Homophobia, “Perversion Files,” and Why I Chose to Renounce My Eagle Scout Rank

In April 1991, I earned the rank of Eagle Scout. A best friend’s father spoke on my behalf at the award ceremony. I became one of the two to five percent of Boy Scouts to achieve this rank. It was the ultimate achievement in scouting and I imagined it would open doors for me, ensure my entrance into the Naval Academy, and pave a path to future successes. By becoming an Eagle Scout, I joined such noteworthy people as Steven Spielberg, Michael Moore, Gerald Ford, Bill Bradley, Michael Bloomberg, media personality Mike Rowe, biologist E. O. Wilson, associate Supreme court Justice Stephen Breyer, former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, and numerous Congressmen, astronauts, and professional athletes who have achieved this rank since Arthur Rose Eldred was notified by letter on August 21, 1912, that he had the honor of being the first Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America (BSA).

Yet more than one decade since I learned about the BSA’s anti-gay policy—and more than 20 years since achieving the rank of Eagle Scout—I am more than ashamed that I did not take action sooner. Indeed, for the last two decades, I thought: “once an Eagle Scout, always an Eagle Scout.” No more.

I choose to return my Eagle Scout rank and renounce my affiliation with the Boy Scouts. I am returning all of my scouting materials to the BSA. I ask that the BSA organization stop sending me newsletters and other materials and remove my name from its database. Although the anti-gay policy has compelled my renunciation, there are other aspects of the BSA that trouble me as well. For years, I have not supported organizations such as the United Way because of its willingness to support the BSA. I have always felt uncomfortable with the organization’s militaristic beginnings, as well as the bastardization of Indian cultures through both the BSA and its Order of the Arrow program of which I was a part. To this day, scouts are still taught about “Indian lore” (“playing Indian,” as historian Philip Deloria put it) and recite meaningless so-called Indian phrases during camping trips.

Now I sever all ties to the BSA.

My Stonewall

On June 28, 1969, police raided a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. Patrons and a growing crowd fought back what had for years been routine repression. What ensued was a five day riot that signaled a resistance to oppression and burgeoning liberation struggle for gay and lesbian rights.

Indeed, in life, as in scouting, timing is everything. My actions are inspired by this history and come on the heels not only of activism within and around the BSA by people opposed to BSA’s anti-gay policy but also the efforts of other likeminded Eagle Scouts who have surrendered their rank in protest. The combined efforts of all Eagle Scouts in particular and anyone ever involved in general with the Boy Scouts can take such an important and meaningful step by urging the BSA to drop its ban on gay leaders and troops.

My actions also respond to the court order in June 2012 that the BSA release nearly 20,000 pages of the organization’s “perversion files,” confidential records documenting suspected and confirmed cases of sexual abuse and violence within the group, as well as what the BSA did about those cases. I have always stated that children in scouting have more to be concerned with because of the “straight” national and local Boy Scout leadership that has been party to charges of child pornography, child exploitation, internet sex-crime, assault and battery, and molestation, than from any gay person. The bottom line: a simple Google search provides all of the information a person needs to determine that there is more to fear from heterosexual scouts and troop leaders than any gay or lesbian leader or troop.

A number of noted biographers of Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, have shown a large amount of evidence that suggests that Powell was gay or bi-sexual—at the least a repressed homosexual. That history works to complicate the BSA’s claims regarding its founding and policies.

My actions are an effort to stand in solidarity with Jennifer Tyrrell, the lesbian mom from Ohio who was removed from her position as “den leader” of her seven-year-old son’s Cub Scout pack after the BSA learned she is gay. I support the initiative and courage of James Dale, the assistant Scoutmaster from New Jersey whose 2000 case against the BSA made it all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, where the justices narrowly decided against his efforts to be readmitted to his position and therefore reversed a decision of the New Jersey Supreme Court. For the countless other people who have been expelled or banned from participating in the Boy Scouts, I take this stand.

“Troop 99. Twenty-six on line. Four on KP. One in the Picket Ground. Taylor Reporting, Sir.”

