How This Bisexual, Catholic Eagle Scout Found A Path Forward

by Eric Hetland

My childhood was defined by conflict. This conflict was only sometimes visible. Internally, however, the conflict was seismic and ever-present. As a young boy and teenager, I was constantly grappling with what it meant to be a faithful Catholic, an aspiring Eagle Scout, and someone who had same-sex attractions. This was hugely problematic.

I was a Bisexual, Catholic Eagle Scout by the time I reached my senior year of high school.

At the time, I guarded this identity with the utmost secrecy. I didn’t dare speak it aloud, or at least not with anyone I could not trust absolutely. What if my parents found out? What if the Church found out? What if my Scoutmaster found out? Would I be kicked out of my home? Disowned by my family? Shunned from my parish? Kicked out of my Boy Scout troop?

For all of these reasons, my coming-of-age experience was driven by an extreme fear of rejection, occasional self-loathing, and an inexplicable desire to prove myself worthy. And yet, looking back, I know that these fears and insecurities were misplaced.

I grew up in the kind of large, Catholic family that attended Mass weekly and whose kids went to Catholic school. The Lord was an ever-present facet of our lives, and I learned to view him as a loving force whose teachings I should live out in my daily actions.

I was no stranger to the Church’s teachings on homosexuality, which left me confused and fearful of who I was becoming. 

At the root of my fear, I believed that I was impure. Worse, I sometimes regarded myself with hatred and scathing ridicule. I was taught that the Church was the Word of the Lord, and thus I could reach no other conclusion. Surely, the Church couldn’t be wrong on homosexuality.

Faced with the damning prospect of being labeled gay, I did what any good, closeted, Catholic boy would—I devoted myself to becoming an Eagle Scout. Don’t get me wrong. I found the activities and essentials of Scouting downright cool. I was seriously taken with the idea of being a Scout and all that that entailed.

But, looking back, I realize that my strong attachment to Scouting likely had something to do with an insatiable desire to prove myself as something other than gay or bisexual.

I wanted to show that I had what it took to be respectable and worthy of praise. 

It is a terrible condemnation of our society to realize that, for too long, those two things (being gay and being respectable) were mutually exclusive, opposite states.

Luckily, the people in my life showed me that Catholicism is more brilliant and loving than can ever be understood simply through the teachings and dogma of the Church. For instance, it was in my Sister’s acceptance of my Queer sexual identity that I completely understood what it means for Catholics to lead a compassionate life.

She was the first person in my family who knew I was bisexual. She simply asked the question: “Is there anything you want to tell me?” after she had suspected my same-sex attractions. She did it lovingly and with understanding.

After I told her I identified as bisexual, she hugged me and told me that she loved me. 

She did not think I was a bad person or somehow morally corrupt. She gave me strength as we discussed how difficult it would be to come out to our parents. I feared how my father would react and wondered if he would still love me.

As I came out to my parents that next year, I did not know what to expect. I was fearful of rejection even though I did not think my parents were hateful people. On the day I came out to my mother, I had, as a precaution, a bag packed ready to go in case I was no longer welcome in my own home.

Thankfully, I was met with acceptance and love. My parents showed me that their love for me did not vanish as soon as I came out. They were living their Catholic faith by proving that their love for their son was unconditional and vibrant.

At times, however, there was a lack of full understanding and embrace. 

My father had to reconcile his devout Catholic beliefs with the profound reality that his own son was Queer. He loved me no matter what, but it took great strength for him to fully understand and accept my sexuality as a beautiful thing that is in agreement with the Lord.

He prayed for many months so that the Lord would grant him the grace and understanding required to reconcile his long-held beliefs on homosexuality with who I am as a person. In these months, my father charted his own path to affirmation and gained a deeper sense of faith.

My father’s path is in agreement with the “primacy of conscience” doctrine in the Catholic faith that was solidified at Vatican II. This doctrine calls on all Catholics to follow their inner voice when it comes to leading Catholic lives, and it encourages every Catholic to act in ways they know the Lord expects, even if it that is not in agreement with the Church at the time.

I suspect that thousands of Catholic families rely on the “primacy of conscience” when a family member comes out as LGBTQ. 

When it came to the Scouting world, I also had to chart my own path. I fully embraced the program and cherished the adventures I had with my close friends in my troop or summer camp.

But I was also painfully aware that the Boy Scouts of America had an explicit policy that banned openly gay or bisexual members of any age. I had to guard closely my sexual identity because I feared its exposure would rip away from me the defining experience of my adolescence that had given me so much.

Over time, I did come out to many close friends who I had worked alongside at Boy Scout camp. Their acceptance and embrace of who I was as a person was exactly what I needed at that point in my journey to self-acceptance.

My friends taught me that every person can choose whether they will accept an institution’s beliefs or policies at face value.

Even more, they showed me that those individual acts of acceptance can make all the difference in making others feel welcome and valued in any group.

Together, my family and friends taught me there is always a third way.

Photo provided by Eric Hetland