This is a story about discrimination and the possibility of change.
Next month, the National Council of The Boy Scouts of America will vote on an issue that has deeply divided the Scouts for decades.
The Scouts announced early this month, a split-the-baby approach allowing openly gay boys to become members. If the proposal is accepted by a majority of the roughly 1,400 voting members of the council, the new BSA policy will read as follows: “No youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.”
However, the proposal carries this caveat: “The organization will maintain the current membership policy for all adult leaders,” which is to say that they will not allow openly, gay adult Scout leaders.
Gary, a friend who happens to be gay, pointed out that “What this says is, we don’t’ trust gay leaders because they give the boys the wrong message.”
“What about peer influence?” Robert, another friend added. “Aren’t kids more influenced by their peers, and are they then more likely to ‘corrupted or abused’ by young, gay members? Society is telling us, you should be authentic. We have to accept people as who they are.”
In my 2004 book, What Do You Stand For? I told the story of Scout Executive Len Lanzi.
In October, 2000, local Lanzi stood up before the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors speaking out against a proposal that would cut financial aid to the local Scout organization after the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of the organization’s anti-gay policy (Boy Scouts of America v. Dale). Lanzi’s statement stood as a real moment of principle. In part, he said:
“I am an Eagle Scout. I’ve been in Scouting for 30 years, since I was eight years old. I have been working for the Boy Scouts for fourteen years, most recently in the capacity of Executive Director here for the past three-and-a-half years. …
“I want to remind the Supervisors of one thing – this really isn’t about the Boy Scouts. It’s about a bunch of kids. It’s about the values that parents choose for their children to learn and to articulate and to grow up in. …
“We are a private organization. We do have membership standards for some of our programs. There are people both inside and outside the BoyScouts who disagree with our membership standards. But they are our standards. …
“We don’t hate gay people. We teach our boys to be courteous, to be friendly, and to be kind. We teach them to help other people at all times. We don’t say that homosexuals are child abusers, because they’re not. They’re not pedophiles. And [homophobic people] put those arguments …in the Boys Scouts’ mouths. But I’m here to tell you officially that that is not true. …
“I know there are many people in this room that understand that I am a private person who keeps my personal relationships private. But I am gay. And I uphold the Boy Scouts policies because I believe in them. …I would not have worked for the Boy Scouts if I didn’t agree that we save kid’s lives, that we do not hurt people, that my job is to make sure every boy in this county has the opportunity to join because the value that we give kids is incredible.”
The day after Lanzi spoke, he was asked to resign his position. When he refused, he was suspended with pay.
Upon hearing the news, Board Member Dennis Peterson resigned from the local organization. “As a Board member, I’m upset with your unilateral decision to suspend Len without Board action…My own personal views and the ‘official’ BSA view are at odds…It’s not hard to remember 30 years ago and our country’s struggle over Civil Rights. Have we now replaced ‘black’ with ‘homosexual’?”
At a November Board meeting for the local Boy Scout Council, Board Member Karl Eberhard observed, “there were clearly three camps. A third of the people actually thought that this was the right thing to do. You know, gay people are a bad influence on young people and somehow it’s a disease and if children hang out with gay people they might catch it. Another third of the people were scared because national made it very clear that if we didn’t behave exactly the way they told us to, they’d yank the charter of the Council. The final third were on the fence. So two-thirds of the people were inclined to fire him. But they didn’t fire him because he’s gay. They fired him because national had decommissioned him!”
With that, Eberhard resigned and walked out of the meeting.
Another Board member, attorney Alan Courtney, stayed one with the intention of trying to bring about change from within the organization, but was surprised by the actions of the National Council.
“Prior to the meeting, I had gotten a copy of the rules the Boy Scouts have regarding their professional staff. They are given a commission, and there are references to [giving an employee] notice and a hearing and a right to confront witnesses. Now, this group was saying that they were going to ‘pull’ his commission. And so I asked the attorney, ‘There are all these procedures here that you’re supposed to follow before you can pull someone’s commission. Why aren’t you following these procedures with Len?’ And one attorney said, ‘Well, it’s like he’s an ax murderer.’ Those were her exact words. ‘It’s like he’s an admitted ax murderer. There’s absolutely no defense to this, so there’s really no need to go through with all those procedures.’ And I thought, where did she learn this?”
“I got into it with one of the members,” Courtney remembers, “because he was saying that this is about values; that this whole thing is about standing up for values. And I said, it’s not values. It’s bigotry. And I’m not a bigot. I’ve never been a bigot. And I’m not going to be a bigot.
“I got a call the next day from the President of the Council because I wasn’t supporting the policy. He asked me to resign. I told him that I represent my district and that they elected me to the board. And when they don’t want me on the board anymore, I’ll leave. But I don’t serve at his pleasure. He asked me what my religion was, and I said that it really is none of his business and that I’d never, ever, in Scouting, been asked that question. Then he started quoting from the Old Testament about how this is a mortal sin in the eyes of God. And I said, but Scouting is not a religious movement. It’s open to all religions. So if you’re basing this on a Christian interpretation of the Bible, then what are we becoming now? Fundamentalist Christians were having their way.”
The result of this and similar incidents is that the Boy Scouts of America have not only lost members but a great deal of financial support.
In the last 13 years, however, with a public that has clearly become more accepting of homosexuality, the Boy Scouts have been forced to take another look at their long-standing policy of exclusion.
“In recent months,” The New York Time writes (Apr. 19), “the Boy Scouts have conducted discussions and surveys on the issue around the country, with results that mirrored the country’s changes… They found that while a majority of adults involved with scouting supported the past policy of excluding gays, parents under the age of 50 and a majority of teenagers opposed it, according to a summary of the findings released Friday.
“While [BSA] declined to explain the reasoning behind the different treatment of leaders and youths, the study summary says that many adults had expressed particular concern about child safety and whether gay men were appropriate role models…
“But four experts consulted by the Scouts, the summary said, said that homosexuality is not a risk factor for sexual abuse and that there was no evidence that having a gay leader would alter a child’s sexual orientation.”
So, we’re back to the vote on May 20. How will they decide? Maybe the National Council should consider a letter sent to The Times in response to the Scouts’ proposal.
“So, let me see if I understand this. Under the Boy Scouts’ newly proposed policy, an openly gay troop member who demonstrates superb leadership skills through his service and accomplishments could earn the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest award attainable in scouting. Yet when that same young man becomes an adult, he would be barred from serving as a troop leader, simply because of his sexual orientation.
“This ‘middle ground’ is nonsensical and will not stand the test of time.”
– Jon Cooper, Lloyd Harbor, N.Y., April 20, 2013