He stood next to me, leaning up against the bar and gazing at the patchwork of vintage memorabilia that adorned the walls. The chatter of our fellow young adult Scouters bounced across the room in a low roar of celebration that another Boy Scout conference had successfully come and gone.
“So I’m a homosexual,” my friend said, his words just barely audible above the cacophony. He turned back toward me and lifted his drink. I rose from my slouch against the counter, raised mine and responded with, “Well, I’m queer” as we clinked glasses.
Almost everyone in his “normal” life knew, he said, but only a select few of his friends from Boy Scouts were in the loop. I scanned the room and noted a few of his confidants. Behind the composed veneer I maintained in that moment, I felt an immense shame and a deep gratitude. I was ashamed that I had not yet shared my truth as he had, and grateful that he had chosen to share this part of his life with me.
This moment was more than just a shared confession: it was a culmination of my enduring advocacy for inclusion in the Boy Scouts that spanned the same college years that were crucial to my understanding of my own sexual identity. It was also a catalyst to have more conversations like these – to crack this silence wide open.
Coming To Terms With Queerness
I never expected to share a moment like this with any of my Boy Scout friends. In fact, for the entirety of my youth experience in the organization, I identified as straight. I never felt closeted, either. It wasn’t until college that I began to move beyond my own assumption of straightness and explore the very idea of sexuality. I soon realized that the label “straight” did not fit me like it once did.
Before long I started to call myself “queer,” at first because the umbrella term captured my newfound range of sexual attractions. These desires, I thought, would one day determine which traditional label – maybe “gay” or “bisexual” – would fit best (It was just a matter of time and Grindr hookups). But the more I learned about the term “queer,” the more I realized how well it described my identity. It represented my sexuality as something else, something that couldn’t really be defined by any of the other terms I had found. It was as much physical as it was social and political – not entirely dependent on who I was hooking up with at any given moment.
By the time I came to identify as queer, the Boy Scouts of America had moved to allow openly LGBTQ Scouts and volunteers. Our uniforms, however, still acted as a cloak against coming out. So I was surprised when I had that conversation at the end of the Boy Scout conference – albeit, not in uniform. Somehow in our corner of the bar that night with loud music and chatter as our shelter, we were compelled to share these truths with each other. (Read his story about that moment here).
From Advocacy To Authenticity
When I look back, it’s amazing how much my perspective on LGBTQ issues in Scouting has evolved. Back in high school, when some of my friends asked me about the anti-gay Boy Scout membership policy, I was quick to retort that gay membership was simply a logistical nightmare – where would the gay boys sleep? In their own tents?
Needless to say, I’ve come a long way since then. Later in high school, I started reporting on the Boy Scouts’ gay membership issue as a straight-identifying Eagle Scout and journalist. I broke the silence with my parents about my brother – who had come out as gay six years earlier. In college, I volunteered at LGBTQ organizations. I actively supported many of my friends as they came to terms with their own nuanced identities. And yet I still couldn’t bring myself to share my own identity with some of my closest friends in Scouting. I had no problem being an open advocate for inclusion in the organization, but I had a grave fear of losing some of my most cherished friendships if I opened up about myself.
Something about those khaki uniforms breeds a homogeneity – an aversion to being outwardly different. It imbues a sameness, which is the basis for the shared experiences that make my Scouting friendships so strong. It’s a sameness that’s meant to unite us – and often does. But it also risks camouflaging the traits that make us who we are. So when I realized that I had changed through the many years I donned that khaki shirt, I feared that revealing my new self would undercut everything.
So why do it? Well it turns out that one of the tenets of Scouting implores us to love one another, to forge friendships, support each other, and trust each other enough to share our deepest truths.
When I came out to my Scouting friend at the bar that night, it was reactionary – a knee-jerk “me too.” At the time, it was the only way I could allow myself to be open about my queerness with another Boy Scout. But that’s simply not good enough. As LGBTQ Scouts, we must proudly live our truths and be our authentic selves.
There’s value in being vulnerable. As I’ve learned to share my truth with more Scouting friends, it’s made every one of those bonds stronger. How foolish I was to ever think that those friendships would falter under the weight of authenticity.