not big on crushing the dreams of my kid.

Things could change. When James is eligible to join the Scouts in two-and-a-half years... we'll see.


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