Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Dispatches from Left Field: On My Honor...

TNG contributor Matt' wrote this piece.

It was a clear March night nine years ago. The stars were out casting their pinpricks of light upon the rolling Georgian hills. The parking lot where I sat was washed out by the sodium vapor lights high above. That Thursday night I was nervous as hell. I was about to step into a building and finish what I had started many years prior. My stomach was a tight knot filled with a volatile mixture of acid and butterflies. The scene was not unlike one I would experience a few years later - one which would rend my heart - but this occasion was, in the end, a happy one.

On March 23, 2000, I walked into a room in a church outside Woodstock, Georgia. When I walked out, I was an Eagle Scout. My Board of Review had been successful. All the hard work I had put forth so far in scouting was recognized. But if I thought at the time that I had reached the highest point in my Scouting career, I was wrong. Scouting and I still had several years together before our estrangement would begin.

But our estrangement would come, all too soon it would seem. It was a fait accompli, our paths were to draw apart and little could be done to stop the separation. Even today, the wound that the organization inflicted upon me is painful. It throbs with the disappointment of missed opportunities and lost friendships. But mostly, its the ache of unfairness and discrimination that keeps the balm from my scar.

As I'm sure you're aware, the Boy Scouts of America takes a strong stance against homosexuality. Their position is stronger than the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. In fact I have heard of cases where mere suspicion has led to expulsion. No one, neither adult nor youth, is permitted to participate in Scouting activities if they are gay.

Scouting had been a part of my life for many years. Since 1992 the organization had taught me leadership and outdoor skills. As I grew more mature, I began to take a larger leadership role, not only in my troop, but in the district. Eventually, I was on the host committee for a regional Order of the Arrow conclave. In college, I helped to found a Venture Crew on campus.

My Venture Crew drew me ever closer to Scouting and my brothers in the organization. The Crew did its share of outdoorsy things, from camping to rafting. But I got the most fulfillment out of the service we did. One of the activities I looked forward to was working with Operation Scoutreach. This program reaches out to underprivileged kids in the inner city. Scoutreach Weekend offered these youngsters the ability to spend the weekend camping at a scout reservation east of Atlanta. In my conversations with some of them, I discovered that many had never been outside the Atlanta Perimeter (Beltway) before, let alone camping. It was fundamentally good for me to give back to the community and the organization that had given so much to me.

In fact, one of the landmark moments of my collegiate career occurred while I was working on a service project with my Venture Crew. We were volunteering for Trees Atlanta, planting trees in poverty-stricken neighborhoods on the South Side. I was just a freshman. I had never seen such poverty, and it was right here in the United States. It was within sight of the gleaming skyscrapers downtown, but it was far from the eyes of those who worked in them. I had already resolved to go into planning, but until that moment, I had not known the urgency. From that day forward, my focus on planning became far more liberal. I became an advocate of environmental justice and of using the urban form to solve social problems.

But one day the inevitable became undeniable. I came out to myself. Soon, I was outing myself to select others. Despite being enrolled at Georgia's fourth largest public university, the campus community was small. I needed to come out to the Crew. But this would be the end of my Scouting career. There would be no more hikes with my brothers in the green mountains of North Georgia. There would be no more nights around the campfire, no more tree plantings, no more Scoutreaches. Perhaps, I feared, there would be fewer friends in my circle.

It was cold in more ways than one on that dark Sunday in November. Across the field, a campfire flickered. The faces of my peers, my friends, my brothers surrounded the orange tongues of flame. How would they react, I wondered. How would I survive? Scouting had not been some after school activity for me. It had been an integral part of my life for almost fourteen years. I lay in the deep grass and looked skyward. Wispy clouds swept across the heavens, driven by some unheard wind. The walls of the valley rose steeply on either side, hemming me in. Was there any way out of this quandary? A chill swept through my limbs, but it wasn't the kind brought on by the cool Tennessee air. Tears flowed down my cheeks as fond memories of my Scouting past flickered through my mind. This was to be my last outing as a Scout.

At our regular meeting the following week, I came out to my Crew. None of them disowned me. Occasionally I was able to participate in non-scouting events like service opportunities; however, I'm not sure I ever really got over being severed from the Boy Scouts. Even with their discrimination, I think that Scouting is one of the best youth organizations in the country. Personally, I never faced homophobia within scouting, other than being kicked out. And as painful as that was, I don't regret one moment of the time I spent in Scouting.

The policy comes down from the National Council, but it does not mean that Scouting is dominated by homophobes. Some of the kindest, most loyal, most service oriented people I know I met in Scouts. But the organization clearly has some deficiencies. Discrimination is one of them. In fact, I know plenty of gay former Scouts. They are all admirable people. Coming out is an experience that teaches one introspection and self respect in a way few other experiences can. Gay individuals have plenty to offer Scouting and its members. Our dedication and insight should be valued by this organization; instead we are shunned.

A Scout is trustworthy, but National Council’s anti-gay policy perpetuates lies about gays which it knows are false. A Scout is loyal, but the policy betrays faithful members. A Scout is helpful and friendly, but this policy is hurtful and bigoted. A Scout is courteous, but Scouting’s policy encourages its members to blindly reject others. A Scout is kind, but the policy is hateful. A Scout is obedient, but Scouting demands prejudice from its members. A Scout is cheerful, but Scouting’s directive denies the ability of gays to accept themselves openly. A Scout is thrifty, but Scouting is ridding itself of many excellent resources based on shortsighted and false preconceptions. A Scout is brave, but Scouting’s policy refuses to recognize the courage that it takes to be openly gay in an often heterosexist society. A Scout is clean, but in this decision Scouting’s hands are covered with the slime of bigotry and hate. A Scout is reverent, but Scouting’s anti-gay policy will not recognize the beauty of all of God’s creations, including those of us who, although gay, are also made in his image. It is time that the Boy Scouts of America decides to return to the values it espouses to have.

No, the Boy Scouts of America's policy excluding gays does not espouse the values of Scouting. It is quite antithetical to the moral teachings which have created so many upstanding citizens.

Robert F. Kennedy once told us that “Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence.” This is the message of Scouting. We are indeed disciples of a moral code which is rarely easy to uphold, but that is our message. No Scout should be taught to stand by during times of injustice.

Scouting teaches many things; foremost among is honor. There is nothing honorable in discrimination. Until Scouting rights this wrong, its image will be tarnished. That stain hurts me far more than my estrangement from the organization. My pain is especially sharp on this ninth anniversary of the night I became an Eagle Scout. But I have faith that the organization will one day reverse this unjust policy and once again welcome her long-sundered children.

Picture at top by Bruce Andersen.

No comments: