Two local Eagle Scouts on the Boy Scout experience — and controversy
By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
Since its inception in 1910, over 110 million people have counted themselves as members of the Boy Scouts of America. Of those, roughly 2 million members have achieved the highest rank of Eagle Scout — a lifetime title conferred as a result of a scout’s years of hard work and community engagement, as well as an intensive final service project that has resulted in over 100 million hours of community service, and three million more hours each year, being contributed to the community by Scouts.
However, openly gay men and boys have been barred from participating in BSA activities since at least 1991, as the BSA believes that “homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the obligations in the Scout Oath and Scout Law to be ‘morally straight’ and clean in thought, word, and deed.” While individual troops and councils of the BSA have chosen not to enforce the prohibitions against gay people, the national organization has upheld their stances as recently as July 17. In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that the BSA, as a private organization, has the right to set their own membership standards, even if they discriminate against gay people; however, both President Obama and presidential candidate Mitt Romney have spoken out against the BSA’s stance since their July 17 statement.
To provide a human context for the controversy, PQ presents profiles of two local gay Eagle Scouts. Here, they share the “how” and “why” of scouting, and consider the ways that being an Eagle Scout is a source of pride, even though they may disagree with the BSA’s standards and stances.
To meet Thom Butts today, the Boy Scouts wouldn’t immediately come to mind. In addition to his work as a successful real estate agent, Butts is holder of the Mr. Oregon State Leather 1997 and Northwest Leather Sir 2009 titles.
“In addition to all that,” he says, “my husband calls me ‘honey’ and our boy calls me ‘daddy.’”
However, there was a time growing up in Oregon City when Butts’ primary title was “Boy Scout.”
“I was in Cub Scouts, Webelos, and Boy Scouts … and I achieved the rank of Eagle Scout,” he notes. “I later held most of the leadership posts — Patrol Leader, Senior Patrol Leader, Quartermaster, and as an adult, Assistant Scout Master.”
Like many scouts, Butts was encouraged by his family to participate in the BSA. Once he was involved, though, Butts took enthusiastically to scouting, always with the objective of becoming an Eagle.
“For me,” he says, “it wasn’t really a question of [whether I would achieve] my Eagle Scout rank; it was more of a logical progression. It’s like going to college and getting a degree; [Eagle] was why I was in there.” Along the way, though, Butts made many friends, found camaraderie with his fellow scouts, and picked up some surprisingly useful skills. Butts cites his training in tying knots as a major factor as to why he’s so skilled in bondage as an adult.
Butts achieved the rank of Eagle in his late teens after completing an extensive project of cleaning and restoration to the Singer Hill Trail in Oregon City. However, despite his pride in his project and rank, his feelings about the organization are ambivalent.
“I’m mostly proud of being an Eagle Scout,” he says, “but a little less so each time that the BSA comes out against the gay and trans community. … When my nephew got his Eagle a couple years ago, though, I did stand up with him and reaffirm the Scout Oath.”
“In my opinion, a lot of what Scouting teaches is good,” Butts adds. “Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave — these are the qualities of a scout, and all are good attributes. However, I think the leadership of BSA is trying to cling to a century-old ideal of what society was, and doesn’t want to face the reality of what modern society actually is.”
Randall Szabo found his Boy Scout troop to be a place where he could be accepted and embraced for who he was. A judicial clerk and recent law school graduate, Szabo became a scout after his family moved to Lafayette, Calif.
“The troop was such a close-knit group,” he says, “a space in which I felt totally normal, and simultaneously a place where I could be really weird and everyone liked it. I became the guy that recited poems at the campfires in front of hundreds of scouts and got raving applause. As a scout, you’re doing this thing that is so strict and traditional that it gives you license to be crazy at the same time. It’s a place where boys are expected to be boys, and for me, it was a place where I was just a guy amongst guys.”
For his Eagle project, Szabo led a crew of younger scouts in clearing out and renovating a decaying neighborhood playground. However, as a young man in the process of coming out, he felt it was important to let his views on the BSA’s policies be known before he attained the rank at the age of 15.
“In my final Eagle board review,” he recalls, “when the board members asked me something I don’t like about scouting, I said that I didn’t like the policy on gay people and found it backwards and old-worldly. They didn’t give me any feedback on that answer, and I don’t blame them.”
“When I attained the rank of Eagle there was a great sense of pride, and honestly there still is,” he says. “When you tell people that you’re an Eagle Scout, most people get an impressed look on their face, and for all these years it’s been so gratifying. I don’t expect that it will ever cease to be so. There’s something so oddly provincial about it, and yet the rank’s ability to bring up respect in people’s eyes has lingered in a way that I’ve enjoyed, and makes it especially disconcerting that it’s not available to everybody.”
“I think the [BSA’s] policy is incredibly foolish,” says Szabo. “However, I don’t think the Supreme Court case was wrongly decided. The organization itself has to contend with its own conscience. Over time, though, I think it will feel increasingly silly about it.”
While Szabo may not support the BSA’s policies, he believes strongly in the value of scouting, with the Boy Scouts or otherwise.
“I think it’d be wonderful to see other organizations like Campfire that offer the scouting experience in which you progress through ranks and learn outdoor skills without these restrictions become more prevalent and perhaps in time rival the Boy Scouts,” he says. “In the meantime, though, I hope that everyone involved in the BSA is having a wonderful time, and having as positive an experience of it as I did. It really is one of the best things I’ve ever done.”