My friend Tom was 15* when he came out. He told me over AOL Instant Messenger. I was sitting at my parents’ desktop computer, possibly downloading Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” track-by-track from Napster — it took so long that I finally left it running overnight and hoped for the best. Tom wrote that he needed to tell me something; before he could type the next line, I already knew.
I was a year older but hadn’t had any knowing interactions with an LGBT member. I wouldn’t hear that term until college. In a medium-size coastal town already strained by a racial/class divide between the hillside Caucasians and the Latinos living on the risky “Avenue” past downtown, there was little room for further outsider tension. A President hadn’t yet spoken for gay marriage, nor had multiple American Idols come out. As a teenager in the ’90s, the idea seemed baffling, frankly.
But I knew. The words appeared in my mind fully formed an instant before he typed them: “I’m gay.” He’d just come out to his parents. At first, I was in disbelief, struck by the strangeness of it. But I tried to be as supportive and empathetic as I was capable of then and in the weeks after. I think I did O.K., but I wasn’t the friend he needed. Tom went through some difficult times not long after that, trying to find himself and stumbling out to a precipice along the way. I went off to college and we lost touch, but we’re Facebook friends now and he seems healthy and happy.
Tom and I met in the Boy Scouts. We’d both been in it for years, starting as Cub Scouts in elementary school and making our way through the ranks as we advanced grade after grade. We went to the Philmont Scout Ranch with another dozen or so boys and adult leaders and backpacked through the mountains of New Mexico together for 10 days. It’s the kind of experience that shows you who a person is. But none of us knew, or if any suspected, they didn’t say. Tom left our troop between Philmont and coming out, later saying that he’d felt pressured, uncomfortable — unable to be honest or accepted. Beyond the organization’s institutional bigotry, we were all little misogynists then, terrified and obsessed with girls and sex, mostly our lack of both. What was he supposed to do?
But it’s the institution, this one more than most, that sets the tone. I became an Eagle Scout my senior year of high school. It remains one of the great achievements of my life. But the badge has a growing stain on it, an ugly mark that threatens to eclipse the bright, bold animal it contains. It’s hard to be proud of. There should’ve been no need for Tom or anyone in his position to leave, no pressure, no secrets, no discrimination. The Boy Scouts of America was created to give young men character, values, friendship, skills for a difficult world. Instead, it continues to publicly assert false morals and hatred over the very community it purports to stand for. I’ll be an Eagle Scout forever. But until things change, that bird feels more like an albatross.
* I think. I can’t remember the exact timeline.
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