The Boy Scouts and My Gay Coach

All of this kerfuffle about whether or not the Boy Scouts should allow homosexuals into their group has me thinking of an old friend. I’m not sure I should really call him a friend as I haven’t spoken to him in more than twenty years, but that’s how I think of him. I guess he was more of a mentor or a teacher, considering how much I learned from him. Today I think of him as someone who helped me to become the person that I grew to be. But back then I just thought of him as Coach.

I played football in high school. Not very well, mind you, but I played. I played with the awareness and understanding of an average teen age boy, which is to say I really didn’t get it. I did play well enough, though, to be expected to be one of the leaders of the team.MERINO

One of our assistant coaches was a man named Chuck Merino, a local police officer and prominent Boy Scout leader in the area. Coach Merino was popular with the players, but not because he was easy on us. He was popular because he treated us with respect, so we respected him. He treated us like the men we thought ourselves to be. He pushed us and demanded from us more than we knew we had.

My clearest memory of Coach was from my senior season. At the end of every practice we ran “gassers”, a seemingly endless number of ten-yard sprints, each set off by a whistle blast just seconds after the last one had finished. I would hear his voice behind me, yelling that I should be finishing first every time. Don’t run with the pack. If you want to lead then you have to lead from the front. Don’t be content to just finish, finish strong. Work harder than everyone else.

It was the kind of growl from coaches you become accustomed to in football. It’s part of the culture and a sound that permeates every practice field. His growl seemed to carry extra weight with me, though.

One day, his voice ringing inside my helmet after finishing one repetition, I looked up at him with what must have been surrender in my eyes. He came in close and quietly said “you have more to give than you know”. I lined up for another sprint and felt his hand grab the tail of my jersey. I turned to see why he had grabbed me and he just pointed down the field. He wanted me to drag him.

For the rest of the season, I dragged Coach Merino up and down the field during our end-of-the-day conditioning. We didn’t ever really talk about it, but I knew what he was trying to teach me. If you want to be great, you have to be willing to sacrifice more of yourself than you think you can. In life, hard work will get you everywhere.

To this day, I feel his hand on my jersey all the time. I’ve been dragging him around for years now.

More than a year after my senior season, Coach Merino was all over the news. He had been kicked out of Scouts for publicly saying he was gay. He sued and initially won, though that ruling was overturned. He appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before his case was ultimately dismissed.

I was still very much a naïve kid when all of this happened. Coach was the first gay person I had known, or at least the first one I had known was gay, even though none of us ever knew about his sexual orientation when we played for him. I was probably guilty of making homophobic comments back then, but I don’t remember ever really having strong feelings that way. I followed the crowd, the way so many compliant young boys do. To me gays were weird and different because they were not part of the world in which I lived. Since the only thing I knew about gay people was what I was told, those negative stereotypes became my reality. I didn’t know any better and had yet to gain the capacity to decide for myself.

I couldn’t fully contemplate the gravity of an organization such as the Boy Scouts indoctrinating discrimination into millions of young minds or grasp the absurdity of classifying someone as dangerous because of the kind of genitalia they found attractive. I had not realized how ridiculous the idea was that gay people will inherently impose gayness onto any impressionable young minds with which they come into contact. I had not come to know yet that gay people were exactly like me except for one tiny biological difference.

I didn’t understand that someone could be gay and still teach me how to be a better, more successful human being, as if those two things are even remotely relatable. I didn’t, that is, until I learned that Coach Merino was gay.

I’m a grown man now and I have learned all of these things. Coach Merino was the beginning and a huge part of that education, but it has been sustained by many years and many more amazing people. I am embarrassed for the leaders of the Boy Scouts, but I don’t begrudge them their right to make up any asinine or archaic rules they see fit. After all, they are a private group and this is a free country.

boy-scouts-gay-banThough, it’s good to see the Boy Scouts’ ignorance on full display. My hope is that their leaders will see the ludicrousness of their position and choose to change it. If not, I hope the parents of the boys involved with this group will stand up for what they know is right and withdraw their participation. The Boy Scouts certainly do teach some valuable things, but hatred, fear and discrimination are not among them.

