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.