Jeff Moran and some friends from Troop 1320 dropped onto the lawn near Trading Post 13 last Tuesday, a sweltering morning during the 15th Boy Scouts Jamboree at Fort A.P. Hill near Fredericksburg, Va. Despite the heat wave, over the next 10 days they would help 32,000 other Scouts burn through 76,000 hamburgers, 479,000 eggs, 10 tons of beef stew and countless hours energetically addressing a controversy that will not fade. "In the Bible, it's a sin to be gay," said Moran, 15, as the sun glinted off his dyed blue hair. Keep them out of scouting? "Exactly," he declared. Fifteen-year-old Greg Gutta Jr. was sympathetic. "They say everybody should have the right to be in the Scouts, but everybody has the right to feel comfortable, too," he said. "A lot of people don't feel comfortable around homosexuals."
Yet within Troop 1320, as in many scouting gatherings around the country, there is no easy consensus. Noah Kinney, a shy 15-year-old, challenged his friends. He knows a few gays back home and thinks they're OK. "I think as long as they stay off of you, they're fine, that's all." Other troop members nodded, even Gutta, despite his own discomfort. "I don't think people should be kicked out for just being gay."
For the Boy Scouts of America it has been a year of such debates since last summer's Supreme Court victory handed them the legal right to exclude gay boys and leaders. In a 5-4 majority, the justices found that the group's religious foundation allowed it to set membership standards at its headquarters in Texas, even if they are at odds with the ordinances or policies on the books in 244 localities and 13 states to protect lesbians and gay men from discrimination.
Polls show that most Americans approve of the court's ruling. They want scouting to be as it always has been, a safe place for kids to learn archery and radio building, but also public service and generosity, loyalty and trust. At one time or another, 110 million American boys have raised their fingers in the scouting oath, raced in pine-box derbies or conquered their fear of the dark at Boy Scout camp. "Traditional families will not be involved with an organization that does not support basic moral values," says Jeff Glaze, a volunteer committee member for Troop 477 in Dunwoody, Ga. "Most don't see homosexuality as something to hold up as a good role model to their kids."
But a surprising thing has happened. A growing number of Americans don't approve of the exclusionary policy and they're not letting it rest. These aren't skilled combatants in the culture wars, but ordinary heterosexual Americans moms and dads, priests and rabbis and teenage boys who are taking a stand on this issue of gay rights simply because they love scouting and want it to do the right thing. By the organization's own internal polls, 30 percent of Scout parents don't support the current policy people like Boy Scout Second Class Kevin Elliot, NEWSWEEK's 13-year-old cover model. "I think discrimination within the Boy Scouts gets rid of the whole concept of what the Boy Scouts are all about," says the Riverside, Calif., eighth grader. In anger or sadness, some have simply walked away, considering Boy Scouts no better now than a whites-only country club. Earlier this spring Steven Spielberg, a former Eagle Scout, ended 10 years on the advisory board, saying he could no longer serve a group that practices "intolerance and discrimination."
Religious groups are lining up on both sides of the debate. Mormon and Roman Catholic churches which together sponsor 750,000 Scouts have supported the straights-only rule. But the United Church of Christ, along with Baptist and Episcopal congregations, have asked Scouts to reconsider. In January the Union of American Hebrew Congregations went even further, issuing a remarkable public denunciation and calling upon synagogues to end Scout sponsorship and congregants to pull their children out of the dens, packs or troops. Hundreds of parents have complied. The Boy Scouts of America does not release data on how many Scouts have resigned in protest, says Gregg Shields, scouting's spokesman. He adds, "This has not been a serious problem." But nationwide, at a time when Girl Scouts, Boys & Girls Clubs and other youth groups are growing in popularity, membership in Cub and Boy Scouts dropped 4.5 percent last year, according to internal documents made available to NEWSWEEK. In the Northeast it slid even further, by 7.8 percent.
The Texas leadership may have misjudged a cultural climate that is now more like "Dawson's Creek" than "Mayberry R.F.D." For the first time in 20 years, Gallup last month reported that the majority of Americans consider homosexuality "an acceptable alternative lifestyle." Polls show that more Americans today than ever before know someone gay. For them, the formal scouting position has caused excruciating conflicts. Following the ruling last summer, Dena Jaeger, 41, whose sister is a lesbian, took the uniform she wore as a dedicated committee chairwoman for Pack 78 in Des Moines, Iowa, wadded it into a plastic bag and stashed it in the garage. But her husband, Don, 41, and son Christopher, 9, are still members. "I wrestle with the hypocrisy, frankly," Don says. In Oak Park, Ill., 54-year-old John Mayes resolved to remove Carter, 9, from his Cub Scout den after summer camp last month, in memory of his college roommate, a "self-described screaming queen." "Being African-American, I am sensitive to discrimination," he says. But so far, he has not had the courage to break the news to his son, a special-needs kid who blossomed at camp. "This is getting harder and harder for me," Mayes says. "What's it really about? Is it about me and my principles? And do I do this to my son, in the name of principles?"
