James Dale, who was the plaintiff in the 2000 Supreme Court case Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, now works at an advertising agency in New York City.
I was trying to fit in, looking for a niche or a crowd I could be part of.
So I tried soccer, band, karate — all the activities that little boys growing up in my middle-class New Jersey suburb were supposed to enjoy. But I spent most of my time on the sidelines, never really feeling like I belonged.
Until I was 8 years old, and I discovered Cub Scout Pack 242.
For the first time in my life, I felt I was a valued part of a group. I could be an insecure and fearful kid, but Scouting offered positive reinforcement, a direction, shared goals. My fellow Cub Scouts didn’t judge me because I couldn’t hit a home run. We were taught to appreciate each other’s strengths because each of us was a unique and necessary part of a larger whole.
Scouting even brought me closer to my father. His demanding commute to Manhattan and weekends in the Army Reserve often kept us apart, but now, more than 30 years later, I still remember whittling down a seven-inch block of wood into a sporty sedan for the Pinewood Derby with him. In our garage, surrounded by the pungent scent of sawdust and spray paint, we found common ground in Scouting.
I went from Tiger to Wolf to Bear to Webelos, and at age 10 I crossed the bridge into Boy Scouts. Year by year, with every skill award and merit badge, I held my head a bit higher and became more accepting of myself, developing a sense of value and self-worth. During this time I started to think I might be gay, but it was a nonissue in the Scouting environment. I sensed no polarization, no culture war. In the Scouts I found countless peers and volunteers who helped me establish my convictions and find my voice.
I would need those convictions and that voice on Aug. 10, 1990, just before my junior year at Rutgers, when I received a letter from my local council leader, James Kay. “The grounds for this membership revocation are the standards for leadership established by the Boy Scouts of America,” the letter read, “which specifically forbid membership to homosexuals.”
It was a punch in the gut. Scouting was about overarching principles — kindness, respect, community — that could be upheld regardless of sexual orientation. How could this be?
At this point in my life I was openly gay and unashamed of it. I was co-president of Rutgers’s Lesbian/Gay Alliance and an assistant Scoutmaster in Troop 73 of Matawan, N.J. — and saw no contradiction between the two parts of my life. A local paper had published an article about me, and that is how my sexuality had become a matter of public record.
With this one letter, the work to which I had dedicated more than half of my young life came completely undone. I was devastated. Yet, it was precisely the sense of leadership, respect, equality and community that the Scouts had instilled in me that would not allow me to accept this injustice, done not just to me but to countless other young gay people who had found a home in the Boy Scouts of America. Not fighting my expulsion from the Scouts would have been a betrayal of all I’d learned in the Scouts.
I thought of Ingwe, my extraordinary snow-bearded Scoutmaster during my high school years. A fourth-generation African of British ancestry — his name was Zulu for “leopard” — he taught me to follow my convictions and believe in myself. In between stories of his youth exploring the Kenyan plains, he instilled confidence and integrity in his Scouts. It was Ingwe who awarded me my Eagle Scout badge, the highest honor in the Boy Scouts of America, during my freshman year of college. (“Once an Eagle,” the Scouts say, “always an Eagle.”) Would he regard my actions as an attack on the Scouting movement?
Yet, even as my parents worried about the public battle I was about to wage, it was Ingwe, then in his 80s, who stood closest by my side and applauded my sense of duty and honor, just as he had when I was 15.
I challenged the BSA policy in the New Jersey Supreme Court and won a unanimous victory. “The human price of this bigotry has been enormous,” wrote Chief Justice Deborah T. Poritz. “At a most fundamental level, adherence to the principle of equality demands that our legal system protect the victims of invidious discrimination.” In a concurring opinion, Justice Alan B. Handler emphasized that being gay does not take away from “one’s ability to participate in and contribute responsibly and positively to society.”
When the BSA appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, I continued the fight — and ultimately lost in a 5-4 decision on June 28, 2000. The majority ruled that it was within the BSA’s First Amendment rights to exclude gay members if it thought our presence would undermine its mission. In other words, the nation’s highest court ruled that the Scouts could legally enshrine bigotry into the Scout Oath and Law.
The ruling contradicted all I’d learned in my years of Scouting. As a Scout, I couldn’t accept it. So I’m still fighting.
Last year the Scouts reaffirmed the policy. The Boy Scouts was not the forum to discuss issues of sexuality, the group said, so gay boys would continue to be excluded from the ranks. I had no problem with the first part of the statement, except that it was precisely what made the second part so spurious. If discussions surrounding sexuality have no place in the Scouts, then why ban homosexuals but not heterosexuals? Everyone is a sexual being, after all.
If sexual issues are not brought up in the Scouting environment — and in my experience, they never were, until an outside party publicized my homosexuality — that’s all the more reason that it should not matter if some members happen to be gay. It has no impact on their ability to earn an American heritage merit badge, join the Order of the Arrow or achieve lifelong Eagle Scout status.
Now the Scouts and the nation are revisiting the matter again, and the BSA has still made no change. It just delayed a decision until May, at its annual national meeting. Through its inaction, the Boy Scouts of America is choosing to become increasingly irrelevant. With each passing day, the Scouts will continue to lose members, sponsors and funding because people are disassociating themselves from an organization that tells a boy he is immoral, unworthy or unacceptable simply because his is gay.
Nothing short of a program-wide rescinding of this policy will be enough. A “let each troop decide” approach would not be a baby step toward acceptance but rather a step in the wrong direction. Some troops would still be free to discriminate, and when troops with different policies came together — whether at summer camps or jamborees — the more inclusive ones would face discrimination.
It all comes at an unacceptable human cost; this kind of bias is the reason for high rates of depression, substance abuse and suicide among gay youth. It’s a policy that will harm some of the young people that the Boy Scouts was created to help.
From marriage to the military, Americans have made it clear since the beginning of my case that they believe in equality for all citizens. It is imperative that the Boy Scouts listen carefully to these voices and move forward into the 21st century with a full repeal. Thomas Jefferson put it best when he said: “Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.”