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Opening the Door to Gay Boy Scouts

Author: BY DERRICK Z. JACKSON, GLOBE STAFF Date: 06/08/2001 Page: A23

IN A QUIET FLEX of muscle, with the hope that the sheer size of their cities signals an urgent need for compromise, nine council presidents and board chairmans, including the chairman of Boston's Minuteman Council, have petitioned the Boy Scouts of America to open up its policy banning gay Scouts.
At the Scouts' national meeting last week in Boston, leaders of the councils of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, West Los Angeles, Orange County, Calif., San Francisco, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Boston proposed that the Scouts allow churches, schools, and other chartering organizations to decide for themselves whether to have gay scout members and leaders.

The current national policy of the Boy Scouts of America, upheld last year by a narrowly divided Supreme Court, is to ban gay males. The Scouts have said, "an avowed homosexual is not a role model."
In many cities and towns, the Boy Scouts' policy has resulted in an erosion of support from city agencies and funding sources that have nondiscrimination policies, most notably the United Way.

This week in Massachusetts, the Hampshire County United Way dropped its support of the Great Trails Council because the council would not sign a nondiscrimination policy. Last year, the United Way of Massachusetts Bay ended direct funding of the Minuteman Council, shifting support to the Scouts' Learning for Life Program.

That program promotes leadership skills in the schools to boys and girls and has no gay discrimination policy.
The resolution by the big city presidents asks that the Scouts adopt a policy that states that "membership and leadership positions are open to persons regardless of their sexual orientation," subject to compliance with Scouting's standards of conduct, and that "a Scout treat all people with respect, regardless of their sexual orientation."

The resolution asks the Boy Scouts to accept local rules of the sponsoring organizations that select Scout leaders. A troop could ban gay leaders if it wished. But a troop whose sponsor explicitly forbids discrimination would face no action from the Boy Scouts. This year, the Scouts, based in Irving, Texas, revoked the charter of several Cub Scout packs in Oak Park, Ill., because the sponsors, a parent-teacher group, adhered to a nondiscrimination policy.

"We're not a bunch of wild guys out here doing a palace revolt," said Mike Harrison, past chairman of the board of the Orange County Council. "We're trying to find another path that respects the beliefs of all Scouts and shows a truly tolerant attitude instead of one with broad stereotypical labels.

"There are troops sponsored by religious institutions, such as Mormons, Catholics, and others, where there is no way they are going to pick someone who has indicated they have a homosexual orientation . . . But many of us value Scouting also precisely because it values tolerance and diversity and that the Scouts' interpretation of `morally straight' meaning only straight people is out to lunch."

Boy Scouts national spokesman Gregg Shields said the proposal will be taken up by its relationships committee. However, Shields said of the signatories, "These still represent a minority of councils. We have nearly 320 councils around the country. I think the majority want the policy that is currently in place. I would foresee that the existing policy would continue."

Shields's claim that the big city councils represent a "minority" is a risky brushoff given that the metropolitan areas are a quarter of the nation's population and are huge media centers. It is also risky because his prediction that the existing policy would continue flies in the face of the optimistic diplomacy of the signatories. They held no press conferences to announce the proposal. They want the Boy Scouts to be able to save face over a position it has bitterly defended.

Minuteman Council executive Brock Bigsby said, "It was pretty easy for us to be part of this. I'd like to think one of the things our council is most known for is its diversity." Don York, director of field services for the New York City Councils, said, "Let's not close the door up front" on gay Scouts.
Lew Greenblatt, president of the Chicago Area Council, said, "If you believe in an organization, you want to make it as good as it can be. This is a way it can be better. Unfortunately, it is the kids who are suffering from the national policy."

Harrison said, "When I read the Supreme Court decision, I was appalled at the arguments the Boy Scout lawyers made. But I've had some good conversations with Catholic liaisons and some of our LDS [Latter-day Saints] cohorts. I'm encouraged that we'll get to where we need to be, whether it takes six months or a year."

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is jackson@globe.com.

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