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Eagle Scouts return badges to protest policy banning gays

Courtesy of Bill DeVos

Bill DeVos, an Eagle Scout and a Scoutmaster in upstate New York, shows his Eagle awards and a letter that he mailed to the Boy Scouts on Tuesday in protest over the organization's policy banning gay Scouts and leaders.

Bill DeVos, a Scoutmaster in upstate New York, packed up his Eagle Scout medal, badge and knot, and mailed the awards to the Boy Scouts’ headquarters in Texas.

Though it was hard to part with the symbols of his Scouting achievements that harkened to his childhood, the 56-year-old father of two Eagle Scouts said he didn’t want them as long as the organization kept its ban on gay Scouts and leaders.


“It is not an easy thing to give up your Eagle. It sounds silly, but it’s very emotional, you know, if you’ve been in Scouts as long as most of us guys have … it just means a lot,” DeVos, an architect from Rochester, told NBC News. “But it’s more important for it (the badge) to do something good for others … I can look at it and be sentimental about it, but it’s what it does for others that means more.”

In doing so, DeVos, joined dozens of other Eagle Scouts who said in online postings that they have sent back their medals, badges or membership cards following the Boy Scouts’ announcement on July 17 that it would keep the ban on gays in place after a confidential, two-year review. DeVos was hoping to remain part of the Scouts organization and push for change from within, but others who returned medals said they were done with the organization.

A spokesman for the Boy Scouts of America, Deron Smith, said 50,000 Scouts earn the Eagle rank every year, and that a “few” had returned their medals, badges or certificates since July 17. When asked for a precise number, Smith said it would be hard to say since there was no standard way to return the items.

“While a majority of our membership agrees with our policy, we fully understand no single policy will accommodate the many diverse views among our membership or society,” Smith said in an email. “Naturally, we’re disappointed when someone decides to return a medal, but we respect their right to express an opinion in whatever manner they feel is appropriate.”

To earn the Eagle rank, which is marking its 100th year, Scouts must progress through five lower ranks, earn 21 merit badges and serve six months in a leadership position, among completing other tasks. More than two million young men have earned the rank.

Activist groups in recent months have stepped up their campaign to end the membership policy banning gays after Jennifer Tyrrell, den leader of her son’s Tiger Cub pack in Bridgeport, Ohio, was removed from her post in April because she is a lesbian.

Tyrrell started an online petition calling for an end to the ban. In May, Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout who is the son of a lesbian couple, delivered some of the signatures to the Boy Scouts. Tyrrell did the same in early July.

Wahls, who has founded Scouts for Equality to campaign against the ban on gays, said that his group was working to keep track of the letters with pictures of returned medals and badges showing up online, such as this one on tumblr and another on tech website Boing Boing. The group, which doesn’t endorse returning the awards, had counted up to 60 names from a range of states. 

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Burke Stansbury, a 36-year-old communications specialist and former Eagle Scout in Seattle, Wash., started the tumblr page cataloguing the returned medals and badges. He has been in touch with some of those who have posted to the page.

“They’re passionate about this and taking that step, even as it’s something that’s difficult for them to do,” he said. “It’s a big part of their life … it was a big part of my life. It’s a big deal to make the decision to do that.” 

Though he knows some people have been fighting to change the Scouts’ policy from within the organization, he said that this wasn’t how he wanted to spend his time.

"It would be more painful to continue to be associated with the Boy Scouts than it is to send back a medal," he said. “The Scouts have taken their stand. They’re pretty clear that they are going to stick with this policy and I think we need to cut our ties and not associate with an organization that believes in discrimination and practices it." 

Smith, the BSA spokesman, said there were no plans to revisit the membership policy. He said while it was rare for medals or badges to be returned, it was not unprecedented. The items will be kept at the national office or the National Scouting Museum.

“Throughout the years, people involved in Scouting and others who are not related to the program have expressed their disagreement with this single policy, or other policies, in a variety of ways. It is important to remember they represent their personal opinion and not Scouting’s members as a whole,” he said.

Tom Sample, a 20-year-old computer engineering student from Cuyahoga Heights, Ohio, who earned his Eagle rank in 2010, said he is not anti-gay but understands why the Boy Scouts have the policy they do, noting that the “Boy Scouts and religion go hand in hand.” 

“It does make me upset that people are returning their badges because … you work hard for those badges, it takes a long time,” he said. “It’s sad to see all these people, especially how much time they’ve spent, have to leave the organization because they don’t feel the same about it anymore.” 

DeVos, who sent his medals back this past Tuesday, grew emotional as he listed off the Boy Scouts’ values, such as trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly and courteous.

“I consider Scouting to be a big part of me, and when you have to come to grips with the fact that the organization that you believe in so much is being so antithetical to the core beliefs, it’s really, really upsetting,” he said, noting that changing the policy “can’t happen fast enough.”

Though his Eagle awards are gone, DeVos said he had no intention of dropping out of Scouting. He said he got an outpouring of support from almost everyone in his troop, including some Scouts who said they’d do the same, though one adult did express concern about encouraging gay membership.

“I want very much to … continue as the Scoutmaster and try to influence as many people as I can, but to me, sending the badge back was something that I could do,” he said. “It was an emotional moment and an opportunity for me to use this badge for something better.”

If you are a current or former member of the Boy Scouts and would like to share your thoughts on the membership policy, you can email the reporter at miranda.leitsinger@msnbc.com

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