Boy Scouts Fail the Tolerance Test

Article excerpt

I'm glad I'm not an American teenager going to an Alternative Youth Adventures Program in Colorado this sweltering summer. This camp sets out "to teach youths about the consequences of their actions by forcing them to rough it in the woods", a helpful man in Denver explains. "If campers refuse to put up tents, for example, they may be left out in the rain." So idealistic an American notion, naturally, was bound to end in tears. And so it did last Tuesday amid headlines such as "Youth camp mutiny investigated", and reports of emergency squads of police being pelted with rocks and stones.

Good luck to those youths while they still have some spirit of independence left, I can't help feeling. Here, meanwhile, is a related quiz. To which organisation did two-thirds of current US senators and 208 members of Congress belong? Which has also had more than 110 million members, including three million today? Which is in the throes of bitter controversy? The answer: the Boy Scouts of America, founded in 1910 and chartered by Congress in 1916. And now, ever since a 5-4 decision by the US Supreme Court last summer which upheld the organisation's right to exclude homosexuals, the American Boy Scouts are facing a mounting crisis: membership has dropped by more than 4 percent on the West Coast, by 8 per cent on the East.

Most Americans believe boy scouts to be a quintessentially US notion, as irrefutably American as apple pie. Very few, I suspect, know it to be yet another Brit import, courtesy of Sir Robert Baden-Powell. But while churchgoing and clean living were very much Baden-Powell's tenets, in America, church affiliation has never been required for membership - although, paradoxically, members are required to believe in God. Gays have always been excluded, either as members or leaders - and, despite laws prohibiting discrimination against lesbians and homosexuals in 244 localities and 13 states across the country, the Supreme Court's 2000 ruling means the law still excludes gays.

In the Eighties and Nineties, such rulings hardly ruffled the feathers of the Scout movement. But in the 21st century, last year's ruling has already had a powerful effect. Steven Spielberg, an Eagle Scout, resigned from the national advisory board, insisting he could no longer be part of a group that practises "intolerance and discrimination". The head of the Scouts in New York dismissed the movement's leadership as "a bunch of rednecks". Seven groups in Oak Park, Illinois, announced that they would accept gays - only to be expelled promptly by headquarters. At least one teenage Boy Scout, struggling with his homosexuality, tried to commit suicide.

The 317 local chapters of the Girl Scouts of the USA, meanwhile, have managed to dodge the issue by adopting a mixture of Queen Victoria's "lesbianism doesn't exist" approach and Bill Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the US military. …