“Why I’m Keeping my Medal: A Black Gay Eagle Scout’s Perspective”

…And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid

So it is better to speak
remembering
we were never meant to survive

– Audre Lorde, from “A Litany for Survival”

I.

Let me say from the beginning that I applaud the actions of other Eagle Scouts who have returned their medals in protest against the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and its policy against openly gay Scout leaders.   This creative protest has spread across the nation as more and more Eagle Scouts have spoken out in favor of equality in Scouting.  Some of these Eagle Scouts have returned their medals with poignant letters stating their reasons.

Consider this an open letter in solidarity with these Eagle Scouts, an open letter to my friends and family, and an open letter to the BSA.  I hope I can explain why I will not be returning my medal, and why I am also opposed to the BSA’s decision to attempt to exclude the LGBT community from their organization.  And I do emphasize the “attempt” in that sentence because it is obvious from the number of people who are speaking out now that gay people and their allies have already been a part of the scouts, and from what we know about human sexuality there are already gay leaders in the scouts, and there will continue to be so despite this foolish policy.

For the record the position of the Boy Scouts of America is this:  “While the BSA does not proactively inquire about the sexual orientation of employees, volunteers, or members, we do not grant membership to individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA.” http://www.scouting.org/Media/PressReleases/2012/20120607.aspx

II.

Last month I traveled back home to Meridian, Mississippi to celebrate the Fourth of July with my family.  On the last day of my trip there my Mom took me to visit with my former  Scoutmaster.  He’s a black man who’s over 80 years old now.  Though he had experienced some recent health problems, I was happy to see that he was still lively and full of that same humor and intelligence that I remembered him for.  I joined his den as a Cub Scout, and eventually became a Boy Scout and stayed with program all the way through to earn the rank of Eagle.  I was pleased to learn that the camp where I spent many nights as a Scout and a staff member has now decided to name its dining hall after him.  It is a well-deserved honor for a lifetime of dedication to Scouting.

The troop that I belonged to was mostly black, a holdover from my home state’s well-known history of racial segregation.    My Scoutmaster is a respectable black man and like my parents he insisted that the young black men under his supervision conduct ourselves in a respectable manner.  No, there would be no sagging pants and cursing from us.  It was a survival strategy to teach us how to navigate through a vicious society that could be like a minefield for a young black man. And for the most part it worked.  But not always.  That day as we sat in our Scoutmaster’s home we talked about a one sad young man who was in the Scouts with me.  He is now doing his second stint in prison.  This young man was only a few short steps away from the rank of Eagle Scout as well.

That day as my Mother, my Scoutmaster, and his wife sat around reminiscing about the good old days, one of the anecdotes that came up was one that I remembered most vividly.  I was a high school football player, and a pretty decent one. (Decent enough to go on and play a couple of years of Division II football on a scholarship at Morehouse College.)  In the fall of my junior year in 1994 I was accepted into the Order of the Arrow (O.A.), a fraternal organization within the Boy Scouts.   The organization’s initiation weekend, called the Ordeal, was scheduled to begin on a Friday night.  That same Friday night my football team was scheduled to play one of our division rivals.  My father insisted that I not play in the game and that I go to the O.A. ordeal instead.  That ticked off my head coach who wanted to make sure one of his best players was on the field.  (Yes, my coach was white, and yes, it mattered.  This is Mississippi we’re talking about.)   But my father stood firm.  I missed that game and became a member of the Order of the Arrow. My team lost the game.  It was a blowout anyway and I doubt I would have done much to help.

I tell that story to illustrate the importance of Scouting in my parent’s eyes.  My father knew that the sport of football was fleeting, and that the lifelong values of the Scouting program were more important than the passing glory of the gridiron.  Being from the South where football is Everything I’m sure that one reason he made me go was that he had seen so many young black men banking all their hopes on athletic fame and fortune, and then crashing and burning when those dreams go unfulfilled.  He wanted to instill in me that I had a sense of worth and a sense of purpose beyond what I could do in front of screaming fans on a big rectangular patch of grass.

Another thing we talked about that day with my Scoutmaster was a speech that I gave at my Eagle Scout Court of Honor.  I was asked to give the Eagle Response, a kind of valedictory speech for my class of Eagle Scouts.  I don’t have the text of that speech in front of me, but my mother has a copy at home.  She has circulated copies of it to her friends.  It is probably the one piece of my writing that she is most proud of.  I don’t remember the exact words now, but it was a stirring speech about responsibility, values and manhood.  I received a standing ovation when it was over.  A woman in the audience came up to me afterwards and invited me to give the graduation address that spring at a local alternative high school.

