Eagle Scouts return awards to protest Boy Scout policy barring gay members

Ned Coltman and his mother, Judy, of Reading, removed his Eagle Scout badge from his Boy Scout uniform.
Ned Coltman and his mother, Judy, of Reading, removed his Eagle Scout badge from his Boy Scout uniform.
matthew j. lee/globe staff

To earn his Eagle Scout badge, Ned Coltman built a 65-foot handicap access ramp out of renewable materials for a conservation center in Reading. In 10 years as a Boy Scout, he learned how to lead, endure hardship, and live honestly.

But now he is quitting the Scouts.

He is among dozens of Scouts from Massachusetts and across the country who are returning their Eagle Scout awards to protest the organization’s longtime policy that bars openly gay members.

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“This is absolute bigotry and ignorance,” said Coltman, 21, who became an Eagle Scout in 2009 with Troop 728 in Reading. “They have to know there are Eagles out there who are angry at this.”

Coltman sent a letter to the Boy Scouts of America Aug. 24 that rescinded his affiliation with the organization, accompanied by his Eagle Scout medal and badges.

“To be involved in an organization that displays this blind hatred is one of the most terrible feelings I have ever had,” he wrote. “The leaders that you have created will never let this stand.”

There are more than 2 million Eagle Scouts, the highest honor in Boy Scouts, and the number of protesters is difficult to determine.

Locally, Eagle Scouts from Somerville, Swampscott, Fitchburg, and Reading have complained, in some cases sending back their awards or writing letters expressing their sadness and frustration over the policy. Around the United States, at least 148 Eagle Scouts shared their protest letters on “Eagle Scouts Returning Our Badges,” a Tumblr blog organized by a Seattle Scout, and more protests have appeared on other social media sites.

In a statement, a spokesman for the Boy Scouts of America confirmed that some Eagle Scouts have returned their awards, but pointed out the number of scouts publicly protesting is relatively small compared with the total membership.

“Each year more than 50,000 young men earn the rank of Eagle Scout, totaling to over 2 million,” said Boy Scouts national spokesman Deron Smith. “We don’t have an exact count of medals returned recently, but we have received a few. Although we are disappointed to learn of anyone who feels compelled to return his Eagle medal, we respect their right to express an opinion.”

The reaffirmation of the Boy Scouts’ ban on openly gay Scouts and adult leaders, announced last month, came after a two-year evaluation by a specially appointed committee of 11 “volunteers and professional leaders,” and “reflects the beliefs and perspectives” of the organization, according to a statement on the Boy Scouts of America website.

“While a majority of our membership agrees with our policy, we fully understand that no single policy will accommodate the many diverse views among our membership or society,” said Bob Mazzuca, chief scout executive of Boy Scouts of America, according to the statement.

The official membership policy reads: “While the B.S.A. does not proactively inquire about the sexual orientation of employees, volunteers, or members, we do not grant membership to individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the B.S.A.”

To become an Eagle Scout, a candidate must earn 21 merit badges and spearhead an extensive community service project.

Jerry Hegarty, the scoutmaster in Reading, said that many of his Scouts do not support the policy on gays.

“It’s at odds with some of the points of the Scout oath,” he said, and, by sending back their awards, Eagle Scouts are “exposing an archaic perspective on certain policies.”

He added: “I’m not disappointed in them. It’s to be applauded.”

Leo A.P. Giannini, who became an Eagle Scout with Troop 1 in Pittsfield in 2005, called the policy a “serious contradiction” of Scout teachings.

Giannini, who moved to New York City last year, has been working with Eagle Scout and activist Zach Wahls to create a way for people to share videos of their thoughts on the policy on Scouts for Equality, a website Wahls cofounded.

More than 400,000 people have signed two of the online petitions championed by Scouts for Equality, according to Wahl. One of the petitions, which calls for the reinstatement of Jennifer Tyrrell, a Cub Scout leader from Ohio who says she was removed from her position for being gay, has more than 300,000 signatures.

But Wahl said he doesn’t think that sending back Eagle Scout awards is the best way to protest the policy. Instead, he wants each Boy Scout council in the country to be allowed to vote on the policy.

“Sending back your badge is an act of passion, not an effective long-term tactic,” Wahl said.

Many of the protests have surfaced on social media sites and Facebook pages. A protest letter from a Somerville scout, for example, was among those received by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which is collecting some of the protest letters. Separately, a Swampscott Eagle Scout announced he was returning his Eagle Scout award on his Facebook page.

A.J. Chalifour, who became an Eagle Scout in 2002 with Troop 6 in Beverly, sent a six-page letter to the Boy Scouts National Council urging its members to reconsider the policy. He has not returned his badge.

“Until this policy is erased, myself and many of my fellow Eagle Scouts, scouters, and peers will work to get the National Council to wake up and support a policy of inclusion rather than a policy of active discrimination which fails to live up to the tenants of the Scout oath and law,” he wrote.

Another scout, Bill Thomas, who became an Eagle Scout in 2003 with Troop 702 in Reading, added: “The first point of the Scout oath is “Trustworthy” and they’re not allowing people to be open and true to themselves and true to others.”

Thomas, who moved to Virginia in 2008, said he plans to write a letter to Boy Scouts of America to express his desire for policy change within the organization. He has not decided whether to return his Eagle Scout award, he said.

A Seattle man, Burke Stansbury, started the “Eagle Scouts Returning Our Badges” Tumblr site late last month after sending back his award, accompanied by a letter cutting his ties to Boy Scouts of America.

Stansbury, who earned his Eagle Scout award in 1995, said he was filled with disgust when he learned that the Boy Scouts would stick by its ban on gays. “I think this time around, it was the last straw for a lot of people who wanted to see change happen,” he said.