Why America Needs the Boy Scouts to Change

In a few weeks’ time, one of America’s most cherished institutions will arrive at a crossroads. After decades of banning openly gay youth and adult leaders from participation in its program, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) will put its membership policy — among the most divisive issues in the organization’s 113-year history — to a vote at its National Council meeting May 22-24.


Scouting, it should be said, is a cultural touchstone, counting 2.7 million youth and a million adult leaders in its membership as well as occupying a uniquely nostalgic place in America’s national psyche. Debate over the BSA’s policy on homosexual members stretches back to the 1980s, ranging from grassroots activism all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.


To that passionate conversation, I would add this — the story of a boy:


He wasn’t too special, really — painfully timid, and far more at ease in front of a computer screen than his peers. Bright, perhaps, but not bright enough to figure out the right way to dress at school, or to find much of anywhere he really fit in.


Except scouting, that is, which salvaged his adolescence. He took refuge in the khaki uniform, knee-high socks and all, and refuge of a different sort in his troop’s monthly outings. He wheezed through his first overnight hike, but was stronger on the second — and had begun to find himself by the third.


He grew more than he thought possible in scouting. He learned to take care of himself in the outdoors, and then to teach younger peers how to camp and cook themselves. He found belonging by sharing his skills and strength, and learned his life’s most important lesson through that service.


He became a leader, somehow, slowly. He was elected to lead his patrol, then troop. He found his first and second jobs at council summer camps, earning Eagle rank along the way.


Outside scouting, he joined the cross-country team. He edited his high school and college newspapers. He led teams implementing water projects at schools in East Africa three times, before he had earned an engineering degree. He interviewed as a finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship — traveling from a state school in Montana to compete with the Ivy League’s best and brightest.


That boy, of course, was me — a young man who needed scouting. A young man whose life arc was bent unexpectedly upward by its impact, like so many before him and since. A young man who — if I were gay — would have been denied the experiences that anchor my soul.


That injustice must change, for America’s young men need the Boy Scouts — regardless of whether they’re straight, gay or confused in the way only a teenager can be.


America needs the Boy Scouts, and needs scouting to change with our nation. We have no better way to engage our young men with the world, and no better way to teach the values vital to citizenship than scouting’s combination of camaraderie and service.


It pains me deeply to see the debate over homosexual membership pull an institution to which I owe so much toward cultural irrelevance as America moves toward tolerance. Like so many of my generation, I refuse to accept that the Scout Oath’s call to be “morally straight” has anything to do with sexual orientation.


As the National Council’s members meet, they should pay heed — Scouting’s true message, after all, is far too vital to leave behind.