I learned a lot from my time in the Boy Scouts.  I learned about First Aid and survival skills, I sat in on meetings of the local city council, I got my first teaching experience as a merit badge instructor during summer camps, I took my first cross-country trip – to Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico where we went backpacking and met other Scouts from around the world.   My teenage years were all the richer because of my experience with the Boy Scouts.  And that is why it saddens me that this organization has decided that people like me do not belong there.

I have never officially had “the conversation” with my parents.  My mother is a school teacher who taught elementary school for 25 years.  My father has worked his whole life as a mechanic, and for the past 15 years he has served as the pastor of a small Baptist church in Livingston, Alabama.  We were never the type of family who discussed such things openly. I have speculated that they probably have an idea that their son is gay.  A Google search of my name is certainly incriminating enough.  I notice it has been a while since they have asked about who I am dating.  I know that my two sisters know, but we have talked very little about it.  And so we have settled into that vague stalemate that typifies so many relationships between gay people and our families.  I am sending all of them this letter as well, and I think they will read it, and they will have to decide for themselves how they feel about it one way or another.

I know that my parents love and support me.  They have been patient through my long sojourn in grad school.  They’ve been patient with my decision to live in an expensive, overcrowded, dangerous city.   They have given me the space to become the person that I want to be without micromanaging every decision I make.

It is their love that gives me the courage to write this.   I know that they are not small-minded people, even though they live in a very small-minded place.  I believe they can understand what I am saying here.  And even if I find that they do not agree with me politically,  I think they are compassionate enough to still love me, as they have loved all three  of their children despite the questionable decisions we have all made from time to time.

III.

I know that there has been a lot of anger directed at the Boy Scouts of America.  Some of you in the organization may feel like you are under siege.  I come not in condemnation, but in the hopes that I can help you see that you have a grand opportunity in front of you.  It is an opportunity to teach your scouts the truest meaning of citizenship.  Among the many badges that I earned were the required badges of “Citizenship in the Community”, “Citizenship in the Nation” and “Citizenship in the World.”  This is about teaching your scouts what it means to be good citizens of the nation to which the Boy Scouts of America belongs.  Other institutions in this country are trying to live up to our creed of creating a society where all can enjoy the fruits of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.  That is why it pains me to see that this organization has instead chosen to pursue a policy of bigotry and discrimination, to teach their Scouts to be so, well, un-American.

I know the Scouting organization well.  I know that the “Reverent” point in the twelve points of the Scout law does not require one to be a Christian in order to participate.  At the same time I also know that the BSA is an overwhelmingly Christian organization, and that this opposition to gays in Scouting is largely due to the Christian fundamentalists within the organization. So I thought I would add a few thoughts about the Christian faith here as well.

To those who claim to be opposed to homosexuality on biblical grounds I can only say that I have been where you are.  I once had those same objections myself.   I was fairly devout in high school and into my first couple of years of college.  I remember those days when I first began to question my faith, asking myself difficult questions about the authorship and history of The Bible.  When I first heard someone make an argument that homosexuality was not a sin I didn’t want to believe that either.  It was in The Good Book by the late Harvard minister Peter Gomes (an openly gay black Republican, by the bye) that I first read a serious theological argument in favor of accepting homosexuality, and I scoffed at it.  I scoffed even more when I saw that Gomes himself was gay.  “Of course, he is going to try to justify it,” I thought.  “He’s just making excuses for himself!”  But the questions he raised began to gnaw at me.  Why do people hone in on that one verse in Leviticus and ignore the others?  What was really the sin of Sodom?  Is it possible to be gay and a Christian?

I know that there is no point in mounting a full theological analysis in this little essay here.  But let’s just say I have yet to see any protests against the NFL for holding its games on Sundays, a day that many Christians recognize as The Sabbath.  That’s a serious violation of one of “The Commandments,” and yet there are no congressmen who have proposed constitutional amendments banning football on Sunday.  There are no proposals for constitutional amendments banning adultery either, though we know many of those sacred marriages have dissolved because of it.  I’m not just saying this to call you hypocrites.  (OK, well, maybe a little.)  Rather, what I am trying to get you to see is that you already have the capacity to exercise compassion.  You do it for all those single mothers in your congregation, for the divorcees, for the people shacking up, for the ones who go home after church to drink beer and watch the game on Sunday.  You know that they aren’t bad people, and you’ve clearly decided that the Bible verses condemning their actions are not as important as the love that you show them by welcoming them into your congregation.  I just wish that you would see that you can extend that same compassion to others as well.

