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Gay area Eagle Scout gives back his award

Sunday - 8/12/2012, 6:00am  ET

Frederick resident Steven Colella joined the Cub Scouts when he was 5, his first step on the journey to becoming a Boy Scout.

Colella's parents encouraged him at first, he said, and he soon committed himself to developing the survival and leadership skills the organization inculcated among its members.

"I liked the idea you can gain skills and experiences and develop ideas and beliefs through interacting with others," said Colella, now 23.

On July 25, Colella gave back the Eagle Scout award he earned in 2007 to the Boy Scouts of America. In a letter explaining his decision, he asked to be taken out of the national pool of applicants seeking employment with the Boy Scouts.

Colella is gay.

The Boy Scouts of America does not accept avowed homosexuals within the organization -- a policy the Boy Scouts reaffirmed in July to the chagrin of many gay rights activists who'd rejoiced at the U.S. military's 2011 decision to end its "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Deron Smith, a spokesman for the Boy Scouts of America, wrote in an email that the organization has received a few returned Eagle Scout medals over the past two weeks.

"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," he said.

"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."

For Colella, the Boy Scouts' recent policy affirmation, which he described as political and discriminatory, darkened the last flicker of hope he held of staying with the Scouts.

"Above all else, becoming an Eagle Scout taught me to persevere, to never quit," he wrote in his resignation letter. "And now, by the force of an outdated practice and an uncompromising procedural decision, I must resign myself to defeat."

Indeed, in 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court held the Boy Scouts have a First Amendment right to oppose or disfavor homosexual conduct and thus bar openly gay members, both children and adults, said Meredith Curtis, spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

The ACLU considers this policy both discriminatory and shameful, Curtis said. Also, it does not set a good example for its members regarding the meaning of tolerance and respect.

Colella had dedicated much of his life to the Boy Scouts, he said. He followed the painstaking process of earning the 21 merit badges required to become one of roughly 50,000 nationwide who earn the title of Eagle Scout each year.

His Eagle Scout project involved organizing and running a blood drive. Ironic, he said, because sexually active homosexual men are not permitted to donate blood to the Red Cross.

He'd already told friends about his sexual orientation, but hesitated to tell anyone in the Scouts or his family.

Colella said he always had a certain level of fear that, if people found out he was gay, he could be kicked out of the organization he loved.

"Even if I'm in a healthy relationship personally, that has no bearing on my involvement," he said. The Scouts, he said, is not designed to teach sexual education. During the previous two summers, he worked at a Boy Scout camp in Jonestown, Pa.

Undeterred at first, he applied for a professional position with the Scouts and was offered a position in Pennsylvania this past spring. Eventually, though, he changed his mind and decided against accepting the job.

Despite his resignation, he said he still held out hope that the Scouts would eventually change their policy, and he decided to stay a Scout. The decision allowed him give one of his younger brothers the oath to become an Eagle Scout himself.

Then the organization reaffirmed its policy.

"I think that makes this even more of a slap in the face," Colella said.

His family and friends have been supportive of his decision, as they have of his two younger brothers' decision to carry on in the Scouts, he said.

Colella said he worried about others in a similar position who don't have such support.

A 2011 graduate of James Madison University with a major in English, Colella said he now works as a retail manager. In the future, he'd like to teach middle or high school, a role for which he believes the Scouts helped him prepare.

"My only regret is that because of who I am, I can't participate in the organization," he said.