Scout’s Dishonor

An Eagle Scout wrestles with what’s happened to the organization he loved.
Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

More than anything, I remember the tarantulas. As the older boys of Troop 291 poured out of our Suburban to claim the best spots for their tents, I lingered behind with my two best friends, Jeff and Sean. We were in the sixth grade, and it was our first overnight camping trip as Scouts. Hours earlier, as our caravan had pulled out of the parking lot of the First United Methodist Church in Plano, I had been talking as if I were the reincarnation of Grizzly Adams. But as I surveyed the campsite in southern Oklahoma that I would call home for the next two nights, I began to worry that children sleeping in tents would be eaten by bears or carried off by homicidal maniacs with hooks for hands. That’s when the cry rang out: “Tarantulas!” I assumed it was an expression of terror, but in fact the older boys were overjoyed as they quickly captured their prey in glass jars and began discussing whether to keep them as pets or sell them when we got back home. On my honor, I didn’t sleep at all that night.

Thus began my six-year adventure in Troop 291, which would culminate in my attaining the rank of Eagle, in 1989, an honor I share with Ross Perot, Rick Perry, and 2.1 million others (around 4 percent of the total number of Scouts). I learned to build one-match fires with damp wood, sleep under the stars with nothing more than a bedroll, tie sheepshanks and bowlines, make life preservers out of blue jeans, and generally master skills that were as foreign as witchcraft to most of the kids in my neighborhood. 

Of course, I was aware of what those kids thought about scouting, as I am all too aware of what many readers might think as well. Though among certain circles—my mother and her friends, for example—being a Boy Scout suggested an honest, trustworthy person who believed in a sense of duty to others, that opinion was not shared by most of the boys at my school. Scouting was decidedly not cool, primarily for two reasons: one, everyone assumed you were a dork and a do-gooder, and two, no matter how rebellious and hip you might actually be, it didn’t matter because you had to wear those horrific outfits with the green-and-red socks. I had no moral quandary when I rejected a recommendation to wear our uniforms to middle school on meeting days, in part out of self-preservation and in part because at some point in my life I hoped to go on a date with a girl. 

But I also realized how important the experience was, even if I didn’t fully understand its impact until years later. My father had volunteered with the troop in the seventies, when my brother, David, became an Eagle. He did the same with my Cub Scout pack until he died, in 1981, when I was eight. (Not long after I joined Troop 291, David even served as my scoutmaster for a couple of years, driving in from a town twenty miles away to lead the troop.) We participated in the organization because it was a family tradition, and because the clichés are true: scouting really does teach you about teamwork and leadership and the value of giving back to the community. My friends and I built trails in local parks, spruced up aging neighborhoods, and collected food for the needy. Corny as it may sound, being a Boy Scout taught me how to be a good citizen.

So I never doubted that if I had a son, he would join as well. But then the Scouts began to change—or maybe the problem was that they didn’t change. In any case, I began to have my doubts about the organization. It all started in the midst of a protracted, highly publicized court battle in California that dragged on for more than a decade. In 1980 a teenager named Tim Curran, who had recently earned the rank of Eagle, was kicked out of the organization by the leaders of his local governing council after they learned he was gay. In 1991 the Boy Scouts of America, which has been headquartered in Irving since 1979, released the following statement: “We believe that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the requirements in the Scout Oath that a Scout be morally straight and in the Scout Law that a Scout be clean in word and deed.” The organization ultimately prevailed when the California Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the BSA had the right to set its own membership standards.

The decision may have been a victory for the Scouts, but it changed the perception of the organization from one that was charmingly benign to one that had formalized bigotry as part of its culture. In my experience, the Boy Scouts were so wholly noncontroversial and so purposefully old-fashioned that our biggest problem was proving that we hadn’t stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Now, in the organization’s determination to stand by so-called traditional values, it was embracing the worst instincts of an earlier generation, something that ran counter to the very things I thought I had been taught about tolerance and acceptance.

It all came to a head this past July. Two years earlier, the Boy Scouts of America had initiated a review of its membership standards. I had hoped that the organization would moderate its stance, but in the end, the policy to exclude gay members was reaffirmed. The BSA issued a statement that was as laudably polite (“We fully understand that no single policy will accommodate the many diverse views among our membership or society”) as it was irrevocably firm (“[the ban] remains in the best interest of Scouting”). Though the Boy Scouts remained on firm legal grounds—in 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court also upheld their membership policies—they were now dishearteningly out of step. The U.S. military had begun to allow openly gay soldiers to serve and the Girl Scouts had refused to

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