As the Boy Scouts of America leadership prepares to vote on overturning its ban on GBT scouts, Walter Beck recalls how he was banned for the political views he had aired online.
“Find what you love and let it kill you.” – Charles Bukowski
It took three months and numerous connections to get the whole story and even now, a year later, I’m not sure if it’s the whole story or not.
It began on what was probably one of the best weekends I’d had in a while in January 2012. A few buddies from my old days at Vincennes University decided to take me up to their place for the weekend to get away from the stress at home. I had recently left school and was starting to sink pretty low, so they thought a weekend of debauchery would put me in a better mood, maybe kick up the wild beast they called “El Presidente”.
I came home Sunday, in an ecstatic mood. It was great connecting with Hawkeye and Penguin Steele again with their roommate/lover Kermit in the mix. We spent the weekend listening to strange music, drinking heavily, watching bad films and regaling Kermit with stories from when we walked tall in Vincennes. And to top it all off, Saturday night, in the middle of this bacchanalia, I got the email I had been waiting for – Az from Writing Knights Press got a hold of me with the great news that my first chapbook Life Through Broken Pens was slated for publication in March.
But as soon as I got home and the guys left, my old man wanted to talk to me.
Over the weekend, he had gone to dinner with an old Scouting buddy and his friend told him that the Council was getting ready to blackball me, that I was losing my camp job of nine years and being stricken from the rolls as an active Scouter. Knowing how deeply my old man’s connections ran in our local Council, this guy wanted to give my old man the head’s up before the Council made their move.
But what had I done? Had someone in the Council dug up some nefarious secrets of mine related to extreme decadence and behavior so morally reprehensible that it would bring the hammers of National down upon the powerful Crossroads of America Council?
Well, no, actually. From what my old man told me, it was all related to my continual political ranting online, my tireless dedication to the cause of GLBTQ rights and equality in the United States. No specific post was cited, my old man couldn’t even tell me who had given the order or how far up or down the chain this went. It was basically a tip-off.
Someone was trying to screw me. Immediately, my paranoid instincts kicked in and I tried to think of who would do it. I had been a camp counselor for nine years and had more than a bit of a reputation as a rabble-rouser, an unapologetic freak who took the Scout Oath and Law beyond the rote meanings laid down by National Council. I was also very open about my criticism of the LDS Church and their extensive influence within the Boy Scouts of America. As a gay rights activist, I was very aware of the Mormon Church’s political arms swinging their weight to keep equality from becoming law (most notably in the state of California with Prop 8). As a Boy Scout, I was also very aware of the Mormon Church’s influence, particularly in keeping gay people out of Scouting.
But maybe it was beyond politics; with my long hair, earrings and rock ‘n’ roll philosophy, I had made many enemies in my time, old-time diehards who thought that the freaks like me had no place in Scouting.
It may have even been a personal vendetta; several years before this fateful day, I had quit my job in hot blood at one of the biggest camps in the Council. I not only quit, but nearly incited staff rebellion. Not only did I do that, but I had the balls to write about my experiences and paint the management as cruel beasts who, when the chips were down, cared more about money than us counselors out in the field. I barely dodged a defamation lawsuit over that one.
Even though that had been five years ago, I knew there was still a lot of bad blood over it and not all of it on my end. So I thought maybe one of the old bosses there was trying to finally settle the score by axing me all together.
After the ugliness of the summer of 2007, I found employment at another camp within the Council. It was a smaller camp and more accepting to weirdoes and outcasts than the one I had worked at previously had been.
The camp, Camp Krietenstein, became my new home. The place felt like a family, where the bosses cared about us and wouldn’t shy away from standing the hard line with us when needed. I began becoming a fixture there; I met my girlfriend there, wrote poetry about the place and was even named Camp Poet Laureate by management in 2010.
Krietenstein became a more important haven to me in the Spring of 2011. After eight years in the closet, crippled with fear over losing my camp job due to National’s exclusion policy and sinking into a personal hell fueled by copious amounts of Everclear grain alcohol and Thunderbird wine, I finally came out as bisexual at the insistence of my buddies who were scared shitless that one night they would come up to my hotel room and find me dead at my desk, an empty bottle next to me, my headphones dangling from my neck and one last half-finished poem on the screen.
So in March of that year Andrew, the program director, called me and asked me what I was doing that summer. I thought since I had come out, I was finished, that was it. But he told me flat out, “Walter, I don’t give a shit was National says, Krietenstein needs you.”
Touched by the loyalty that Krietenstein showed me, I went out there to work again as Camp Commissioner. It would be my last summer on staff.
