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 make sexuality a condition of membership. Across the country, attitudes toward gay rights were gaining widespread acceptance, particularly among people from my generation.
I wasn’t the only one who was discouraged. A group of Scouts mailed their Eagle medals back to the national headquarters in protest. Two influential members of the BSA’s national board—James Turley, the CEO of Ernst and Young, and Randall L. Stephenson, the CEO of Dallas-based AT&T—stated that the policy should be overturned. Even Barack Obama and Mitt Romney called for an end to the ban. By then I did have a son, who was turning three. And that’s when it hit me: no matter what scouting had meant to me in the past, I wouldn’t allow him to join in the future.
As I wrestled with the implications of that decision, another ugly issue surfaced that changed my feelings toward the organization from frustration to anger. In August, the Los Angeles Times began publishing a series of stories based on an investigation of a cache of records tracking volunteers who had been suspected of abuse or other criminal acts. Known as the “perversion files,” the records had been locked away at the BSA headquarters for years, but they were introduced as evidence in a 2010 sexual abuse case in which a former Scout accused his scoutmaster of repeatedly assaulting him decades earlier (the victim won an $18.5 million judgment). The Times reviewed nearly two thousand records from 1970 to 1991, which included the years I was in Troop 291, when a chilling number of cases of abuse across the country were overlooked or concealed entirely. As the public reeled from scandals in the Catholic Church and at Penn State University, the reports tarnished an organization whose reputation has always rested on its commitment to the safety of children. The Boy Scouts, it appeared, had at times been more concerned about removing gay members who posed no threat to anyone than stopping leaders who were preying on the very boys they had sworn to protect.
It has been incredibly difficult to square this cruel and twisted notion of the Boy Scouts of America with my own experiences. So I called Jay Brooks, who has served as the scoutmaster of Troop 291 for the past two years. During the day, he works as a distribution clerk for a medical supply company, but he spends at least six hours a week volunteering with the troop, not including campouts and various community events. According to Brooks, the headlines hadn’t shaken the confidence of the families in the troop. “The only people I’ve heard from about the stories are not even involved in scouting,” he told me. In fact, Troop 291, which was chartered in 1965, continues to boast an astounding number of members, with 46 boys on the roster.
Brooks agreed that the stories of abuse are unspeakable, but he is quick to point out that the cases in question happened decades ago. He refers to the intense “YPT”—youth-protection training—that is now required by the BSA as well as specialized instruction from the State of Texas. “The main thing is what we call ‘two-deep’ leadership,” he said. “Two adults are always present with the kids; you never want to be in a position where you are alone with a child.”
As for the ban on gay members, Brooks had a particular view on the subject. “It’s not an issue that I have encountered in my little corner of scouting,” he told me. “It wouldn’t matter to me if I had a kid who was green with purple polka dots as long as he behaved appropriately. I don’t understand taking away medals from a boy. If he earns his rank, he earns it. The other stuff shouldn’t matter.”
The problem, of course, is that Brooks is not in charge of the Boy Scouts of America. He is only in charge of Troop 291, which is subject to the rules of the national organization (Curran’s scoutmaster, after all, knew for years that the boy was gay but supported him anyway). But perhaps change is coming. Randall Stephenson is in line to become president of the national board in 2014. He doesn’t see inclusion and acceptance as a threat to scouting’s principles but as an affirmation of them. He understands that in a world overrun with digital distractions, scouting can continue to teach timeless lessons while turning its back on prejudice. I hope he can lead the organization in a new direction, both for the sake of the country, which can still benefit from the best the Boy Scouts have to offer, and for my son, whom I want to have the same experiences I did—but only if all boys are welcome to join him.