John Higgins

Becoming an Eagle Scout meant more to Martin Cizmar than graduating from Tallmadge High School in 1999.

He had joined the Boy Scouts at age 11 and received scouting’s highest rank shortly after he turned 18.

“It was really the defining thing of my childhood,” said Cizmar, now the arts and culture editor at Willamette Week in Portland, Ore. “I’ve taken it with me everywhere that I’ve lived and everywhere I’ve been. It was something that I cherished a lot.”

But last week, after the Boy Scouts of America reaffirmed its exclusion of gays from participating as Scouts or adult leaders, Cizmar returned his medal in protest.

Cizmar explained in his letter, dated July 19, that he is not gay, but he cannot support an organization that excludes gays.

“I can only hope that someone inside the BSA has the courage to fix this policy before the organization withers into irrelevance,” Cizmar wrote. “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 U.S. Supreme Court upheld the private organization’s exclusion policy in 2000.

The BSA reaffirmed its stance last week after a two-year, confidential review by a committee of professional Scout executives and adult volunteers unanimously endorsed the exclusion policy.

The BSA so far has received “around five” returned medals, according to BSA spokesman Deron Smith, who responded to emailed questions.

“Each year more than 50,000 men earn the rank of Eagle Scout,” he said.

The organization is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Eagle Scout Award this year.

“While a majority of our membership agrees with our policy, no single policy will accommodate the many diverse views among our membership or society,” Smith said. “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.”

Drawing the line

Cizmar, a former student correspondent for the Beacon Journal, said the secret nature of the deliberations and the decision to reaffirm the policy prompted him to return his medal.

“I think this is my generation’s civil-rights movement, and I think that it’s up to a lot of people to stand up and draw a line,” he said.

Cizmar joined the Boy Scouts two weeks after his 11th birthday. He spent a few years with a Brimfield troop but mostly participated with Troop 361 in Tallmadge.

“The first time I ever heard rap music was in Boy Scouts,” he said. “You have so many boys from so many walks of life and lifestyle who are all involved in this program because they share some of the same values.”

He said he discovered only as an adult that some of the boys he met through Scouts and some of the Scout leaders were gay.

“We didn’t talk about it then, and we don’t talk about it now,” Cizmar said. “We talk about great memories from scouting or we talk about what we’re doing now and our lives now.”

Service project

One of those memories was how he earned his Eagle Scout rank.

In addition to earning 21 merit badges, Cizmar had to lead a community service project. He chose to help a camp for children with special needs by showing kids how to make cobbler using Dutch ovens, how to build catapults for water balloons and other Scout skills. He guided junior Scouts through the project, refreshing their skills and setting high expectations for behavior and public service.

“The thing about the Eagle Scout project is that for a lot of kids, it’s the first time you’re ever in charge of a project where the result of it is going to come from your planning, your work and your leadership skills,” Cizmar said. “It’s a very big deal.”

He received his award at a Court of Honor ceremony that culminated with the Eagle Scout presentation.

“The other Eagle Scouts who are in the room sit in a special area called the Eagle’s Nest and they watch, and your mom pins it on you, and you get a handshake from your scoutmaster and your dad,” Cizmar said. “It really was the biggest accomplishment of my life at that point.”

Eagle Scouts receive a badge, a medal and a red, white and blue knot they wear as adults.

Cizmar said it wasn’t easy to pack them in a box and return them.

“I got the medal out the night before and I kind of had it sitting on my desk,” he said. “I woke up and I sat down at my desk and I thought about it and I just wrote the letter before I went to work.”

He mailed the box at lunch and paid 75 cents to track its journey to BSA headquarters in Texas.

He posted a copy of the letter on Facebook and soon found that he had gained 200 Twitter followers and between 100 and 150 new Facebook friends.

“My parents have been supportive, and my scoutmaster gave it a ‘like’ on Facebook,” Cizmar said.

He said he has seen letters of other Eagle Scouts online who have sent back their medals.

“I’m embarrassed to say that it was a little bit hard. It’s kind of an emotional thing,” Cizmar said. “You really shouldn’t be that tied to something you got as a kid for having fun and learning some cool skills and all that. It really was something that meant a lot to me, so it was kind of hard to part with it.”

John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or jhiggins@thebeaconjournal.com.