Eagle Scouts return medals over group's ban on gay members

Twenty years ago, Aaron Becker had just been named valedictorian of Baltimore's City College when he was also awarded the rank of Eagle Scout — the culmination of years of Scouting work, including a seven-month project to make a video about emotionally vulnerable children.

But Becker's longtime affiliation with the Boy Scouts of America came to an end recently, when he returned his Eagle medal to the organization because of its decision to uphold a ban on openly gay Scouts and leaders. He joined a growing number of men across Maryland and the nation — gay and straight, old and young — who have voiced disapproval of that decision by relinquishing Scouting's most prestigious award.

"It seems so hypocritical to me, what they've chosen to do. It boggles my mind," said Becker, 38, a children's author who now lives in Massachusetts with his wife and daughter. He said he learned in Boy Scouts to value and respect others, not to exclude them.

The BSA announced its decision in July, after a two-year review by a "special committee of volunteers and professional leaders." A spokesman confirmed that some medals have been returned, but said most members agree with the policy.

Other Eagle Scouts who, like Becker, have returned their medals said the organization's decision conflicts with the basic teachings of Scouting.

"Part of what I learned in Scouts is that you stand up for the side of the person who's being oppressed and you do what's right, even if it's not easy," said Lee Berger, 39, a vice president with Travelers Insurance in Connecticut. He earned his Eagle medal in 1991, the year he graduated from Oakland Mills High School in Columbia.

Berger said the medal was very important to him. His mother died shortly after he earned it, and when she was buried, he put the Eagle pin that she had been given in her casket. But the BSA's policy reaffirmation made him regret that decision.

The medal made him feel "ill at ease," so he returned it, in part to set an example for his two children.

Paul Berman, 61, an attorney who lives in Silver Spring, said he struggled with the idea of returning his 1965 medal but determined he had to voice his displeasure with the BSA policy.

"I found the decision inconsistent with everything I thought I'd learned from Boy Scouts, which was really part of the fabric of my growing up," Berman said. "Boy Scouts helped teach me the importance of strong, solid relationships with other people, regardless of however they might be classified."

When the BSA announced its decision this summer, it said the policy banning gay members — upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 — was in the "best interest of the organization" but acknowledged the policy wasn't accepted by all members.

"The vast majority of the parents of youth we serve value their right to address issues of same-sex orientation within their family, with spiritual advisers, and at the appropriate time and in the right setting," Bob Mazzuca, the organization's chief Scout executive, said in a statement at the time.

While many Eagle Scouts supported the policy, others balked, saying Mazzuca's statements created the false impression that allowing gay Scouts would force sexual conversations around the campfire. Some said they had hoped to change the policy internally but were convinced of the futility of that approach following the BSA's reaffirmation. Others said they'd been naive and hadn't fully understood the organization's stance.

After the announcement, many of them took to social media to express concerns. They included Burke Stansbury, a well-known activist from Seattle who had earned his Eagle medal in 1995 and recently returned it.

Stansbury, 36, created a blog on the social media site Tumblr for fellow Eagle Scouts to publicly share the letters they had sent to the BSA in returning medals. More than 150 Eagle Scouts have posted on the site since.

"For a lot of people, they've been inspired by seeing other letters and have been convinced by them to take the same step," Stansbury said. "Some of the letters that have been posted have been reposted or shared thousands of times."

Robert Grimm, director of the Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at the University of Maryland, College Park, said nonprofit organizations are increasingly dealing with the power of social media to fuel challenges to their activities.

Nonprofits often project certain values or maintain policies that have political underpinnings, he said. For organizations such as the BSA — which has a large, diverse constituency — the modern media landscape can quickly turn into a gantlet of policy-vetting.

Deron Smith, a BSA spokesman, said the organization is not keeping an "exact count" of returned medals, but has "received a few."

When asked if "a few" was an accurate representation, given Stansbury's blog and other postings on social media, Smith said it was.

In a statement, he added: "Although we are disappointed to learn of anyone who feels compelled to return his Eagle rank, we respect their right to express an opinion. While a majority of our membership agrees with our policy, we fully understand and appreciate that not everyone will agree with any one position or policy."

Smith said the BSA has more than 2 million Eagle Scouts, and that 50,000 young men earn the rank each year.

Until recently, Steven Colella, a gay 23-year-old, counted himself among those Eagle Scouts.

The Frederick resident, who earned his Eagle medal in 2006, had been offered a job with the BSA when he heard about its reaffirmation of the ban on gay members.

"It was very much a slap in the face," Colella said. "Instead of taking progressive steps to at least be impartial, if not tolerant, [the BSA took] an active stand against tolerance. In that way, it's hurtful, it's offensive and it's degrading."

Last month, Colella — who has a younger brother who is an Eagle Scout and another working to attain the honor — came out to his parents just before returning his medal to the BSA.

"The Boy Scouts always teach citizenship and leadership and a willingness to be of service to others, but when they come back with a policy that states that they are unwilling to contribute to the development of certain classes of individuals, I think they do a lot of harm to their own message," he said. "Instead of teaching people to be leaders and to be positive members of society, they are teaching them to be discriminatory."

Berman, a partner at the Washington-based firm Covington & Burling, agreed.

He has been married for 40 years, has two sons and three grandchildren. He has been very lucky in life, he said, and Scouting taught him how to be a good person and to appreciate what he has.

Though he loves the BSA, he said, "They had the opportunity to do the right thing and they chose affirmatively to do the wrong thing, and it was enough. Just enough."

Becker said he was inspired to return his medal by people like Berman and the passionate letters they wrote to the BSA.

"I'm not a gay activist, I don't have a ton of gay friends, I'm not out there trying to change the world for homosexuals," he said. "I'm just a regular guy who saw this was out there and thought, 'Get with the program, Scouts.'

"Times are changing, and I think it's pretty cool that this is happening. It's our own little civil rights movement of our generation."

An earlier version gave an incorrect home state for Burke Stansbury. He is from Seattle.



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