Increasingly, local backers are finding themselves at similarly difficult junctures. About 44 of the most affluent chapters of United Way one of scouting's biggest funders have blocked additional support or changed allocations in order to comply with their own nondiscrimination policies; a few others have augmented funding, in keeping with their community's standards. Even the business community has weighed in. Merrill Lynch, Textron and Procter & Gamble steadfastly support Scouts; Levi Strauss, Wells Fargo, Fleet Bank and CVS, along with the Philadelphia Foundation and Communications Workers of America, have taken steps to distance themselves.
It goes on: the cities of Tucson, Ariz.; Chicago; San Francisco; San Diego, and San Jose, Calif., have ended free use for Scout troop meetings in public parks, schools and other municipal sites. Often, they have had no choice ordinances and policies long in place prohibit public support of anti-gay discrimination there. In Miami a few weeks ago, Dade County school officials halted sponsorship and in-class recruiting, joining school districts in Illinois, Massachusetts and Minnesota. A group called the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network says that at least 4,418 schools nationwide have ended preferential relationships with Scouts.
Coming to scouting's defense, last month 51 senators voted to strip federal funds from any school that bans Scouts a measure that is unlikely to survive in conference. At the same time, 49 voted the other direction, a repudiation of Scouts that would have been unthinkable before the court case. "We're slipping out of the mainstream of thought," says a very worried Mike Harrison, past chairman of the board for the Orange County Council in Costa Mesa, Calif.
America turned to scouting, a new quasi-military British program, in 1910, during a period of widespread concern that middle-class schoolboys were losing their "manly character." Its philosophy was described by founder Sir Robert Baden-Powell as a blend of outdoor comradeship and "boyology." Today, 66 senators and 205 congressmen are former Scouts, and 3 million kids are members, finding in Scouts a meaningful alternative to afternoons spent with Game Boys and PlayStations. Between 1997 and the end of last year , this army in shorts completed 214 million hours of volunteer work.
According to a strict written policy, adult leaders are not to discuss sex with their boys, not even to answer questions. Until James Dale's suit wended its way to the Supreme Court, many Scouts thought the same applied to homosexuality. In fact, scouting in Canada and elsewhere has long had specific nondiscrimination policies. Dale was a 19-year-old Eagle Scout and unpaid assistant scoutmaster back in 1990 when, in an unrelated forum, he addressed a conference of high-school teachers on his struggles as a gay youth growing up in New Jersey. After his comments were reported in a local newspaper, Dale was fired by the Scouts. He sued and eventually won reinstatement by the state's top court, which found his constitutional rights were violated. The Boy Scouts of America appealed successfully to the Supreme Court.
In defending Scouts, social conservatives have expressed two concerns. They do not want young boys to view gays as "accepted or affirmed," says Family Research Council president Ken Connor. And they worry about sexual abuse, despite the fact that gay authority figures don't pose a disproportionate threat to kids. "The leaders I talk to were worried about how you explain to parents that they're sending their children into the woods with an openly gay scoutmaster, regardless of one's position on homosexual rights," says Heather Mac Donald, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
Some religious institutions were openly relieved by the ruling, especially the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has adopted scouting as its official youth program. More than 400,000 Mormon boys participate in church-sponsored troops, 13 percent of scouting's total. As a result, observers say Mormons exercise unparalleled clout over the national board, which for years was sprinkled with top executives from Eastern firms and now attracts mostly conservative civic leaders tied to the churches that sponsor troops. Before the Supreme Court ruling the Salt Lake City-based church threatened to break away from the fold if forced to tolerate homosexuals. Such a move would devastate scouting, a ranking leader says. "There is unadulterated fear that they're going to bail out, that they're going to start their own program," says the Scout leader, who requested anonymity. "The Mormons have all the cards." (Shields, the Scout's'' spokesman, says that is not the case.)
In order to win the Supreme Court case, the Boy Scouts argued that they are not a public accommodation open to all, as many had presumed, but a private "expressive" association restricted to like-minded individuals. The court bought the distinction but that gave Scouts a new problem: since they receive millions in state and federal funding some of it spent on the jamboree did they now still have a right to the assistance? Despite an executive order prohibiting discrimination in federal education and training programs, well over $5 million in taxpayers'' money was spent on last week's extravaganza, according to Scout sources. After the court ruling, government compliance officers looked into the legal conundrum. On Sept. 1, 2000, Attorney General Janet Reno issued a proclamation declaring the jamboree was not federally directed training per se, but a private event to which the government was providing logistical support perfectly allowable, therefore, even for an organization that discriminates.
A closer look at the jamboree reveals a different picture. Federal employees are indeed teaching skills and lessons. In fact, the Department of the Interior is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to stock a trout pond and sent several hundred staffers to teach courses the Scouts must pass in order to receive selected merit badges, including fly fishing. Department officials defend their presence, saying anybody driving past the jamboree is welcome to attend, even gay kids and adults. But at Fort A.P. Hill, Ben Jelsema, chairman of the fishing program for the jamboree, was turning away non-Scouts, saying those areas "are not open to the public."
