There's a saying within the Boy Scouts of America, an organization steeped in moral codes and pledges. It goes: "Once an eagle scout, always an eagle scout."
Nick Bradford, 21, learned the motto as a young troop member camping in the Georgia wilderness. He understood it to mean that the eagle — the highest-attainable ranking in the Scouts program — is a title kept for life.
But to Bradford and a community of eagles opposing the organization's ban on gay participants, their badges now feel emblematic of what they see as a problem with its stance on gay rights.
Though Bradford is straight, his mother, Shannon Hames, is a lesbian. For the majority of his time in scouting, she volunteered with the organization while keeping her sexuality a secret.
Under current organization rules, homosexuals are banned as members or volunteers. His mother's participation would have been forbidden if her homosexuality had been public knowledge.
Bradford's mother came out to her family when he was 16. As a son who backs his mom's choice to live openly gay, the college sophomore is now grappling with whether he should renounce the eagle award he spent six years earning.
"My mom had an active role in scouting, driving me around, helping me sell popcorn outside stores, helping us sell Christmas trees during the holidays, making hot chocolate for us," Bradford says.
And yet few at his 2009 eagle ceremony would have known his mother was a lesbian when he presented her with her "Eagle Scout Mom" pin.
"There's lots of parents who'd love to be more involved in the scouts and take a more active role, but they can't because of this policy," he says. "It's sad."
'A lot of hope'
Several former scouts across the U.S. have returned their eagle badges since last summer to protest the barring of homosexual members.
This month, the national board delayed a vote on gay and lesbian participation until May.
"People are waiting for that decision with a lot of hope. This policy is discriminatory," Bradford says as he walks to class through the Georgia Southern University campus in Statesboro, Ga., a town historically known for its cotton plantations.
The Scout Law:
A scout is:
He reasons that excluding participants from scouting based on sexual orientation is hypocritical for a group meant to exemplify the model American way of life.
He notes that part of obeying the Scout Law — recited before official meetings — means living by 12 virtuous qualities.
"Two of those points are to be courteous and to be kind," he said. "And not allowing any homosexuals to be in boy scouts or participate in boy scouts violates the oath, and is very contradictory to what a scout is."
Much of the trepidation over gay troop members or scout leaders deals with fears held by some conservatives equating homosexuals with sexual predators.
Randy Mickler, pastor at Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in the north Atlanta suburb of Marietta, told a local news station this month that he believes gay scout leaders would be at a higher risk of molesting boys, and that "homosexuality is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus Christ."
Call for separate organization
Mickler, whose church claims to host the largest number of eagles in Georgia, has called for a separate scouts organization exclusive to straight males if the ban is lifted.
The Atlanta Area Council, the local scouting authority that serves 30,000 boy scouts in 13 counties around the Atlanta metropolitan area, did not respond to interview requests.
But Kenneth Hosley, a former lodge chief for the council, says it would be hard to predict where the council would fall on the gay membership debate because Atlanta is known as a blue spot in a red state.
During 19 years with the scouts, Hosley earned his eagle and was a senior patrol leader, a member of the elite Order of the Arrow, a chaplain for the council and a poster boy for the council’s Facebook page.
He also knew he was gay since his teens. Though Hosley was out to his family, friends, at college and at work, he kept his sexual orientation hidden from the scouts organization until 2005.
"Scouting was the last place I was ever really closeted," said Hosley, now 32.
As chaplain, Hosley says, he heard confessions about suicidal thoughts from youth taunted by other boys who suspected them of being homosexuals. He heard stories in which scouts targeted as effeminate would return to the campsite and find their belongings tossed into the lake. One boy was ambushed and then bound to a tree in the woods and left alone for hours.
"So many [scout leaders] said, 'We can't have any of these f--s in our troop because they're going to molest all our boys,' " Hosley says.
"And for them to say that — not knowing the person they were talking to was in fact gay — it’s insulting. To call me a pedophile is beyond description, it's absolutely terrible."
While Hosley said he knows other gay officers within the Order of the Arrow opted to remain silent, he couldn't bury his feelings anymore.
In a 2,000-word letter to the Atlanta Area Council in 2005, Hosley declared his love for his scouting family but objected to "prejudice, hate, abuse and intolerance" against homosexuals in the scouting culture.
"I finally got to the point where I was either going to be completely who I was and live my life without fear, or continue in that role," he says. "I didn’t want to live in fear anymore, to realize I couldn’t go out with someone I was dating, or even to be open in conversation about my life."
Scouts Canada’s inclusion policy
Since 2000, Scouts Canada has maintained a commitment to promoting diversity within its troops, with that commitment extending to gays and lesbians. Anyone, "regardless of gender, race, culture, religious belief, sexual orientation or economic circumstance," is welcome to be a member.
Hosley, an Episcopal monk studying in seminary at Emory University in Atlanta, was booted from the organization shortly after he posted the letter online. He also returned his eagle badges.
Those kinds of acts have been weighing on Bradford's mind as he considers whether to hand back his eagle and stand up for his mother.
Hames describes herself as a "typical scout mom" who attended cub meetings, participated in fundraisers and drove Bradford and his troopmates to field trips. But she did so as a closeted lesbian.
"To be out, I would not have been permitted to be involved with his troop or any type of volunteering," Hames said.
As for her feelings about whether her son should give up his eagle, she said she hasn't pressured him either way.
"He's in college and I know he worries that if he returns it, he won’t be able to claim he's an eagle, and it might hinder his chances of using it on a job resume or something," she says.
What Hames considered to be a "really good compromise" — a proposal to allow individual boy scouts chapters to welcome or deny gay membership — was voted down by an 11-person committee last July.
She believes individual chapters feared they’d no longer being able to "hide behind that veil of a national policy" if they revealed they were banning gays.
While the BSA waits until May for a vote on the policy, its reputation and pocketbook are hurting. Atlanta-based UPS was the latest corporate donor to pull funding over the no-gays policy, joining the likes of Intel and Merck.
Such withdrawals of support could cost the organization millions of dollars. They also add pressure to lift the ban, Bradford says, noting that blacks weren't integrated into the organization for decades in the segregated South. That didn't end until 1974.
"People are realizing more that the whole gay and lesbian issue isn't like a religious issue or a moral issue, it's more of a civil rights issue," Bradford says.
"I'm hoping they'll do the right thing."