One Millennial Asks, Are the Boy Scouts Really Making the World a Better Place?
BY RYAN C. BRADLEY
My last active year in the Boy Scouts of America was 2008, the year I did my Eagle Scout project. My older brother had had a bout with cancer two years earlier and went into remission after six months of treatment. Visiting him, I’d noticed that the pediatric cancer ward at Yale New Haven Hospital had an awful lot of toys for children but almost nothing for teenagers. Filling that gap became my Eagle project.
With a few Scouts and adults as helpers, I sat outside of Arcuiolo’s Shoe Store in Milford, Conn., one afternoon asking shoppers to donate DVDs, video games and other electronics for the hospitalized teens. I’m proud to say we collected over $1,000 worth of goods.
I was not proud to learn about the Boy Scouts of America’s anti-gay policies. That afternoon, as I sat outside the shoe store, a visibly angry middle-aged man came over and asked if we were Boy Scouts. He proceeded to let us know that he had made it all the way to Life Scout, the rank before Eagle, only to be ejected when he came out as gay.
The Boy Scouts, founded in 1910, is one of this country’s largest youth organizations, teaches boys to be better citizens and focuses on “leaving the world a better place.” But many Millennials are questioning whether these ideals have really been met, if it’s the force of good we had imagined.
Eagle is the highest rank in the Boy Scouts of America. To earn it, a boy must achieve all of the previous ranks, earn 21 Merit Badges, and lead a community service project in which volunteers work under that boy’s direction for at least 100 hours. All requirements must be completed before the boy’s 18th birthday. Then the boy goes before a board of review and answers questions from the committee members who’ve been tasked with deciding if that Scout is worthy of the rank. The process is arduous. Out of the boys who join Boy Scouts, a little less than 4 percent achieve Scouting’s highest honor.
I am an Eagle Scout. If we’re being generous, I stand 5 feet 6 inches. I’ve got curly blond hair that no amount of combing or gel can tame. I’m terrified at the prospect of speaking to anyone I haven’t known for at least two years. While a Scout is brave, anxiety often slips into my voice, making it shriller than I would like. Compared with other writers my age, my list of publications is impressive. A big part of that is the hard work and persistence I learned trying to chop enough firewood for the night during winter camping trips.
My upstairs neighbor Neil Pratt is another one of us. He stands a bit above 6 feet tall. He’s got a sandy-brown crew cut and a goatee. He speaks in the clear, crisp sentences of a radio personality. As a critical care nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital, he still uses the frameworks he developed in Scouting “for situations that [he’s] not prepared for and figuring out what exactly to do in those situations. Not to just freeze up and to not know what to do. To be able to act. To critically think in those situations.”
We Eagles come in all shapes, and sizes, and sounds. As well as being a nurse, an Eagle Scout, a Christian and a neighbor, Neil is a gay man. He wasn’t out while he was an active member of the Scouts (the age cutoff to remain an active youth member is 21), but if he had been he would’ve been kicked out and consequently missed “the value of Scouting and what it was teaching [him].”
Neil’s father was an active leader, so Neil attended safety training that exposed him “to the Boy Scouts’ attitude toward gay people in the setting of the safety situation. Because a lot of the anti-gay attitude stemmed from the safety of children kind of aspect and kind of caught up in the very ’70s mentality that gay people are at risk of being pedophiles.” The idea that gay men are more likely to be pedophiles is offensive and untrue, but imagine the effect it would have on a young man not ready to come out.
Neil grew up in Fanwood, N.J. Though Scouting’s overall policy would ban him if he were out (Neil knew he was gay, but was “nowhere near ready to be open about it” while he was still in Scouting), his troop “was a fairly liberal troop. It was fairly diverse in religious backgrounds.”
Even being part of a liberal troop, Neil says that the policies “made it much more complex growing up as a gay person.” So much so, that while he partially attributes reaching Eagle at 15—two years below the average age of 17—to a race he was having with a friend to see who could reach the rank sooner, it’s also because he “wanted to have the freedom to leave Scouting and not feel like [he] didn’t accomplish things that [he] wanted to.” By contrast, the only policy I had to worry about was the age: I achieved Eagle a little less than 40 days before my 18th birthday.
Throughout both of my and Neil’s times in Scouting, the organization suffered declining enrollment, a trend that continued over the last decade. Between 2013 and 2014 alone, membership in the Boy Scouts of America dropped 7 percent. While no one can say conclusively what’s causing this decline, I would contend that it has much to do with Scouting’s slowness to adapt, especially in the way it thought about homosexual Scouts. I didn’t do anything about it though.
Neil got involved. He learned that Eagle Scouts were sending their badges to the national office but couldn’t bring himself to do that. “I didn’t want to give it up. It’s something I worked hard for. It’s something I’m proud of,” he said. “I felt like I’d rather stay in the system, advocate within the system.”
Instead, he called his council representative and asked him to petition for an end to the ban. Neil was happy to find that this person “was vocally trying to overturn the ban” already. If there’s anything that the Boy Scouts of America can hang their hat on, it’s Eagle Scouts like Neil. He credits the organization with teaching him “General leadership skills…to keep an eye out for your fellow citizens, making sure they’re getting equal treatment.”
The Wilderness Survival Merit Badge was created in 1974. One of the requirements is for a boy to spend the night in a shelter that he built while doing minimal damage to his environment. It’s an elective badge that Neil chose not to get. I spent the night under two pine boughs leaned against a tree. I slept well, until the rain started.
It seems to me that the Boy Scouts of America is building itself a similarly shoddy shelter. While they have made steps forward toward accepting gay Scouts and leaders, it is slow, shaky work. Atheists as well as transsexuals are still not allowed, something the organization must remedy.
At the end of our interview I prodded Neil for an emblematic story, an anecdote that could sum up his experience of being a gay Scout. I tried to find out if his troop had thrown around words like “gay” and “fag” as if they were baseballs. Neil answered candidly, “No. I was kind of lucky, and I hate to use this term but I’m a fairly masculine ‘straight-acting,’ kind of guy, so I was able to fly under the radar. I never experienced a lot of overt discrimination.” I was looking for what I feared most at that age: being pinned down and beaten, being spit on and laughed at, or worst of all being ostracized, exactly what I joined the Boy Scouts of America to avoid. Not every gay Scout will be that lucky, whether the ban has been lifted or not. Eagle Scouts are duty bound to fight against discrimination and oppression and to follow the outdoor code—leave the world a better place than we found it.
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