It may seem strange coming from an out, proud bisexual trans woman, but more than any anything else in my youth, the Boy Scouts of America helped to form my queer identity.
I went to school in a small, conservative farming town near Rochester, N.Y., where I only knew one out gay kid in my entire school. So my greatest exposure to a queer community came from my summers spent as a teenage Boy Scout camp counselor in the Adirondacks. While they certainly couldn't be out, I discovered that many of my fellow counselors, including many adults, were gay men. Finally, out in the woods, I got the chance to talk about what it meant to be queer.
Even my nonqueer peers explored levels of homosexuality. In spite of the homophobic rhetoric and beliefs that teenage boys often display, I can remember giving many back massages and having discussions of male genitalia with my peers. By the end of each summer, even the most sheepish boy was casually touching and hugging other guys. Even in a nonsexual and nonromantic context, I was able to explore my feelings toward the male body, including my desire to explore someone else's and to not have one of my own.
The Boy Scouts even taught me how to define my gender. I earned my Eagle Scout as I finally confirmed to myself that I was indeed a woman. How could I be a trans woman and yet still be a proud Eagle Scout? Both were part of who I was and still am, so how do you navigate that seeming contradiction within yourself? The Boy Scouts forced me to ask these questions and discover that despite being a woman, I didn't need to adhere to conventional ideas of masculinity and femininity. I just needed to be me.
Despite its history as an overtly anti-LGBT organization, the Boy Scouts of America was always a queer space to me. It enabled me to explore who I was and instilled in me a love for the outdoors, my fellow human beings (queer or not), and our connection to each other and nature. I wouldn't feel the empathy I have or hold the same values I do without the Boy Scouts.
Which is why, watching my fellow Boy Scouts cheer for Donald Trump during his speech, I felt nothing but despair. With each swell of the crowd, I could feel my heart drop as I saw the organization I care so much about support a man who proudly displays his lack of empathy for other human beings.
This isn't to say I was blind to what the Boy Scouts represented over the years. I knew when I joined the Boy Scouts the problems it had. For much of its over 100-year history, the BSA followed a "don't ask, don't tell"-type policy, refusing to allow openly LGBT scouts and leaders to be a part of the organization. Before I even identified as LGBT, I felt such sadness that there were many who didn't get to share my experience because they openly displayed who they were.
So when I saw this policy changing, I was overjoyed. Over the past few years, the BSA has allowed gay scouts, gay adults, and even trans masculine kids to openly participate in the organization-- finally opening the doors gave other LGBT kids the chance to experience the life-changing adventures that I had been lucky enough to be given. Even more important, it showed the BSA could grow and evolve -- that in another 100 years, the Boy Scouts would still be here to keep showing kids the power of community and connection to the natural world we live in.
So watching Trump speak at the jamboree, all I could think of was all the LGBT scouts in that crowd who suddenly realized that the other boys around them supported a man who actively harms their community. To know that you are now standing in the middle of a crowd of people who don't understand you -- in a single moment, you are made to feel other instead of part of a community you trusted. You are not one of us. You are different. You are alone.
It's an attitude that's completely antithetical to what the Boy Scouts of America really means. The Boy Scouts preach connection and brotherhood, yet despite recent advances, it still can ostracize it's most vulnerable members.
It's with these attitudes that I can see the Boy Scouts of America die. If the group continues down that road, the true beating heart of the BSA will be perverted into something horrific or even wither and die.
I don't want to see the BSA disappear or change into something unrecognizable. The Boy Scouts of America can be a place that shows kids the diversity of love -- love for the world, each other, and yourself. Let the Boy Scouts be a beacon for inclusiveness, not a haven for hatred.
JESSIE EARL is a video producer for The Advocate. Follow her on Twitter @lostrekkie.