BANGOR — Saying he is “ashamed” of the Boy Scouts of America’s recent reaffirmation of a policy that bans gay Scouts and leaders from its ranks, an optometrist who is a Maine Eagle Scout and former Cub Scout pack master has returned his Scouting medals and awards.
Dr. Mark Varnum, who operates optometry offices in Bangor and Oakland, sent a letter Monday to the Boy Scouts of America’s national executive board decrying the group’s mid-July decision to uphold its policy after a two-year review. Enclosed were his Eagle Scout medal, which he earned as a 16-year-old in Presque Isle, Bronze Palm award, which is granted when a Scout attains merit badges after attaining the rank of Eagle Scout, and two advancement medals.
Other Eagle Scouts scattered across the nation have made the same move.
“Scouting, by its very nature, is meant to encourage character building and to teach leadership,” Varnum said in an interview Monday afternoon. “In my opinion, you can’t be a leader and you can’t teach character if you’re going to discriminate against other people.”
Varnum also is a member of the Brotherhood of the Order of the Arrow, an honor society for the Scouts.
The Boy Scouts of America, a national organization headquartered in Texas, cited widespread support of the ban from parents and members of the organization as the basis for its decision. The policy was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000, but it has continued to draw the ire of gay-rights activists and some past and present members of the organization.
“Scouting represents millions of youth and adult members in diverse communities across the nation, each with a variety of beliefs,” said Deron Smith, director of public relations for the Scouts. “While a majority of our membership agrees with our policy, no single policy will accommodate the many diverse views among our membership or society.”
Since its policy announcement on July 17, the Boy Scouts of America has received “a few” returned medals, according to Smith. With more than 50,000 men having attained the Eagle Scout rank, people have returned medals before this decision was made for a variety of reasons, Smith said.
Varnum said he couldn’t continue to be associated with an organization that would exclude members because of their sexual orientation.
“As an Eagle Scout, I can’t stand by and watch an organization that I care about act in a manner that is discriminatory,” Varnum said. “You’re taught in Boy Scouts to be on the side of those that are being bullied, not be on the side of the bully.”
Varnum’s father, Norman Varnum, also was an Eagle Scout and started Troop 168 in Presque Isle. Mark Varnum said his father would have stood strongly against the Scouts’ decision if he were still alive.
“I have always been proud to associate myself with Scouting — now I am ashamed,” Varnum wrote in his letter to the Scouts. “If my father were still living, his Eagle medal would be enclosed with mine.”
Mark Varnum said his older brother, who also is an Eagle Scout, might return his medals as well.
Varnum argued that the Boy Scouts of America should reverse its decision and revoke its policy on exclusion of gay members.
“I’ve always been very proud to be associated with the Boy Scouts,” Varnum said Monday. “If they changed their policy to be more tolerant of other people and other people’s beliefs, … then I would certainly be very pleased to be affiliated with them again.”
Criticism from gay-rights groups, some Scout members and segments of the public hasn’t persuaded the Boy Scouts of America to reverse its policy.
“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,” Smith said.