Are you disgusted and outraged by the recent decision of the Boy Scouts of America to reaffirm its exclusion of gay members from the organization? You’re not alone. Some of scouting’s highest-ranking participants feel the same way. And they’re sending back their Eagle Scout badges as an act of protest.
In late July, as the New York Times explained, the BSA upheld “its longtime policy of barring openly gay boys from membership and gay or lesbian adults from serving as leaders….The exclusion policy ‘reflects the beliefs and perspectives’ of the organization, the Boy Scouts said in a news release from its headquarters in Irving, Tex.”
Invoking your “beliefs and perspectives” to justify discrimination makes for a sorry display. But it has also prompted some dignified defiance.
One of the more powerful things I’ve read in the past week is the collection of letters from former scouts who have come to the decision that they must renounce their affiliation with the organization in order to stay true to their own values. As of August 4, over eighty Eagle Scouts had returned their badges and shared their letters of resignation on a Tumblr dedicated to this issue. Their numbers have been growing steadily.
Not too long ago, when discussing #Occupy movement, I wrote about the “We Are the 99%” Tumblr, describing it as “the most direct and articulate explanation available of why so many—across America and beyond—have rebelled.” Tumblr’s particular blogging format turns out to be an excellent medium for harnessing the power of personal testimonial, allowing a wide range of people to easily contribute their own pictures and stories. And just as it worked for #Occupy, it is serving as a quality platform for the current protest.
The experience of reading through the Eagle Scouts resignation letters is an affecting one. My older brother was a Boy Scout. I also liked to hike and camp, but I never had too much stake in the organization. I always thought, why should we need some quasi-militaristic structure to go out into the woods? I still mostly feel that way. At the same time, part of me coveted the recognition of skills embodied in the scout badges and the ladder of formal accomplishment held out by their ranks. I also recognize that having a formal institution provides an opportunity for experiencing the outdoors to many kids who would not have very much of that kind of exposure through their families alone.
Regardless of what one personally thinks of BSA, the Eagle Scout letters are moving because they come from people who devoted a significant part of their lives to the organization. Their resignations represent the severing of once-treasured allegiances, and the writers made their decisions after emotional deliberations. The importance of this cannot be overstated: if there’s a single measure of the potential of a protest effort, it lies in the willingness of participants to make such difficult personal sacrifices.
On the Tumblr one former scout, Matthew Munley, writes:
I was one of six friends who reached Eagle at the same time in Mundelein, Illinois. It was such a significant occurrence in our small suburban town that we made it into the newspaper. We grew up together, starting as Cub Scouts, where my mother was the den leader and the other five boys’ parents were all leaders in some fashion.
The six of us followed each other throughout scouting. Though one of us drifted apart from the others, the connections forged in scouting has kept us close….To this day, the five of us are close friends, attending each other’s weddings….
Unfortunately, it’s now with a heavy heart that I must do what time and the strain of the world tried so hard to do: I must break from my brothers; my lifelong friends. I can no longer stand with them as a proud Eagle Scout….That honor has been corrupted by the BSA’s blatant discrimination and bigotry. The BSA’s policy of “not granting membership to open or avowed homosexuals” is not a practice in line with the teachings of the Boy Scouts. Instead, this is the practice of bigots.
Another former scout, Andrew Reinhard, writes:
I cannot begin to express my disappointment and utter bewilderment in the BSA’s decision to continue to discriminate against Scouts and Scouters (and potential Scouts and Scouters) based on sexual orientation….
I have loved scouting and, had I had a son instead of a daughter, would have enjoyed seeing him learn to love the outdoors, become self-reliant, and also learn to respect his peers, all within the context of the BSA. Now I’ve changed my mind….From an organization that taught me how to be a man and how to be helpful to others, what I held great pride in now carries shame.
Lee M. Berger writes:
As with most who are returning our Eagles, this is gut-wrenching for me. In addition to my sadness in returning something I worked incredibly hard for, my Eagle Scout Court of Honor holds particular personal significance—it was the last important family event my Mother was alive to see. When she was buried, I chose to include in her casket the Eagle mother pin I had pinned her with five months earlier. At this moment I regret that inclusion; I can only hope that a policy change will alleviate that regret in the near future.
The creator of the “Eagle Scouts Returning Our Badges” Tumblr is a Seattle-based former scout named Burke Stansbury, who I knew from his past days as executive director of CISPES, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. In his own letter cutting BSA ties he noted:
In truth I should have returned my badge more than a decade ago when the Supreme Court ridiculously ruled that the BSA had the right to exclude people based on sexual orientation. I had thought, like many others, that efforts at reform from the inside would lead to a change in course. But the recent decision by the BSA to uphold that policy makes it clear that bigotry has been institutionalized and that there is no longer any hope for change. The power of fundamentalist, anti-gay, religious institutions over the BSA has been too much for even a well-crafted citizens campaign to overcome.
I called up Stansbury to talk about the BSA resignations. He described the importance of the scouts in his childhood. “Scouts got me out into the mountains. I grew up in Seattle, so we went into the Cascades and the Olympics,” he said. “Every year we’d go up and build an igloo on Mt. Rainer and sleep it in. That stuff was a huge part of my youth.”
Regarding the Tumblr, he remarked on the diversity of those who have sent in letters: “You have people who got their Eagle Scout awards back in the 1950s or 60s who are posting letters; and there are really recent scouts who just got their Eagles last year who are doing it.”
Stansbury also mentioned the range of religious beliefs represented in the letters, from people who are very driven by faith to those who are not. This touched on another controversy with BSA, which is the formal exclusion of atheists and non-believers from the organization. These religious positions are not unrelated to BSA’s anti-gay stances. The heavy investment of the Mormons and the Catholic Church in maintaining scouting’s conservative policies is an important part of the back-story behind the current dispute.
“At some point last week a Boy Scouts spokesman said they’ve received about five letters [from Eagle Scouts returning badges] so far, which is ridiculous,” Stansbury said. “Either they’re lying or the bureaucracy hasn’t caught up with the letters.” The Tumblr’s total is far greater and continues to grow. “So part of this is getting the information out there when they’re not admitting this is happening.”
“I didn’t experience a lot of anti-gay sentiment as a scout, and I think it varies from troop to troop,” Stansbury said. “It’s the national leadership of the organization that is imposing these policies. In a lot of places they’re not really recognized—it’s not an issue.”
This range of on-the-ground experience has led some to believe that BSA might eventually change, and some letter-writers have expressed the hope that they might rejoin one day. Stansbury is more skeptical. In this case, the process of social change may be less about altering the behavior of a targeted group than in making an example of it—asserting that its attitudes should become relics of the past.
“They went through this whole process of evaluating their policy,” he said. “They talked to a lot of people, and they still came back and said their were going to stick to it….They’ve institutionalized bigotry.
“For me it’s ‘game over.’ I’m of the mind that the religious conservative forces in the Boy Scouts are too strong, and I just want out.”