Boy Scouts wrong to keep policy that bars gays

August 12, 1999|By Andrew Ratner

AT DAYBREAK the first morning of my camping trip with my son's Boy Scout troop, I went to do what comes naturally: use the bathroom.

You can't do that, my son's scout leader told me.

I respect the guy immensely. He attends to my son and the other boys as if they were his own. Nevertheless, his command startled me. I can't use the bathroom?

Then he explained that no adult could use the facilities if a boy was already doing so. And a boy was at that moment.

As I hopped foot to foot, I was still puzzled. We're not talking about the bathroom at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

At this campsite, like most, scouts use a pit latrine. It's basically several holes in the ground, surrounded by plywood walls. When it's occupied, the person's feet are visible to the outside.

The scout master's message wasn't fully explained, but was crystal clear: The Boy Scouts segregate men and boys in any situation that might invite or allow sexual abuse.

Separate facilities

That means fathers sleep in separate tents from the boys, including their sons. They use separate bathhouses, even having pre-determined hours to shower so as not to cross paths with the camp staff, some of whom are under 18. And, no, adults and children can't use different stalls in a latrine simultaneously, even though anything that goes on inside a latrine is evident to anyone outside.

The organization's precaution is understandble.

Its prejudice is not.

Representatives and some supporters of the Boy Scouts of America last week decried a ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court that struck down the group's ban on gay males as troop members or leaders. The Boy Scouts vowed to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The complaint was brought by a former Eagle Scout-turned troop leader who was dismissed after his involvement with a homosexual group in college was discovered. Of numerous suits nationwide against the Scouts by gays andatheists, James Dale's is the most successful to date.

The Scouts' argument -- that any homosexual automatically violates their oath to be "clean" and "morally straight" -- is ridiculous on its face. It assumes all homosexuals to be pedophiles. It also assumes women incapable of taking advantage of boys because mothers are not banned from participating. Don't argue that in Seattle, where a female teacher was jailed for repeated liaisons with a male student.

A gay presence

Like the military, the Scouts only fool themselves if they believe they've operated all these years without homosexual members.

The group's cautiousness can seem like paranoia. Its handbook, for instance, devotes more space to identifying and reporting child abuse than to building a campfire.

Nevertheless, it's hard to begrudge the organization its concern, when it is responsible for so many children on trips far from home; when there are so many stories of adults who abuse the trust of children and their parents, much less unknown adults on an overnight camping trip. Its bigotry is inexcusable, but not uncommon in a nation where even Congress obstructs ambassadorships to homosexuals.

The Scouts' old-fashioned mind-set is endearing in most ways. At that camp deep in the Western Pennsylvania wilds, boys made the same quaint, kitschy crafts -- wooden tie clasps in the shape of bears and eagles and wicker footstools -- that I made 30 years ago.

The mess hall is decorated with stuffed critters and inspirational quotes from Robert Baden-Powell. He was the English cavalryman who founded the movement in 1907 and inspired an American businessman to carry it home.

At a time when people lament all that has changed for the worse in a child's world, this organization laudably perseveres with its khaki uniforms, merit badges and messages of honor and duty to shape youths for the better.

Most of it, remarkably, has stood the test of time.

Prejudice has not.

Andrew Ratner is a deputy editorial page editor.

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