I am an Eagle Scout. (I used to say I “was” an Eagle Scout until one of my clients admonished my use of the past tense, reminding me that you’re an Eagle Scout for life.) Eagle is the highest rank in scouting, and it’s proof that you know how to put the spirit of scouting into practice. So it was with disappointment that I learned of the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to deny membership to openly gay boys.
Scouting taught me that even if we are each a little different, there is a place for us on the team, and we can work together to meet our goals. Unfortunately, the Boy Scouts of America believes that these truly American principles do not extend to everyone.
As a young kid growing up in a mostly white, Judeo-Christian Staten Island, I knew I was different. I had different-color skin, had a different religion, and ate different food at home. And like so many other kids who are different, I had a choice to make—to confidently embrace my difference or to be fearful of it. Of course, I was too young to understand that choice. I was more interested in making friends, playing in the woods, and having adventures. Naturally, I signed up for the Boy Scouts.
In an instant Ms. Garcia, my Cub Scout den mother, helped me understand that all of the boys in her group were equal—equally naughty and equally guilty of wreaking havoc, but still equal. At the same time, the Cub Scouts taught me to be proud of how I was different. I had a different religion, and my scout leaders encouraged me to tell my peers about it. Before long, my parents and pack leader were helping me complete my application for the newly minted “Bismillah” award for Cub Scouts. (An Islamic religious medal already existed for Boy Scouts.) I put a lot of work into it, and today I enjoy the honor of being the first Cub Scout in America to receive it. I was part of a team, but proud of being different.
In my awkward teen years, scouting continued to give me the confidence I needed to celebrate my differences while building bonds of fellowship with other boys. We learned together, served the public together, grew up together, and, of course, camped together. Ultimately, my fellow scouts elected me—this skinny, brown Muslim kid—to be their Senior Patrol Leader. It was a reminder that you can be different and still belong.
Which is why I’m saddened by the Boy Scouts’ decision to keep their doors closed to boys who openly identify as gay. We know all to well the bullying, subjectification, and alienation often felt by young LGBT Americans. We know about the depression and the suicides. And we know how important it is to give kids who feel different a sense of place and self-confidence. The Boy Scouts gave me that sense of confidence, and I wish it could do the same for all boys. How awesome it would be to hear a scout leader say, “Hey, I don’t care how you pray, or who you want to spend time with, I just want you to help me paint this fence.”
Some have found it curious that I’m using my Muslim experience to defend gay rights. But this isn’t about religion, sexuality, or morality. It’s about recognizing the powerful role that scouting can play in acknowledging difference and building self-confidence in boys who might otherwise not understand that it’s okay to be different. While families, communities, and this entire nation continue to discuss sexual orientation, let’s not do it at the expense of building leaders out of boys.
As someone who benefited deeply from scouting, I hope that the Boy Scouts of America will reconsider its decision. After all, the tenth point of Boy Scout Law is to be brave.