Will the Boy Scouts join the 21st century?

    When I heard that the Boy Scouts of America might lift its national ban against gay people, I couldn’t help but recall the time I lunched with the organization’s apparatchiks. Indeed, it’s worth a quick trip down memory lane, to fully appreciate what a momentous occasion it would be if or when the scouts ultimately decide to join the 21st century.

    Clearly, the BSA is angsting over its decision. The national board was expected to vote today – but this morning it opted to punt on the issue and wait until May. Until then, discrimination reigns.

    I’m not surprised that the BSA is nervous. I saw that nervousness up close and personal. A quarter century ago, Boy’s Life magazine, which is owned by the BSA, celebrated its 75th anniversary. That seemed like a good hook for a newspaper feature story, so I flew down to Dallas to break bread with the magazine’s publisher, editor, and deputy editor. They didn’t seem very happy. They spent most of the meal lamenting their difficult mission, which was to “protect the kids” from America’s decadent culture. According to editor Robert Hood, the BSA insisted that Boy’s Life be “a finger in the dike,” holding back the tsunami of rock lyrics, female cleavage, premarital sex, pampered athletes, movie violence…and the gay “lifestyle.”

    The BSA decreed that the male childhood shall forever be a wholesome realm frozen in time – circa 1935. The magazine’s bigwigs  told me they had to reject a James Bond movie ad because 007 was flanked by his co-star, singer Grace Jones because “she was too – what’s the word – undressed.” (She showed cleavage.) They refused to run any articles on sex education (Hood: “I wouldn’t touch them with a 10-foot pole”), or any inferential mention of sex at all (Hood: “You’d hear from the church groups”). They refused to accept any PG movie ads (publisher Warren Young: “PG movies can have swear words”), and the BSA even nixed a comic strip that showed a prankish scout cracking an egg on another kid’s head (depouty editor Bill Butterworth: “Scout law says a scout is helpful, friendly, courteous. It’s not really courteous to crack an egg on a kid’s head”).

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    I brought the conversation back to Hollywood. Surely, I said, there had to be some movie stars who pass muster, who would be fitting role models for the scouts. In response, Hood dropped his voice to a whisper. His eyes flicked around the dining room, to ensure he was not overheard. Then he said, “That’s difficult for us. What’s really trouble is when you want to run something on a famous male star (even softer whisper) and then you find out he’s gay.”

    His lunchmates listened, shifting uncomfortably in their seats. They pointed out that the Boy Scout oath was inviolate, that it required all scouts to be “morally straight,” and any suggestion of unstraightness was intolerable. All told, said Hood, “we’re fighting a war to preserve some innocence.”

    Money talks, money walks

    Such was the traditional Boy Scout mindset, and it has remained strong. The scouts defended their right to discriminate against gays in a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with the BSA in a 5-4 ruling 13 years ago. As recently as last summer, the group reaffirmed its national policy of excluding gay scouts and scout leaders. An Ohio mother was dumped as a den leader because she was gay? Too bad for her. A highly-ranked California scout was denied an Eagle badge because he was gay? Too bad for him. Scout leaders in Texas and Virginia were kicked out because they were outed as gay? Too bad for them.

    And yet, this year, the BSA’s national board may loosen its discrimination policy; if the board votes yes in May, enlightened local chapters will be allowed to enroll gay members. Naturally, a lot of conservatives are totally freaked out – as one Texas activist charges, the BSA is being “attacked and bullied” by “the homosexual lobby,” and church-affiliated chapters are threatening to sever their ties to the scouts. But after the board declared, just last summer, that continued discrimination against gays was “absolutely the best policy,” it is now contemplating an historic flip flop. How come?

    Because money talks. And when discrimination is practiced in 21st century America, money walks. Some major corporations that once supported the Boy Scouts no longer do so, for that very reason. The Intel Foundation (part of the Intel Corp.) announced last year that it will only give money to groups that sign a nondiscrimination guarantee. Late last year, the Merck Company Foundation pulled the plug on funding the Boy Scouts, and said it would resume only when the “inclusion criteria has been expanded.” And some of the corporate leaders on the BSA board have been trying to change the traditional mindset; in remarks last June, the CEO of Ernst & Young said that “an inclusive environment is important throughout our society.”

    The Boy Scouts’ intolerance has hurt the organization, at least in the more tolerant regions of America. One New Hampshire troop leader recently wrote on the BSA’s Facebook page that inclusion is long overdue: “People didn’t want their kids to join an organization that wasn’t equal. I had a hard time even getting guest speakers in for things like textiles or metal work because they didn’t want to help an organization that discriminated.”

    So this isn’t about pressure from “the homosexual lobby,” or from “the left,” or from President Obama (who, when asked last Sunday about the Boy Scouts, said that “gays and lesbians should have access and opportunity the same way everybody else does in every institution”). When major corporations start to weigh in for inclusion, it’s prima facie evidence that discrimination has been banished to the fringe, that the Boy Scout ethos may finally succumb to the reality of changing social values.

    And when I harken back to my Boy’s Life lunch a quarter century ago, I can’t help but think how much easier Robert Hood’s job would have been if he hadn’t felt compelled to speak in whispers.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1


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