Back to that Sunday afternoon in January 2012, I was fuming with anger, not knowing who stuck the knife in me or what their motivation was. I was offered a choice, I could either knock off my political soapboxing or I could be axed; shut up or leave.
Being a lifelong Scout, I take my Scout Oath and the Scout Law very seriously, these are the moral principles that have guided my life for nearly twenty years and there were two parts that stuck out in my mind, “A Scout is Brave” from the Law and “On my Honor, I will do my best … to help other people at all times” from the Oath. I had to be brave and refuse to be intimidated into silence. I had to uphold my Oath to help others; I was an activist, doing my part to help in the struggle to be free and equal in this country.
I thought about it. I knew if I left my old man would have to be the one to strike my name from our Troop’s roster. I didn’t want to force him to do that.
But you know, sometimes you have to do what is right, so I told my old man I was leaving. He told me that I made the right decision by not being silenced by unseen triggermen with axes to grind.
I kept searching for answers, I wanted to know who and why. I started calling my connections to see if anyone had any answers. For weeks I got nothing. The only light in the tunnel I had was a call to an old friend who was a Council bigwig. He said he didn’t know who it was, or what their motivation was, but he did tell me that if I wanted to get another camp job in another council, he would back me up and see to it that I got hired.
It wasn’t a lead, but at least it was a bit of hopeful news.
The break came in March while I was out having a beer with my buddy Jake. Both of us were former Krietenstein counselors and had been roommates in Terre Haute. Jake was now a District Executive, so I thought he might know something.
He told me the letter to axe me had come from National, not from within the Council. Apparently the letter had originated in Pennsylvania; Jake asked me who I knew through Regional and National Events, such as National Camp School or the 2010 National Scout Jamboree.
I started checking online, seeing where my friends from those events had come from; finally I found the only one from Pennsylvania. Guilty or not, I cut off contact with him, along with most of the others, just in case there was another rat in my midst.
I also became more secluded than I had been online, gone were the days of open contact and dialogue, I had to shut out people, at least until this storm blew over.
But just because I found the likely triggerman, didn’t mean the story was over.
I was following up on my Council buddy’s advice to keep being a counselor. As it turns out, the former program director and camp director of Krietenstein were back in the saddle in Ohio. Tony, the program director, called me and told me to come out and work there. We had worked closely together when he was at Krietenstein, I had designed and revised many of the high-octane programs he put in place that year that got the camp applause from the local troops.
I was also excited about working for Roger, the camp director, again. Roger can be a hard, stern man, but he was also one of the most loyal bosses I ever had. He had ignored the vicious rumors that had spread about me after 2007 and hired me on at Krietenstein. The man himself had been backstabbed in Scouting a few times in his life and he was willing to give another chance to those who deserved it.
I immediately jumped on the offer, sent in my application, did the interview with Roger and started brainstorming with Tony to bring some of that Krietenstein magic to this camp in Ohio. I had the job in the bag.
Roger called me with some bad news. He couldn’t offer me a contract. Apparently the Council Executive over there had seen some pictures of me online that had pissed him off, so the deal was off. I was now permanently exiled.
I asked Roger for details, but he didn’t know. I frantically began looking to see just what sort of pictures could have set this guy off. I found nothing; just the usual assortment of photos of me with the guys, usually smiling around my cigarette with that “devil-may-care” grin on my face. There were no explicit photos, no photos of me engaged in illicit drug use, nothing. The worst they could have pinned was me dressed like a freak. But so the hell what? What American college student didn’t get crazy and dress weird once in a while?
I left it at that, Roger was the sort of man you didn’t press; besides if he told me he didn’t know, that means he didn’t know. Roger held liars in extreme contempt and told nothing but the truth. He wouldn’t hide anything from me.
Tony also denied knowing anything about these “offensive” pictures.
That was it, it was all over, nine years of wearing the uniform and they cut me down like a mad dog. I spent the summer looking for work and eventually found a gig at a gas station, selling discounted sodas and cheap cigarettes to breathing zombies. During the first few weeks of my clerk job, I got plenty of phone calls and emails from my buddies at Krietenstein and even a few of the Scout leaders, begging me to come back.
The BSA has become extremely polarized regarding the situation of GLBTQ people; my screwing was just one of many to happen around the country, there have been other camp counselors forced out either for being GLBTQ or for publicly expressing their disagreement with the BSA’s membership policy.
But maybe it ain’t all bad, as Dylan once wrote, “the times they are a-changing”, and it seems like as more and more of us get stomped and screwed, the more people are speaking out. Soon, the BSA will have to make a decision, keep up as a viable organization and welcome all into Scouting or slam the gates close and keep collecting those checks.