Earning the rank of Eagle Scout is an arduous task, requiring dedication and hard work.
Returning the award was equally difficult for Steven Colella, 23, of Frederick, but it was a necessary one, he said.
Colella, who is gay, made his decision in response to an announcement this month by The Boy Scouts of America affirming its policy of "not granting membership to open or avowed homosexuals."
“I have no place in that organization. I knew it was the right thing to do for me,” Colella said.
Colella, who has spent 18 years in the Scouts, sent a letter to the Boy Scouts of America on July 25, tendering his Eagle Scout award and rescinding an application he had pending for a professional Scouting commission.
In his letter to the Scouts’ executive board in Irving, Texas, Colella said that the Scouts’ decision to uphold its discriminatory policies has taken away the pride he had in his contributions and his respect for the program.
“Most importantly, it has taken away my dignity as a human being and an American citizen,” Colella said in his letter.
Colella joins five other Eagle Scouts across the nation who have turned in their medals in protest of the announcement that the organization was reaffirming its policy of not accepting openly gay people as employees, volunteers or members, according to news reports.
The July 17 announcement came after a two-year evaluation of the policy to determine if individual chapters should be allowed to make their own policy on the subject.
"The committee's work and conclusion is that this policy reflects the beliefs and perspectives of the BSA's members, thereby allowing Scouting to remain focused on its mission and the work it is doing to serve more youth," a news release from The Boy Scouts of America said.
BSA spokesman Deron Smith said in an email that the organization has received “a few” returned medals in the past two weeks, but did not give a number. Smith said the majority of Scouts agree with the policy banning openly gay people from Scouting.
“While a majority of our membership agrees with our policy, no single policy will accommodate the many diverse views among our membership or society,” Smith said in the email. “Although we are disappointed to learn of anyone who feels compelled to return his Eagle rank, we fully understand and appreciate that not everyone will agree with any one position or policy.”
Posting his letter left Colella “nervous and a little sad,” he said.
“Scouting has been one of, if not the, defining act of my life since I was a small child,” he said. “It definitely changed things.”
At 17, he was the first of his family to receive the Eagle Scout award. Colella, a Linganore High School graduate, gave his younger brother the Eagle Scout oath, and regrets that he will not have the honor of giving the oath to his youngest brother.
Each year more than 50,000 men earn the rank of Eagle Scout. Achieving that rank is an involved process, entailing 21 merit badges on a wide variety of topics, including outdoor survival skills and how to function as a family unit. Some badges can take months to achieve.
“The mindset of my troop was that anyone is capable, but there’s a level of perseverance and commitment that not everyone is capable of demonstrating at that time of their life,” Colella said.
An English major at James Madison University in Virginia, Colella graduated in 2011 and is now working and taking classes in American Sign Language. This summer he planned to return for the third year as a summer camp counselor at a Boy Scout camp in Jonestown, Pa.
When he received his contract in the spring to spend another summer at the camp, he told his supervisor that he was not planning on “staying in the closet.” Although his supervisor told him that he respected what he was doing, Boy Scout policies prohibited him from hiring Colella back this summer.
“I was not surprised. I was fairly certain that was going to happen because a camp director’s job is risk management for the camp,” he said.
Colella is not resentful, but sad, he said.
“That’s the way things are, and our legal system has upheld the right of the organization to operate this way,” he said.
Barring openly gay individuals from participating in the Scouts was upheld in a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision. The Boy Scouts of America is a private organization and forcing them to hire openly gay people was viewed by the justices as an infringement of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The policy works like the "don't ask, don't tell" policy of the U.S. military that was eliminated in 2011. Although the Boy Scouts do not ask about the sexual orientation of employees, volunteers or members, it denies membership to openly gay people.
For the policy to change, there needs to be a public outcry, Colella said. Ultimately, the Scouts should follow the lead of the military, which it models somewhat in structure and message, he said.
“If the military has reached a point where generals have decided it’s time to make a change for the better and be more inclusive, I don’t understand how Boy Scouts can say they are exempt,” he said.