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Boy Scout Story Should Have Mentioned Gays

by Alicia C. Shepard
Feb 28, 2010

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Alicia C. Shepard

A Boy Scout, according to the scout "law," is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.

But he cannot be gay.

More than one in 10 boys (11 percent) in the United States is currently a Scout, according to a Boy Scouts of America 2005 study touting how scouting builds character and provides lifelong benefits. There are 2.7 million registered Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts and Venturers.

"Scouting provides youth with an opportunity to try new things, provide service to others, build self-confidence, and reinforce ethical standards," said the study. "In fact, 83 percent of men who were Scouts agree that the values they learned in scouting continue to be very important to them today."

But openly gay youth are not likely to learn those values from the Boy Scouts.

Recently, NPR ran a piece on Weekend Edition Saturday highlighting the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Boy Scouts.

"That's a century of merit badges, campfires, bowlines, half-hitches, jamborees and camporees, first aid, and community service," said Audie Cornish, the substitute host on Feb. 6. "Steven Spielberg was a Scout. And so was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Presidents Carter, Kennedy, Clinton, Obama, and George W. Bush all participated in Scouting. Half of all astronauts were Scouts too."

The story featured actor Jon Heder, star of the popular movie classic, Napoleon Dynamite. Scouting played a large role in his life. He and his four brothers all became Eagle Scouts, the highest rank one can achieve in scouting.

Cornish also interviewed Marcos Nava, head of Hispanic initiatives for the Boy Scouts of America, who works to get Hispanics involved in scouting.

But the piece never mentioned the funding controversy that erupted in the early 1990's over the Boy Scouts discriminating against gays. Or that their organization went all the way to the Supreme Court in a successful fight for the right to bar homosexuals from becoming troop leaders.

The BSA has an official policy of excluding gays, agnostics and atheists from its ranks.

The Supreme Court ruled in June 2000 that because the Boy Scouts of America is a private group it can legally decide who can be a scout leader.

"As a mother of a gay son, my stomach just churns as I listen to Sat. a.m.'s happy, happy tributes to the Boy Scout's 100 anniversary," wrote Kathleen Shea Aregood of Grand Forks,ND. "Would NPR do a similar job on any group that flatly, publicly, and repeatedly discriminates? I refer, of course, to the organization's forbidding membership by homosexuals. Not a word about that. This makes me crazy. Why is anti-gay bigotry acceptable?"

"Generally I love your show," said Jackie Barillet of Holliston, MA. "However, I can't believe you did a whole show on Boy Scouts without a word about their attitude towards gay people. You quote them as saying they want to include everyone (this was regarding the Hispanic people) - oops, make that everyone except gays. This is a serious flaw in an otherwise good organization. I feel that you should have addressed it. If I am mistaken and they have corrected it, you should have mentioned that."

Barillet exaggerated the length of the Boy Scouts story; it was a 6-minute feature piece, not an entire two-hour Weekend Edition show.

She was correct, however, that the Boy Scouts have not changed their policy.

"Openly gay men and boys cannot be leaders and cannot be scouts," according to Deron Smith, a national spokesperson for the Boy Scouts of America.

So why didn't NPR include this important cultural element in reporting on the Boy Scouts of America's storied history?

"In an effort to mark the organization's 100th anniversary, we reached out to several well-known Eagle Scouts and invited them to share their scouting memories on the air. We spoke with actor Jon Heder about his personal recollections," said Davar Iran Ardalan, supervising senior producer Weekend Edition.

"As an additional news element, we also focused on the organization's campaign to recruit Latino youth," she said. "Neither Heder nor Marcos Nava — head of the group's Hispanic initiatives — was asked about the group's policy toward openly gay members, as that was not the focus of the segment."

To my mind, the piece should have acknowledged the controversy with the Boy Scouts and gays in a world where there is growing acceptance and integration of gays in all aspects of society. Of course there are positive aspects to scouting that needed to be recognized and celebrated — but not at the expense of giving listeners a full picture.

NPR did two other stories marking the anniversary. Does NPR have to mention the gay angle in every story on the scouts?

No.

But the WESAT piece explicitly was pegged to the anniversary and, despite the Hispanic element, it was clearly intended as a kind of overview about the Boy Scouts. As such, it should have mentioned the single most controversial thing about the Boy Scouts these days.

Twenty, thirty, forty years ago, the gay aspect would not have merited mentioning. But today, 10 years after the Supreme Court decision, the issue of gays in society remains very much an important discussion.

Several listeners felt the same way and some of their thoughts were aired during Weekend Edition's letters segment a week after the anniversary piece.

One listener was Tony Macula, who 36 years ago reached the star rank and still has fond scouting memories.

"I found it ironic that on the very day [commentator] Daniel Schorr discussed the very real possibility of the U.S. military banning its homophobic 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy," said Macula, "you also had a long feature on the Boys Scouts of America and failed to even broach the subject of its homophobic policy that does not allow avowed homosexuals to be members."

Weekend Edition Saturday host, Scott Simon, back from neck surgery, acknowledged on his Feb. 13 show what NPR should have included.

"Mr. Macula is correct," said Simon "The Supreme Court decision in 2000 allowed the Boy Scouts to bar openly gay Scout leaders and members. And we failed to mention that policy in our interview with Marcos Nava, who heads up the Hispanic Initiatives for the Boy Scouts in America."

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