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Boy Scout Battle Pits Gay Activists vs. Minority Kid

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Boy Scout Battle Pits Gay Activists vs. Minority Kid

The Wall Street Journal July 6, 2000
OtherCulture & Society
Legal ReformOther
Urban PolicyNYCOther

The Supreme Court ruled last week that the government can’t force openly gay scoutmasters on the Boy Scouts in violation of the Scouts’ moral code. But the battle is hardly over. Expect gayrights activists to intensify the pressure on corporations, United Ways and other voluntary organizations to withhold the tens of millions of dollars they annually contribute to scouting, and to sue public entities that sponsor the Scouts for discriminating against homosexuals.

The victims of this campaign will be poor, minority children. That’s because charitable dollars donated to the Scouts go mostly to the inner city. Suburban Scout troops are selfsupporting; they raise their expenses through Christmas tree sales, bake sales and other means. Suburban parents can afford to buy their sons Scout uniforms, equipment and camp tuition. Innercity families have a harder time.

When Fran Harty, a scoutmaster in the mostly white southern end of Staten Island, N.Y., takes his troop camping in Delaware, 10 fathers show up in cars. Scouts in Harlem take the bus. Corporate donations defray part of the costs of uniforms and camp fees, though in keeping with the Scout ethic of selfreliance and thrift, nothing is given away. “We ask them to earn their way to camp,” explains Jim Wilson, executive director of Atlanta’s Operation First Class, a program targeted at inner-city boys. Scouts have to show mastery of the Scout Oath and Law, or make progress towards Tenderfoot rank, before they are given handbooks or help with uniforms.

Finding responsible men in the inner city willing to volunteer as scoutmasters can be impossible. Scout officials have taken to offering college students and others stipends, paid for by charitable contributions, to serve as scoutmasters.

Philanthropic dollars also train minority scoutmasters. In 1991 the San Francisco-based Bay Area United Way yanked $9,000 from the Mount Diablo Scout Council for its rejection of openly gay Timothy Curran as a scout leader. That grant would have trained Hispanic scoutmasters to work with Hispanic boys. (In 1998 the California Supreme Court rejected Mr. Curran’s discrimination claim.)

A special target of gay activists is in-school scouting programs. The San Francisco and Oakland school boards evicted the Scouts in 1991; some members of the New York City Council have long wanted to do the same. It’s vital to hold such programs in school, because the neighborhoods of the target children are often too dangerous or disorganized to hold meetings elsewhere. In New York, hundreds of housing projects house subsidized troops for a similar reason; that program is supported by private fundraising.

Gay activists know full well what the tradeoff is; they just think the gay crusade matters more than helping poor children. Last year I asked Danny Drum, a gay activist and fourthgrade teacher in Queens, about the campaign to end New York City Board of Educationsponsored camperships. Those camperships provide academic tutoring, as well as an escape from the city and training in Scout values, for minority children. “I don’t think students should go to a camp like that, whose organization clearly discriminates against gays and lesbians.” Mr. Drum said.

Are the boys even aware of the Scouts’ policy on homosexuals? No, he answered. “That’s the problem. The fact that it’s not talked about is one of our biggest challenges. Our greatest oppressor is invisibility.”

If financial and institutional support for the Scouts dries up, what will urban children lose? Perhaps their best hope for conquering their circumstances. Scouting teaches a set of values rare anywhere today, but especially in troubled innercity neighborhoods–perseverance, personal responsibility and selfdiscipline. “You learn that you can take a bad hand and fold, or keep playing it and it will get better,” says Scott Slaton, a former Eagle Scout who now works with Atlanta’s Operation First Class.

Clifton Duke, a Harlem Cub Scout leader, explains that winning Scout merit badges “is not automatic, because life is not automatic.” When Bronx scoutmaster Frederick Simmons was a boy, he slept with his merit badge sash wrapped around him. “Every one of those badges represents an achievement. No one gave them to you,” he says.

Scouting also provides boys with perhaps the only male role model in their life. Harvey Johnson is a burly scoutmaster on Staten Island’s poor north end. “When I take seven to eight boys to Ten Mile River [the Scouts’ big campsite in upstate New York], I can’t accept nothing but discipline,” he maintains. Mr. Johnson is not just a surrogate father for the boys but a moral guide for their mothers: “If you don’t educate the parents,” he says, “you’re in trouble.”

Supporting the Scouts in their outreach to poor children would seem to be an unimpeachable charitable cause, but articulate, gay employees of corporate donors, gay advocacy groups and the press speak louder than innercity boys. “Every day, somebody in the corporate community says: ‘I can’t take the heat anymore. I’ll take a pass,’” explains a New York investment banker who raises money for the Scouts. “ ‘Hopefully this will blow over, they say, ‘but I can’t risk my company.’”

Defunding the Scouts would be a tragic loss for innercity youth and for the country. Gay pride that comes at the expense of poor children is bought at too high a price. If gay activists are so convinced that boys need gay role models, they can start alternative organizations with just that goal. But they should leave the Scouts alone.

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.