I also hope that Coach Merino, wherever he is, is proud of how he stood up for what he knew was right. It’s precisely that kind of courage and character that the Boy Scouts claim to value. And that is exactly what I learned, both on the field and off, from this man that they claimed was not worthy of representing their organization.

I am forever grateful to Chuck Merino for what he taught me. And I am proud to have called him Coach.

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About Mitchell Brown

I am a stay at home dad with my two daughters who are a lot stronger than they look. When I'm not cooking, cleaning, dancing, reading, teaching, playing or protecting my eyes and groin, I am writing about this whole experience in all of its ridiculousness.
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28 Responses to The Boy Scouts and My Gay Coach

  1. Erika Greelish says:

    What a wonderful, thoughtful column. Thank you so much for sharing this man’s impact on your life.

  2. Mike says:

    Nice work Mitch!

  3. Jared Karol says:

    I think you already know how awesome I think this post is, and how happy I am to call you a friend. Thank you.

  4. Another great piece, Mitch. I have also thought a lot about Coach Merino over the years. I didn’t interact with him as much on the field, as he didn’t coach my position, but I remember having a lot of good talks with him off the field. He was always an enjoyable guy, and always had time to talk, and tried to give good guidance.

    Looking back, I felt kind of “weird” when I learned that he was gay – poor choice of words, but I can’t think of a better one. Like you, I don’t think that I had knowingly known a gay person prior to Chuck. Now, hopefully with a bit more maturity and understanding, I see that he was just like the rest of the coaches in that he was trying to teach us knuckleheads how to play football and get the most out of ourselves. He was never outspoken about his orientation; it had nothing to do with the reason that he was there. In fact, I feel that he deserves to be held in higher esteem than some of other people that coached us in those years. I, too, hope that he is doing well.

  5. Camille says:

    well thankfully our children will grow up with a completely different view of gays!

  6. A very well written and thoughtful article, you can tell he meant and means a lot to you.

  7. This was a great piece. Thank you.

  8. Meka says:

    Beautiful Mitchell. It’s always a good feeling to be able to look back and realize the impact one person has had on our lives. It shows how powerful we can be. Especially when dealing with such topics that should really be non-topics.

  9. JP says:

    Excellent, genuine and thoughtful. You be more gooder than me at these word thingies.

    ps:
    Love “kerfuffle”,
    moo moo my friend

  10. dorkdad says:

    For my part, I was suspicious of scouts from the very beginning… wearing quasi-military uniforms, secret handshakes, swearing oaths that we weren’t old enough to possibly understand. I got out before weblos.

    Scouts are Americana, and as such the public seems to feel entitled to be part of scouting if they wish. But the point is well made that they are a private institution, and have the right to make whatever policies they like, unimpeded by legislation.

    There are countless benefits to scouting… it’s just a terrible shame that the antiquated, backwards elements to scouting culture that the antiquated, backwards leadership cling to overshadow everything else.

    • When I was a kid I went to one scouting meeting and decided pretty quickly that wasn’t for me. I saw – and see – the value in it for some, like I said, but it just wasn’t for me. The funny thing is I did the exact same thing when I went to a rush meeting of a fraternity in college. Thanks for reading, sir.

  11. dorkdad says:

    Ugh. Rush. Same here. Funny though how the Eagle Scout in my family was also the fraternity guy in the family. Coincidence? I think not.

  12. Dude. This was a great post. Your fond memories of your coach are a testament to your own awesomeness. Thanks for sharing the story.

  13. The takeaway-you learned about manhood from a gay man. Huh, who knew that could happen? Good stuff, Mitchell. Nicely done.

  14. I was a scout and never joined a fraternity. If we can have a black president, perhaps we can someday look forward to the scouts being enriched by leaders of all orientations. Coach Merino sounds like a courageous man. My wonderful track coach in high school was gay, but never came out of the closet. Some years ago I heard–but haven’t been able to confirm–he took his own life.

    • Slowly, slowly we all move forward, I guess. I’m sorry to hear of your track coach. It’s hard thinking of the torment that some people have to experience because of the small minds of others.

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