For all the discussion, protests at the jamboree were meager. A few adults wore rainbow ribbons alongside their badges, while men and boys around the post tried floating potential compromises. Two friends from LaGrange, Ga. Bernard Newman and Brandon Thomas, 15 and 16, respectively were saying they thought the Scouts should be more flexible, so that gay kids, if not scoutmasters, could be allowed in. But otherwise, the gathering proceeded without a hitch. "The young men are oblivious to it," said Wilmington, Dela., troop leader Mike Bernhardt, 55, wearing his uniform at the jamboree.
Back at headquarters in Texas, Boy Scouts executives aren't talking, preferring instead to issue periodic defenses on their Web site. "We are a private organization." says the spokesman. "We are handling this discussion within the organization."
Nevertheless, the straights-only debate dominated a Boy Scouts'' leadership meeting last month, with representatives of nine of the largest metropolitan scouting councils requesting the right to establish their own membership policies. They were told their proposal will be sent to a task force for consideration, but everything about the task force is top secret. "It's unbelievably dumb on their part," says a former national staff member. "They could take about 80 percent of the gas out of this thing if they were to be open and cooperative."
A few local troops are simply adopting nondiscrimination policies on their own. For instance, the Greater New York Council's'' Web site emphatically declares, "Prejudice, intolerance and discrimination in any form are unacceptable." Other Scout leaders are quietly meeting funders'' demands to sign nondiscrimination pledges in order to receive their grants, according to United Way's interim president, Chris Amundsen. But they risk punishment by Texas. In Oak Park, Ill., after seven Cub Scout troops decided they would accept gays as leaders, headquarters forced them to disband. In Cleveland, the Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ had sponsored Troop 98 for 90 years, longer than any other church in the city. Through the winter, troop and church leaders hammered out an accord: this troop would pledge not to discriminate. But the area Scout council would not allow it. One day in March, without warning, council leaders entered the church and removed all of the canoes, tents, flags and plaques, stripping the church bare of its Scout troop, the Rev. Laurinda Hafner says. "I feel such a deep loss about this. Now those boys are going to be reinforced with the idea that being gay is bad, and even that standing up for gays is bad," Hafner says.
And that message can be fraught with serious risks for kids. The American Medical Association has called upon groups to "reconsider exclusionary policies that are based on sexual orientation." At its annual meeting last month, the association warned that stigmatizing homosexuality can contribute to major depression and suicide among gay youth. They may well have had in mind boys like Judd Hardy, who was a 16-year-old Eagle Scout and camp counselor on the Wednesday afternoon three years ago that he took a pair of scissors and clipped the artery in his left wrist, hoping to die. "I remember thinking I have this thing inside of me that I can't get rid of," says Hardy, now 19. "But I wanted to get rid of it so much that my mind turned very practical: obviously, it's not worth living." His terrified little brother Skip called a local Scout leader from Troop 73 in Salt Lake City the one who taught the first-aid merit-badge classes. "Judd kept saying, ''Don't call the Boy Scouts, tell them to go away'''," remembers Skip, now 15. "I had no idea why."
Today, Judd says he first realized he was gay when he was 13. As a Mormon, he struggled for several years to change this through something the church calls "reparative therapy," which involved frequent fasting, memorizing Scripture and mandatory basketball games. As a Boy Scout he regularly withstood anti-gay commentary. "It breaks you," he says. "I looked around the room at all the boys who were gay-bashing, and I wanted to be just like them, but I knew that I couldn't."
After his suicide attempt, he announced his resignation from the Scouts. His parents accepted his decision over time. Soon, his brothers each concluded that blood was thicker than the Scout's oath; they left, too, in solidarity. "I knew they believed all these bad things about gay people, but this was my brother they were talking about," says James, a high-school senior. "We just didn't feel comfortable going back." Now the Hardys are estranged from their church and have founded the local chapter of Scouting for All, a national organization challenging the gay ban. In June, James, Skip and Zach (now 17, 15 and 10) marched with their parents in the gay-pride parade wearing pink kerchiefs and carrying the Scouting for All banner.
In a twist typical of the complicated struggle for the soul of scouting, Judd is not a member of the group. He just finished his freshman year at New York University, and is working as a summer counselor at a New York-area camp that does not exclude gays. "This Boy Scouts battle, that's really my parents'' thing," he says. "I want to tell them it's been great, I admire their support. But it's time to give the Boy Scouts a rest." Still, his family seems determined to fight on. Judd's brother James admits that part of him would rather be attending the jamboree than staying at home. Yet he's pledged an oath of a different sort now. "I'm still looking for ways to speak out," he says. The jamboree "seems like a fun thing to do. But it would be a lot more fun if it didn't have to be this way."
With Franco Ordonez, Gretel C. Kovach and Saba Bireda
The American Medical Association has called upon groups to "reconsider exclusionary policies that are based on sexual orientation." At its annual meeting last month, the association warned that stigmatizing homosexuality can contribute to major depression and suicide among gay youth.
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