“You don’t have to say anything… just know… if you are gay the guys in the troop are still your friends and are with you.”
I did not say anything. It would be six more years before I came out as a gay man.
But that night at scout camp, a dark weight was lifted for my soul as my fellow scout said something I had not even told myself I needed to hear. My troop, which I served as Chaplain’s Aide, respected me and cared for me regardless of my sexuality.
The scout leaders of my troop were the first adults in my life to ever make it clear that it was okay to be gay. These moments of affirmation, this knowledge that I had a safe space even if I was not ready to use it, alleviated outward pressures that were enabling depression and suicidal ideation within me.
The open and affirming nature of a troop is defined by its chartering organization. Though the Boy Scouts of America lifted their ban on gay troop leaders and employees in July, the policy still allows individual faith-based chartering organizations to discriminate based on sexual orientation when selecting adult leaders.
My troop was inclusive because it was sponsored by a Moravian Parish.
In 1974 the Moravian Church recognized that gay men and women are full members of the Christian Community. Many of the adult leaders of my troop were active church members, and my troop lived out the doctrine of its chartering organization.
The Boy Scouts have struggled over the past decade to recognize the theologies of many of their chartering organizations around sexuality. The Unitarian Universalist Association, for example, passed a resolution in 1999 to work to change the Boy Scouts’ discriminatory policies, including the Boy Scouts’ exclusion of LGBT people.
As more Scouts lived out the theologies of their faith traditions and accepted and welcomed LGBTQ+ individuals, as more Eagle Scouts came out and continued to live fully into the highest honor of Scouting, as out and affirming Eagle Scouts went on to seminary and to be ordained ministers in their faith traditions, the Boy Scouts of America realized that it was no longer allowing for many people of faith to maintain their reverence for God and take part in Scouting.
The Boy Scouts’ recent policy change means that welcoming and affirming faith communities can charter Boy Scout Troops that uphold open and affirming theologies of sexuality. And this means that welcoming and affirming faith communities can provide places for youth to develop into adults who recognize and value the dignity of all individuals, regardless of sexuality and gender expression.
By chartering scout troops, welcoming and affirming faith communities can provide safe space for youth like me.
The value for welcoming and affirming faith communities to charter scout troops does not, however, end there. At the LGBTQ Task Force’s Faith and the Family Power Summit, one key issue was how to breach difficult conversations with our faith partners who do not recognize our open and affirming theologies about sexuality. By sponsoring a Boy Scout Troop, welcoming and affirming faith communities can not only facilitate those difficult conversations, but also alleviate some of that difficulty along the way.
Being a scout also provides an acquired point of intersectionality with individuals of many faiths, classes, races, and ethnicities. One of the greatest gifts scouting provides its members is the constant need to be on a team with individuals from across many backgrounds and learn to respect and honor them for who they are.
This leads to lifelong friendships that bridge many difficult boundaries and consistently prompts conversation and understanding. Welcoming and affirming faith communities can be part of these conversations so that over time, others can fully see and understand our witness and the reverence each of us holds for our faith.
Chartering a Boy Scout Troop can be transformative for both churches and their communities.
The work and witness of scouting percolates both locally and regionally as leaders and youth formed by the troop interact with other scouts in the area and across the state. The relationships that open and affirming troops form within the scouting program will change the very nature of the conversations that our communities are having around the inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community.
Over a decade after receiving my Eagle Scout Award, I look back at scouting as a key foundation to my life. I remember walking into the office of one of my scout leaders my senior year of college and having a long conversation as we walked around the botanical gardens where she worked. In that conversation, I found the support I needed to embark on the journey of mission and ministry with the church that has brought wholeness to my life.
When I have worked on campaigns for marriage equality and testified before legislators for the inclusion of transgender and gender expansive individuals, it was on account of the core principles of civic duty and equitable treatment of others I learned as a Boy Scout. Scouting instilled within me the courage to be me—a principle I strive to bring to others through my continued work in scouting.
There are many youth today that need to hear the words I heard as a young Boy Scout: “If you are gay the guys in the troop are still your friends and are with you.”
They need to hear this not just whispered, but spoken clearly by faith communities and the troops that they sponsor.
For help in starting a troop, or steps to have your faith community’s troop recognized as open and affirming, please contact Scouts for Equality. Help us build partnerships to create fully courteous, kind, and reverent communities across America that ensure the safety and well being of every youth in our midst.
Photo via GLAAD