Alright, so I’ll make one more biblical point while I’m at it, and it is related to what I just wrote.  This, to me, is one of the most important passages in the Bible and one that remains the most important to me personally:

“But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together. Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law?  Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  Matthew 34-40, KJV.

A couple of years ago a certain loudmouth talk show host told us that “empathy leads you to very bad things.”  On the contrary, this verse seems to suggest that Jesus saw empathy as one of the very foundations of the faith.  The thing that I hope you will see is that in this drama that is playing out right now, you who are opposed to gay rights are playing the role of the Pharisees, not of Christ.  You are the ones pointing to the letter of the law, telling us that you must make a stand on this literal interpretation of these specific arcane verses, while the spirit of the Christian faith as a whole is clearly moving toward enlarging the circle of compassion.

This summer I marched in New York’s annual LGBT Pride Parade with St. Bart’s Episcopal Church in New York, where my boyfriend Millard Cook works.  Millard knows a thing or two about these theological matters, as he is a former priest in the Catholic Church who broke with the church over its discriminatory policies.  The Episcopal Church, on the other hand, has been a leader in LGBT equality and they have recently taken steps to bless same-sex marriages within their congregations.  You see I understand that this not some false dichotomy between a group of pious wholesome Christians who are taking a stand for traditional values, and a group of mean godless liberals who want to force you to allow gays in the scouts.  I know that fundamentalism is always about a group of men (always men) trying to maintain a monopoly on the interpretation of scripture, and thus maintain their power over a group of followers.  I understand that fundamentalists do not hold a monopoly over the Christian faith, nor do fundamentalists of any other faith have the last word.  There are many people of all faiths who have reconciled their faith with the acceptance of LGBT people.  You are capable of doing this as well, if your heart is open to it.

I know the prospects of having to talk to the boys in Scouting about sexuality and sexual identity is daunting, and many parents would prefer not to have those conversations.  My own parents were never comfortable having those conversations with us either.  That’s one of the reasons why it has taken me so long to come clean about all this.

I also know that there are some Americans who do have experience talking to their kids about this delicate subject.  You in the BSA already know one of them.  Jennifer Tyrell, the mother of a Cub Scout in Ohio has been in headlines recently because she was prevented from serving as a Den Leader.  There are millions of other gay and lesbian parents just like her who have learned how to talk to their children about sexuality, and have taught their children to accept people who are different.  They have found that the world did not end when they talked to their children about sexual orientation.  Their kids did not grow up “confused.”  Many of them have gone on to live happy and fulfilling lives. And many of these parents can say that their relationship with their children is all the richer because of the honesty in which they raised them.  These are the very people that your organization should be reaching out to.  You should be embracing them, not turning them away.  You should be turning to them to help you make the transition to an inclusive policy for all the boys who want to join the Scouts.

Boy Scouts of America, you do have a choice.  I know that many of you are affiliated with the military and that many Scouts go on to military service.  You can choose to follow the U.S. Military’s recent decision to end “don’t ask, don’t tell.” You can learn from them about how they have changed their policy, about how they learned to accept the reality that gay and lesbian soldiers were already within their ranks and that this was only a way for those soldiers to be open and honest about the lives they were already leading.

Your other option is to go in the direction of the Catholic Church. You can choose to become increasingly bitter, angry, secluded, and delusional.  You can go on foolishly believing in your own self-righteousness and convincing yourself that you are upholding tradition while the rest of the world laughs at your blatant hypocrisy and watches you get humiliated by scandal after scandal.  You can allow the compulsory heterosexuality of your organization to lull you into complacency and create a space for the Jerry Sandusky’s of the world to threaten your boys into silence when abuse takes place. And we know that abuse will take place, as much as I wish it would not happen.  It had already happened when I was in the Scouts, hence the need for those staff sessions addressing sexual abuse before the beginning of the summer camp season.  Look, we’ve seen the track record of homophobic organizations and their leaders (Ted Haggard, George Rekers, Eddie Long, and so on, and so on).  We know that closet cases will be outed in your organization.  Personally, I wish they would make that choice on their own instead of waiting to be humiliated about it publicly.   Don’t be like that.  Don’t turn the BSA into a complete laughing-stock.

And yes, I am intentionally using the language of choice here.  I don’t think being gay is something so awful that one must be forced into it by biology or anything else. I accept that most people probably did not choose their orientation, but I also don’t think discrimination would be justified even if people did choose to be gay.  What I can say is that given a choice between a life of shame and deception and self-loathing, and a life of openness, honesty and joy, you are damn right I choose to be gay, and that is a choice I would make again and again.  I choose to stand with the people who have decided to love instead of those who are going out of their way to hate.

