A week ago and a half ago, I came back from a trip to the States. It’s been close to ten years since I was last there, and a few friends have moved over to various coasts in the meantime so it was great to catch up. Since I was in the country, it was also a good opportunity to finish something I’d started a month earlier.
Some back story: The Boys Scouts of America (BSA) is the organisation that represents the oldest Scouting group for boys in the United States, and seeing as my first ten years of education were at an American curriculum school, it was the BSA that set out the Scouting I did in Malaysia and Thailand.
After many years of camping out, tying knots, learning swimming survival techniques from Navy S.E.A.Ls and working within the community, I was incredibly fortunate to be able to achieve the pinnacle of youth scouting: in January of 1997, I was made an Eagle Scout. I could not have gotten there alone, and it was only with the aid of other Scouts, Scout Leaders and my family that I crossed the line the day before we moved ‘back home’ from Asia to the UK. It was a long path to get there, involving a rounded selection of Merit Badges (physical ones like swimming, survival and first aid, citizenship ones as in the community and of the world and many others), demonstrable leadership over time and importantly arranging and completing a project for the community.
In my case, the Catholic church in Kuala Lumpur has a home for women who were orphaned with physical or mental handicaps. A previous Eagle project had transformed an internal courtyard into a garden, and during that work I had seen their shared social living room. It was fine, but could have done with some TLC, and there were certainly other improvements we could make given funding. So in consultation with the Sister in charge, I asked for donations of paint and cleaned out the aquarium and found new seats and we redecorated the place. The best part of that experience was spending time with the women who lived in the home, and seeing them smile regularly of a weekend. Completing this was one of the proudest moments of my life.
I am incredibly proud to be an Eagle Scout. I have put it on my CV since before leaving school because it means so much to me, even though it doesn’t count for anything like as much here in the UK as it would the the States.
So I was ashamed and surprised to discover in late June that an internal committee of the BSA had reviewed the Scouting group’s opposition to openly gay members and leaders and voted to maintain the status quo. I wasn’t even aware that the organisation had had such a stance, but the fact that they had an opportunity to reverse it and chose not to stood against what I understood Scouting to be about.
Out in Malaysia we were certainly more cut off from the BSA, but the handbook and other materials from them had always encouraged equality and inclusivity (if you exclude the Boy/Girl dichotomy). This is the same group that in the 60s had advocated for black families and members to have equal status, a stance they continued to hold, although they backed off outright advocacy of this issue in Southern states.
Given all of this, and despite my current lack of active leadership within the BSA, I felt as a lifetime member of the National Eagle Scout Association that I had to speak out. We Eagle Scouts are valued as important graduates of the program, future leaders of our community and a great resource and role model for younger Scouts. After short consideration, and a good deal of emotion, I wrote my first letter in 10 years and handed in my badge and lifetime membership. As we had a trip to the US planned anyway and a Scout is pragmatic as well as morally straight, I posted the badge back to Texas from a post office in Oakland, CA.
There’s a copy of the letter below, and I’ve also passed a copy on to Eagle Badges on Tumblr. If you’re interested in Scouting, and feel like you want to make a difference, you could head along to Scouting for All, who have been beating the drum for equality in the BSA for years. In addition, if you’re thinking of getting your kid involved with scouting in the US now, there are ways to go about it. One is Campfire USA, and another is to check the position of your local Council. Although it doesn’t change the message coming out of Irving, the Northern Star Council in Minnesota is reported to have a sane, inclusive policy towards its membership and there are local troops that do the same.
A Once and Former Eagle Scout
Dear Bob Mazzuca, Wayne Brock, and the National Executive Board of the Boy Scouts of America:
This is the hardest letter I remember having to write. Fifteen years ago, I stood in front of an audience of peers, family, community leaders and the orphaned, physically disabled women that I had helped, and proudly received my Eagle Scout award. You know that we Eagle Scouts hardly ever wear our physical awards in regular life, and as a British citizen now living in the UK, I have even less opportunity to do so. However the lessons we learned and continue to learn throughout the course of our path to Eagle stay with us. I have even continued to put Eagle Scout on my resume here, although the award carries far less weight.
It was with a good deal of surprise that I had read that the BSA had decided to continue with its policy of excluding homosexuals from the organisation. The surprise was two-fold: first, that there was such a policy to begin with, and second that an organisation that prides itself on independence and inclusiveness would have decided to continue with such a policy.
Scouting has given me so much in my life. When my family moved to Thailand, I worked my way up through the Cub Scout movement, enjoying Pinewood Derbys with my dad and watching my friends and their dads celebrate their (in some cases air tunnel tested) derbies rocket down the slope. As a Webelos, we went camping in the heart of the country, eating s’mores made with graham crackers from the American commissary. When, 5 years later, we moved to Malaysia, some of those friendships travelled with me. As a Boy Scout, camping in primary rainforest and going from a wet behind the ears kid to Assistant Patrol Leader then upwards to Senior Patrol Leader, I learned about leadership, and about how to do right by and with people that come from different backgrounds. My troop, 1-818, has a proud history of getting a huge proportion of Scouts through to the Eagle Award, far in excess of the national 1% average. Being based in an American International School, we had Scouts from the Netherlands, the UK, Malaysia, Australia, and the US with a hugely differing variety of backgrounds, cultures, races and religions. I learned so much from all of those Scouts, and continued to do so right up until the time we left the country (the day after I earned my Eagle Scout award).
I would be remiss not to mention all I learned from parents, Scout Leaders and community members: survival skills, sailing, knot tying, climbing, citizenship, finance, engineering, amongst a host of other skills. If I had been denied some of that knowledge because one or more of those teachers and leaders was homosexual, my experience as a Scout would have been far poorer. Likewise, the numbers on homosexuality in the population is such that it would be surprising if some of my friends and fellow Troop members did not now identify as gay. I would be the poorer for not having them around, as would the Scouting community as a whole.
A scout is mentally awake, but I had clearly fallen short in not recognizing the existing policy on homosexuality within the BSA. A scout is also morally straight, and so I cannot in good conscience continue to be associated with the organisation that gave me friends and courage and a strong outlook on what is right and wrong. It would be impossible to unmake me an Eagle Scout – I am what I am because of the values and memories that I learned on the trail to Eagle. I hereby return the Eagle Scout badge that I and my family worked so hard towards. Also enclosed is my lifetime NESA membership card. The BSA is on the wrong side of this issue.
James Allan Bell
ex-Eagle Scout Troop 1-818
ex-Order of the Arrow Vigil Member