What I Learned As a Gay Eagle Scout
Tucked away in a drawer somewhere I have a few items from a time I don't think about too often anymore. There's a class ring from high school, a money clip my father gave to me, and a pocket watch with a Bald Eagle on it. That eagle symbolizes a status. I am an Eagle Scout, the highest rank attainable within the Boy Scouts of America.
In order to become an Eagle Scout, you must fulfill a long list of requirements and receive approval by a council before you turn 18. You must also dedicate yourself to community, exhibit leadership and hold true the ideals of the organization.
In pursuit of that rank I learned many things from the Scouts. I learned how to tie knots and basic first aid. I learned how to pitch a tent and how to steer a canoe. I also learned how to cook for myself, how to balance a budget and how to work within a group.
At every weekly meeting for many years I pledged the Scout Oath. The last part of that oath is a promise a scout makes to himself: to stay physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.
Morally straight. During my time in the Boy Scouts, I never considered the literal interpretation of the phrase. The scouts use all kinds of imagery and symbolism. We have oaths and slogans and laws. We talk of honesty, obedience and loyalty. I considered morally straight to be one of those high-minded concepts. I thought that meant that you should adhere to a basic understanding of right and wrong. It meant that I should "do the right thing," when circumstances called for it. Not an easy task for a teenage boy.
Of course there is another interpretation, a sexual one in which to be morally straight means to not be gay and immoral. In this interpretation, there's no basic understanding or concept to grasp. You're just being told that to be straight is simply the right thing to do.
But even when I realized that my own sexuality was incompatible with the Boy Scouts' official policy, I never read it that way. Even while my Scoutmaster defended the organization's policy of denying gay people membership, I never thought of it like that.
It wasn't until I came out to my family that I understood that this other interpretation was taken quite seriously. A month or so after I told my parents that I was gay, I was up for review to become an Eagle Scout.
My mother told me that privately my father had many reservations. He too believed in loyalty, honesty and obedience. While having a gay son may have changed some of his views about sexuality, it did not change his view that I was making a broken promise every week to be a straight man.
It took my mother's counsel to convince him otherwise. If it was difficult for me to wrestle with the dishonesty, it must have been very difficult for my father. By the time I was awarded Eagle Scout, I was living two different lives: a gay one and a straight one.
This week the Boy Scouts announced it would table making a decision regarding its policy banning gay members until May. The outspoken critic and Eagle Scout Zach Wahls has publicly urged the Boy Scouts to take action for some time. In doing so, the Scouts would be taking a step toward doing the right thing and modernizing itself the way the Girl Scouts of America has. It would make itself an organization that better reflects the communities in which it is dedicated to serving.
Looking back, I really did enjoy scouting. I enjoyed being outdoors, being a leader, and dedicating myself to something bigger than me. I learned invaluable lessons. But I also learned how to be in the closet. I learned how to hate myself, and how to pretend like a part of me didn't exist. I had to wrestle with a new sense of identity, and I had to do that without any guidance or counsel from anyone around me.
I haven't been following the recent news on the Boy Scouts very closely. It's been tucked away for me, like the pocket watch. The rank of Eagle Scout is an award for life. Regardless of the organization's policy, I'll always be an Eagle Scout. My time in the Scouts is just one of those things I look back on now, and the fact that I had to hide who I was then sours the memories.
The Boy Scouts of America is an organization that stresses community and service. Boys and young men are asked to think about others, to do a good turn daily and to be role models. They're also asked to become teachers and to pass down those skills that
they've learned to others.
One of the hardest lessons I learned in scouting is that being morally straight sometimes means you lie about who you are to attain a rank you deserve. While my time with the Scouts is done, it is my hope that the organization will change it's policy, and that those who have learned acceptance will pass that skill down to the next generation.
*Colin Matthews is a guest writer to Campus Progress. His name has been changed to protect his identity.