The BSA will just have to accept that LGBT people like myself are already a part of your organization and already hold ranks within that organization.  You can choose to deny us if you want to, but know that you are choosing to do just that, to live in denial.

IV.

Be not disheartn’d, affection shall solve the problem of freedom yet.
Those who love each other shall become invicible,
They shall yet make Columbia victorious.

– Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

I’m still not entirely sure why I decided to write this and post this.  I am not that interested in the Boy Scouts anymore.  I do see the BSA’s point that they are a private, voluntary organization and as such they have the right to accept who they wish.  At the same time it is that volunteerism that makes this seem so silly.  I mean are you really going to reject people who actually want to volunteer their time to help your organization?

I understand that the BSA is an inherently conservative organization, and as such the gay people who want to join their organization are probably more centrist than I am.  I have too much appreciation for the type of radical activism that it took for gay people to even have a voice in the public sphere.  Make no mistake about it, if it weren’t for those freaks and weirdos who fought back at Stonewall, and at other times and places around the world, we would not be able to have this little polite assimilationist gay movement that we have now.  Perhaps my appreciation for that radical spirit is irreconcilable with Scouting.  So be it.

I suppose I did this because I was compelled to speak on behalf of all those people who do want to be involved in the Scouts and who do want Scouting to be inclusive.  I felt I had to let them know that there are others who support them, and who will be behind them in this fight, just as I have benefitted from other LGBT people who paved the way for me to live the life that I live.

My Eagle Scout medal is on the dresser in my room in my parent’s house in Mississippi, and it will stay there.  It means too much to them for me to give it back. They worked too hard to help me get it.  The medal means too much to the Scoutmasters who volunteered their time and energy to help me and other young men to grow into maturity through the scouting program.  I know that it meant a lot to those black folks in my church and in my community who themselves endured hatred and violence under Jim Crow in Mississippi.  Many of them were happy to lend their support to a young black man from their community who was trying to do something good.  Some of those same people may not agree with this stance that I am taking now.  My parents may not even agree with all of this.  I just hope that they will see that my position is a direct result of the values that they taught me and not an aberration from them.

“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
-Proverbs 22:6.

23 thoughts on ““Why I’m Keeping my Medal: A Black Gay Eagle Scout’s Perspective”

  1. You made me cry. I know your struggle, and how beautiful and transforming it is; not just for you but for everyone who reads the brave and true words you’ve written. The Scouts need more real men like you. Thank you, and bless you for your courage. Nigel

  2. Lavelle– I have tears in my eyes reading this post. It’s so beautiful and heart felt. A big hug and kiss to you for being you. You have always been there for me and I hope I have for you. I love you and I continue to be here to support you! Thank you for writing this piece.

  3. I am an Eagle…. Although I am not gay, I have been torn about the stance that this organization that formed my youth has taken. I have been struggling with the idea of returning that which I am so proud to have earned. I support your words and pray that others follow suit. The BSA needs people like yourself in order to return the integrity that we all learned from our experiences thereof.

    • Thank you! Even if you do not want to return the actual medal, even a letter or email sent to the BSA will do some good and let others know there is a critical mass of Scouts who do not agree with their position.

  4. Mr. Porter: As the father of an Eagle Scout, let me congratulate you on a beautifully written piece. I’m sure your parents are very, very proud of you. BSA will be dragged (albeit kicking and screaming) into modern times. Unfortunately, in order for this organization to see the light, people like you must continue to shine the light on their prejudice. The conservative cadre that you have alluded to in your article is largely made up of Mormons and Methodists. The prejudice against LGBT people is one more trick of misdirection by leaders who wish to control members of their respective churches. It’s a trick that has been used throughout history. Find a minority to hate and stir up the membership. Get them all riled up and the checks will start flowing. I think most people’s rational thought evaporates when their hate/anger buttons are pushed. It’s a fairly simple trick and one that “hate” commentators have been using to make themselves rich for decades (ie Rush, Glenn Beck, etc). Keep fighting the good fight. Peace and love to you!
    PS. I saw a link to this article on FaceBook… so be prepared for the onslaught of comments.

  5. Thoughtful, insightful, well-stated, well-written, devoid of hatefulness, devoid of name-calling, intelligent, honest, open… Just my thoughts as they came to me whilst I read your work.

    A fine example of a true man amongst men.

    Others, in all walks of life, could certainly learn from your example, sir.

    • I think it helps to show them we are people from within this organization who want to see changes, so they can’t just dismiss this as a bunch of outside haters. Thanks for your comments.

  6. Pingback: Update | BLACK MAN IN THE COSMOS

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