Last week, the Boy Scouts of America took its first step in ending decades of wrongs against its own youth members, myself once included.
When I was fourteen years old, I was faced with an impossible, scary and irrational choice: “If you choose to live that lifestyle, you’re choosing not to be a Boy Scout.” My dismissal from Boy Scouts was the very first time I was forced to stare down outright discrimination. It came at an all-too-young age. I didn’t know how to respond. I think I might have said, “Okay,” in response to my scoutmaster and all my other adult mentors and leaders, who sat and said and did nothing, while I walked out of the room. I cried myself to sleep that night knowing that the life I had known since fourth grade was forever changed.
So, after thirteen years of work and expectation, when the dream that wrongs once committed might be righted finally came true, I thought my reaction would be different. I had imagined I might leap for joy or cry tears of ecstatic happiness. In my mind, I saw hugs and handshakes and high fives.
As we had awaited the result from the vote and during the day before, I had nearly come to tears when speaking with reporters about my experience.
“I joined Scouts when I was in fourth grade and nearly every other boy in my class was in Cub Scouts,” I told one reporter. “These were my friends. We all grew up together. We were all working together to achieve our Eagle. They all got the chance to achieve their dreams. Mine were taken away from me. That won’t happen to any other young person now.”
That emotion was eerily absent when the final decision came down. When someone shouted, “It passed!” and the room around me erupted in cheers, all I did was sit stunned and shocked.
“What,” I asked, with a blank stare on my face.
I remained stoically composed throughout the rest of that day. I did my interviews with media. I never once shed a tear.
But, on my way back home from Texas, I read a message from a young Scout: “Thank you for standing up for me and all like me,” he said. And, that’s when it began to hit. I’ve re-read that message over and over and over, my eyes watering more and more each time. I’ve cried more during the time I’ve written this reflection. Because, now, I’ve realized that all this work, all this time, all this pain and all these memories – all of it last week culminated after thirteen years to make a difference for someone else. Someone I might never know.
Somewhere, in some troop in some city in this great nation, a young boy just now growing into a young man who realizes he is different will be spared the rejection I once faced. He will be able to look his peers in the eyes with pride and honesty. He will be able to work with his childhood friends to achieve a dream he’s had since elementary school. Together, they’ll become better leaders, better citizens, better neighbors. And, they’ll do it, because a Scout is a friend to all. They’ll do it, because a Scout is kind. They’ll do it, because a Scout never turns his back on those in need of support and help. They’ll do it because they will realize that what is best about Scouting is also what is best about America, a place where all are created equal, where all are respected, where all are endowed with certain rights no one else can take away.
I know the policy change last week isn’t perfect. The Boy Scouts of America will continue their ban on adult leaders. Young Scouts who earn their Eagle, will be told they’re not welcome when they turn 18. That’s no less wrong than telling them same thing when they’re 14. But, I know without a shadow of a doubt that what we were able to accomplish is a tremendous step forward.
“Thank you for standing up for me and all like me,” the young Scout said, now empowered, now supported, now affirmed and respected. This Scout is our future. He and others like him will make change like we’ve never seen. They will live out the Scout Oath and the Scout Law in their daily lives. They will do their daily good turns. And, when they turn 18, they will be prepared to take a stand, just like I have, for those who now need their help, their leadership and their support.
Our journey to create a Boy Scouts of America that is safe and inclusive of all members of its family is far from over. We have miles and miles to go. I hope my friends, family, fellow advocates and community will join us on this continued hike to equality.
We’ll get there. It may not be today, but we’ll get there. When we do, then and only then can the Scouts say they have fulfilled their original promise: “Every American boy shall have the opportunity of becoming a good Scout.”
On a final note: Just like the young Scout, I have my own thanks and notes of gratitude. To so, so, so many people, too many to possibly name, I offer you this: “Thank you for standing up for me.”