Scouting is in Will Partin's blood. He joined the Cub Scouts with a group of grade school friends, soon taking the first of many camping trips and completing craft projects at weekly den meetings. In fifth grade he continued with the Boy Scouts, moving up through the scout ranks and earning more than 20 merit badges. His favorite was the cycling badge, for which he frequently rode along the Silver Comet Trail near Atlanta, Ga.
Like his father, Partin earned the Eagle Scout rank, an honor achieved by only 5 percent of Boy Scouts. His Eagle Scout project -- a minimum 100-man-hour service project that scouts must plan, organize and oversee on their own -- involved building a boardwalk in a nature preserve to prevent runners from trampling the native plant species. Partin's younger brother would later earn the rank. His grandfather would have also earned the rank had he not gone to fight in World War II.
But in late July, after the Boy Scouts of America announced it would continue its policy of banning openly gay scouts, leaders and even the children of gay parents, Partin felt he had to take a stand. He hammered out a letter to the national office of the Boy Scouts of America, beginning by recounting how proud he felt wearing the scouting uniform as a boy.
"But today," the letter continues, "I am writing this essay to inform the National Eagle Scout Organization and the Boy Scouts of America that I no longer wish to be associated in any way with their organization, and that it is my intention to relinquish my hallowed rank, effective immediately. I have become in recent years as ashamed to wear my badge as I once was proud."
When Partin enclosed his Eagle badge with the letter and dropped it in the mail, he joined a growing number of now-former Eagles protesting what they see as a discriminatory policy. As gay-rights issues continue to dominate news headlines, scouting faces a growing counter-movement protesting its position from some of its strongest supporters, including Eagle Scouts, at least one regional scouting council, and even President Obama and Mitt Romney. (Full disclosure: This writer earned the Eagle Scout rank in the early 1990s.)
According to a July 17 press release, in 2010 the Boy Scouts assembled a committee of "volunteers and professional leaders" to evaluate whether the ban on openly gay scouts or the children of gay parents "continued to be in the best interest of the organization."
"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," said the press release.
Gay rights advocates who had for years petitioned the scouts to revise the policy were incensed, and the announcement triggered a wave of Eagles who had finally had enough.
"I am not gay. However, I cannot in good conscience hold this badge as long as the BSA continues a policy of bigotry," wrote Martin Cizmar, an editor at the Portland, Ore. newspaper Willamette Weekly, in a letter posted on Towleroad. "I don't want to be an Eagle Scout if a young man who is gay can't be one, too. Gentlemen, please do the right thing," the letter concludes.
"Today I am returning my Eagle Scout medal because I do not want to be associated with the bigotry for which it now stands," wrote Christopher Baker in a letter posted by his wife on BoingBoing. "I hope that one day BSA stands up for all boys. It saddens me that until that day comes any sons of mine will not participate in the Boy Scouts."
One Eagle Scout took notice of all the resignation letters hitting news sites and started a Tumblr blog to collect more. As of August 4, Burke Stansbury, based near Seattle, had posted 80 letters on Eagle Scouts Returning Our Badges.
"There's really been a long time for them to review the policy, and there's been a lot of activism from within the organization towards changing the policy," said Stansbury. But he says for many Eagles, the July 17 announcement was the last straw.
"It was like they had every chance in the world to change this policy and it became clear to me and others that that's never going to happen," Stansbury said.
Stansbury emphasizes that the decision to keep or return the Eagle badge is difficult and deeply personal.
"I don't expect every Eagle Scout to turn in their badge," Stansbury. "I think what's important is that a number of people are doing it because I think it helps to sort of shame the organization and raise the profile of the bad decision that they made."
The letters range from men who earned the Eagle rank in 1950s, to those who earned it just last year. He said most letters state that the policy runs counter to the values they learned in scouting. Stansbury says that while most of the letters submitted to this site were written by straight men, some of the most powerful came from gay and transgender Eagles.
Allen Johnson submitted his letter to the Tumblr site. "Scouting has always been very important to me," Johnson wrote. "I began as a Tiger Cub in the first grade and worked my way up through the ranks to finally attain the Eagle Award in 2010. I received the honor on a hot June day in North Carolina alongside two of my Scouting brothers. But I knew that I was not equal to them and their accomplishments, not really—because I was gay."
Johnson describes how learning about scouting's founder, Lord Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell -- probably a closeted gay man -- saved him from a suicide attempt.
"Perhaps ironically, I decided to stay in Scouting even after I realized my orientation because I had learned that the founder of the Scouting movement Lord Robert Baden-Powell was also gay, just like me," he wrote. "If Baden-Powell could found as great an organization as the Boy Scouts as a gay man (albeit repressed), I knew that I too could do great things as a gay man."
That the founder of scouting would find himself banned by the current leadership is a point not lost to many gay-rights advocates. As Brooke Allen writes in the New York Times, "This man who gave so much to so many suffered from the forces of repression and taboo. It is unfortunate that the American branch of the movement he founded should perpetuate them."
The Boy Scouts of America declined an interview for this story, but spokesman Deron Smith said in a statement, “The return of an Eagle Scout medal is very rare, but throughout the years people have chosen to return their medals for a variety of reasons, each based on individual beliefs. More than 50,000 young men earn this rank each year, 2.1 million in total. We don't have an exact count of medals returned recently, but we have received a few. Naturally, we’re disappointed when someone makes this decision, but we respect their right to express an opinion in whatever manner they feel is appropriate.”
And pushback to scouting comes from more than individual scouts.
At least one regional Scout Council has said it would not enforce the Boy Scouts’ anti-gay policy. Overseeing 75,000 scouts in Minnesota and Wisconsin, the Northern Star Council, one of the nation's largest, said it would continue its 12-year tradition of allowing gays and lesbians to join their ranks.
"We're a reflection of the community," Northern Star Council spokesman Kent York said in statement to the Star Tribune newspaper. "Our commitment has been to reach out to all young people and have a positive influence."
In Northern California last month, 10 scout camp leaders quit after a gay colleague was fired.
The Washington Blade reported this week that President Obama opposes the ban.
“The President believes the Boy Scouts is a valuable organization that has helped educate and build character in American boys for more than a century,” White House spokesperson Shin Inouye said in the statement. “He also opposes discrimination in all forms, and as such opposes this policy that discriminates on basis of sexual orientation.”
Mitt Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul told the Associated Press last week that his position that "all people should be able to participate in the Boy Scouts regardless of their sexual orientation," a statement he made in 1994, has not changed.
But not all scouts, even those who oppose the ban, agree that resigning is the way to go.
"Several of my other friends who have been involved with Scouting or made Eagle commented that they thought about doing this but they're making their own choice to remain in Scouting and try to change the system from the inside," said Partin. "I don't have any wisdom as to whether one is better than the other."
Will Partin says scouting gave him things he can keep without a badge, including new skills and the hard work he put into his accomplishments.
"Scouting is more than just being an Eagle," said Partin. "It's about values."