I loved being in Boy Scouts. Scouting gave me my first experiences with leadership, taught me important practical skills, led to strong bonds with good friends, provided positive adult role models, and helped inspire my life’s focus on environmental advocacy. It also taught me why the Boy Scouts’ ban on gay members is wrong.
Despite not being so good at tying knots, my time in scouting included holding a long list of positions. The last one was Troop Guide. I was older than most of the troop, but I was so close to completing my Eagle Scout badge that I decided to stick with it. The Scout handbook describes the Troop Guide’s duties:
The troop guide is both a leader and a mentor to the members of the new-Scout patrol. He should be an older Scout who holds at least the First Class rank and can work well with younger Scouts. He helps the patrol leader of the new-Scout patrol in much the same way that a Scoutmaster works with a senior patrol leader to provide direction, coaching, and support.
There was a more specific reason for my assignment. The troop had a problem with some of the younger Scouts being teased and treated badly. It was the sort of common behavior you’d expect from boys that age, but it did cause a couple of scouts to leave the troop. The Scoutmaster wanted me to help set the tone for the older Scouts and stick up for the younger kids.
I don’t remember teasing the younger Scouts before then, but I wasn’t paying much attention to them either. I hung out with the older guys. Socializing too much with the newbies wasn’t cool.
I started spending more time talking with the new Scouts after accepting the position and tried making them feel welcome in the troop. Once or twice I gave the older kids a hard time about their teasing. After that, everyone started rethinking their behavior and things got better. I think I did a good job.
It was a church-sponsored troop and I heard about a comment one of the younger Scouts made in Sunday School class. The students were asked to name people who stand up for justice. One of them said my name. He may have been playing teacher’s pet since my mom was giving the Sunday school lesson, but I was very proud to know someone thought of me that way because of how I acted as Troop Guide.
If there were any gay Scouts in our troop they kept it a secret. Back then, I was naively unaware of how much a teenager might go through by coming out of the closet. The killing of Matthew Shepard confronted me with that reality years later.
After that, I helped the LGBT students at my college push for the bill that added sexual orientation to the Illinois Human Rights code (an act co-sponsored by State Senator Barack Obama). It wouldn’t be the last time I worked to protect the civil rights of a group I didn’t belong to, including my work as state director of a voter registration drive targeted at African-American and Hispanic voters in an old Jim Crow state.
There are many life experiences that influence me to stand up for the rights of everyone. But undoubtedly, an important one was my time as Troop Guide. I learned that you don’t look the other way and ignore what’s happening when a bully is picking on the little guy. You speak up. You help set things right. You set the tone for others and lead by example.
Sadly, in the case of their discrimination policy, the Boys Scouts of America organization is the bully. The policy forces people to hide who they are, and sends a message that it’s acceptable to treat people badly based on their sexual orientation. By participating in discrimination, they’re violating some of the most important values I learned as a Boy Scout.
What saddens me as well is that the future of scouting is jeopardized by the executive board sticking to this policy. Boy Scouts will become marginalized so that fewer and fewer young men will get to have the same positive, life-changing experiences I had.
Letting troops set their own policy will open up participation to additional churches and civic groups that stand for inclusiveness. That’s the only way Boy Scouts will grow.
Receiving my Eagle Scout badge is something I still take pride in. I’m glad I stuck with it. I hope many others will be able to learn the same kind of lessons I did, regardless of their sexual orientation.
© 2013 Willinois. This article is reproduced by permission of the author. All rights reserved.