Attaining the rank of Eagle Scout was the culmination of approximately seven years of hard work. Yet, my experiences in scouting were typical of the children and young boys within the scouts I was affiliated with: Troop 99 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and later, Troop 129 in Rochester, New York. I spent weeks canoeing and kayaking through the now-former Maine National High Adventure Base on Seboomook Lake; bicycle riding, hiking, and swimming throughout many places in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states; and rafting on the Kennebec, Penobscot, and Youghiohgheny (also known as “Yough”) rivers. In fact, I rafted down the Kennebec on the day that the most water was ever released from a nearby dam and nearly died in “Bone Crusher” and “Hell Hole,” two enormous holes in the middle of the river. I climbed Mount Katahdin, cross-country skied and built igloos on the Tug Hill Plateau, and became a Brotherhood member of the Order of the Arrow along my journey from the Bobcat Badge as a Cub Scout to Eagle Scout. I spent weeks in tents and out-of-doors and attended summer camp each year at the Horseshoe Scout Reservation along the Mason-Dixon Line; I have fond memories of the playing of “Taps” at the end of the day. I learned how to fold the flag and properly open and sharpen a knife. My experiences as a Boy Scout gave me the confidence later in life to walk after midnight with Sasquatch through the Avenue of the Giants in Northern California and listen to the trees breathe. My experiences also gave me an appreciation and respect for the natural world.

Earning merit badges in railroading, skiing, first aid, horsemanship (for which I had a near death experience), camping, and wilderness survival, provided me with useful knowledge and skills for which I might prepare for the end of the world. While in scouting, I raised thousands of dollars over the years selling “hoagies” and Christmas trees, and recycling cans and newspapers. In fact, my first troop still recycles approximately 200 tons of paper annually. I performed countless hours of community service and learned how to be part of the larger communities in which I lived.

In Troop 99, I was fortunate enough to learn from one of the nation’s best scoutmasters, pharmacist James O. Wenger, who has been the troop’s Scoutmaster since 1968. He is now 77 years old and recently celebrated his 200th Eagle Scout. According to a recent news story, “Troop 99’s milestone of reaching 200 Eagle Scouts is possibly a U.S. record in the history of scouting, which dates to 1910. The Eagle award is a performance-based achievement earned by only about 2 to 5 percent of all Boy Scouts.”

My experiences inspired me and provided sustenance for me as a young boy, despite the fact that there was no tradition of scouting in my family. If truth be told, I do not know why I became a scout in the first place, but I was hooked on the experiences and fun that I had. On trips, we rode along in a big green bus of which there are now two and took side trips to purchase rafts, canoes, and kayaks for the troop. We always got out to help other people or to create and foster a spirit of adventure.

After becoming an Eagle Scout, I continued to think about and be influenced by the BSA. I completed a senior project in college that investigated medieval knights and the use all things medieval in early Boy Scout manuals, especially in Scouting for Boys, apparently the fourth bestselling book of the twentieth century. It was in part because of my experience creating an Eagle Scout project that I continue to write and pursue various research agendas today. I failed to see a day when I might not want to have anything to do with the BSA, its outdated anti-gay policy, or its static ways of thinking about the diversity that exists in the world.


Recently, retired journalist Naka Nathaniel returned his Eagle Scout badge and other scouting materials. Wrote Nathaniel, “I would rather my son be gay than be an Eagle Scout.” I should have followed suit years ago. I stopped placing “Eagle Scout” on my resume years ago, at the same time that Steven Spielberg refused to serve another term on an advisory board to the BSA in protest over the organization’s anti-gay stance. It is my hope that more troop leaders, Eagle Scouts, and BSA administrators will continue to come forward and work to change what is clearly a repressive policy.

On June 10, 2012, James Turley, a BSA board member and CEO of Ernst & Young, called on another BSA board member, AT&T chairman and chief executive Randall Stephenson (which has an extremely inclusive company), to join him in an effort to change the BSA policy. “As CEO, I know that having an inclusive culture produces the best results, is the right thing for our people and makes us a better organization. My experience has led me to believe that an inclusive environment is important throughout our society…. [T]he membership policy is not one I would personally endorse,” stated Turley in his letter.

But perhaps the question that everyone should be asking, as stated in a recent Chicago Tribune article by a mother of a Boy Scout, “If the Army can change, why not the Boy Scouts?”

Joel Helfrich is a historian in Rochester, New York. Joel is also a father, entrepreneur, educator, and activist who works on animal rights, environmental, historic and sacred sites preservation, and social justice issues. Read other articles by Joel.