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Posted on Sun, Jul. 20, 2003
Troops quietly defy Scout policy on gays

The Providence Journal

(KRT) - On a humid June night, at a church hall in Providence, R.I., Boy Scout Troop 28 welcomes a distinguished guest to its Eagle Court of Honor.

He is many things a young man could hope to be. Ivy League graduate. Accomplished trial lawyer. Respected politician. The guest, Providence's Mayor David N. Cicilline, is also openly gay.

What is remarkable about this event is that under the Boy Scout's national policy that bans gay Scouts and leaders, Cicilline, who leads a city of 173,000 people, could not lead a Boy Scout troop.

And what is remarkable is that the assistant scoutmaster introduces Cicilline as a "role model for all our boys."

No one gathered in the hall at Central Congregational Church seems startled. Not the boys, whose sashes are decorated with merit badges. Not the parents, the ones who brought the Eagle Scout sheet cake and the Boy Scout balloons and the orange toolbox with "Be prepared" written on it. They look on proudly as Cicilline says that "this troop's incredibly important stand to ensure that Scouting is available for all young men ... regardless of their sexual orientation" is "one small example of standing up to what's right and fair."

What is going on? The adult leaders of Troop 28 are part of a handful of Scout parents in the nation who are staying with an organization they love, while fighting from within to change a policy they don't.

Somewhere between Scouting highlights, they are quietly drafting antidiscrimination resolutions. They are on the Internet to track what happens to other defiant troops. One troop consulted a lawyer. They talk to the media, and then wonder if "national" is going to find out.

So far, the Rhode Island troops are safe, but there's always the fear that they've gone too far. At least two troops in other parts of the country have been kicked out.

Wasn't the challenging part of Scouting supposed to happen in the great outdoors? How did den dads and Webelos moms turn into renegades?

To answer that, one must go back to the Boy Scouts' stance on gays.

Some of the dissenting parents say they never knew about such a policy when they enrolled their sons in Scouting; the words gay or homosexual were not in the handouts.

But when a smattering of gay Scouts and leaders were kicked out, in cases that drew national publicity, the Boy Scouts of America announced from its Irving, Texas, headquarters that its stand on homosexuality is right there in the last line of The Scout Oath, written in 1910. A Scout promises to keep himself "morally straight."

The Boy Scouts defended its right to dismiss assistant scoutmaster James Dale all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in October 2000, ruled 5 to 4 that the Scouts are a private organization that can set its own membership standards.

The Boy Scouts argued - and still do - that the policy represented the values of its members. Who are those members? In a phone interview, Gregg Shields, the spokesman for the national Boy Scouts, said 65 percent of troops are sponsored by churches, with the Mormon church and the United Methodist church each sponsoring 10 percent of the nation's troops. The churches have a similar representation on the national policymaking board, Shields said.

He said that, "we have done some polling of Boy Scouts and parents, and parents of Boy Scout age. We hear overwhelming support for the policy."

But it did not go over well in some more liberal corners of the nation.

"Boys would go door to door to sell tickets for the haunted house and had some doors slammed in their faces," recalled Dr. Allen M. Dennison, assistant scoutmaster of Troop 28. "People would say, this is a hate organization."

"We were having trouble recruiting," he said.

Dennison, 50, is a doctor who has four sons - two Eagle Scouts, and twins who are working toward their Eagles.

He is 6 feet 6 inches tall, with a Scout uniform to fit. He grew up in the Bronx, and was a Scout until he went to boarding school. He quotes Dickens, and ancient thinkers. When making a point about the importance of upholding principles, he asked, "Who drank the hemlock? Socrates."

He encourages some rowdiness, with an intellectual bent: on a recent canoe trip he invited a Brown University professor of geology, who, Dennison explained, "will tell us the composition of all the boulders we will strike in the middle of the river."

Dennison, like most Scout parents, believes he's shaping leaders. In his view, the ideal camping trip begins when a Boy Scout, not a parent, notices that there aren't enough lanterns and goes to get more. Out in the woods, it's the Scouts who prepare the freeze-dried food while the parents wait with tin plates.

So when the Troop 28 scouts who had been spurned during door-to-door sales came back to their leaders and asked what was going on, Dennison told them: "Well, guys, a lot of people in Rhode Island are very anxious about the exclusionary policy of the Boy Scouts. What do you think we should do about it?"

The Scouts said it's not right, Dennison said. Several of the boys in the troop knew gay individuals; in fact, Troop 28 had recently had an openly gay teenager as a member. The Scouts suggested the troop write a letter to The Providence Journal.

Troop 28 and Cub Scout Pack 88, both sponsored by Central Congregational Church, went further than that. One month after the Supreme Court ruling, both groups wrote a letter to Boy Scout officials, saying that, in one community in Rhode Island anyway, Scouts would not follow any such policy.

In Troop 28, 21 people signed the letter, including parents, an Eagle Scout, and troop leaders, such as Dennison, and Robert A. Shaw, an associate dean at Brown University, who is the troop's committee chairman.

The troop sent its letter to Rhode Island's Narragansett Council of Boy Scouts, which said they passed the letter along to the Boy Scouts of America in Texas.

"We said we would not consider (sexual orientation) as reason to exclude someone," Dennison said, "and we're willing to take the consequences up to and including disqualification."

"Morally straight means doing what is right, and what is right is clearly not to peddle hate," he said.

A few other troops followed a similar trail after the Supreme Court ruling; they felt the weight of their own values, and of communities where excluding gays was not acceptable.

"The majority of parents in my community view homosexuality as a civil rights issue," recalled Jim D'Acosta, a high school history teacher, and the former leader of Cub Scout Pack 197 in Fairfield, Conn.

"There was pressure in the local community for the pack to take a stand," he said in a phone interview. "We did lose Scouts."

So the parents of Cub Scout Pack 197 spent nine months doing research and producing multiple drafts of a letter. A den leader consulted a lawyer. The pack, D'Acosta said, wanted to word its letter carefully, so as to make a statement condemning the Boy Scout position "without forcing national to kick us out."

Pack 197's letter ultimately said that in their interpretation, "the Scout oath and law requires Scouts and leaders to take nondiscriminatory stands."

The parents of Pack 197 sent a letter to national Boy Scout headquarters, to the regional council and to the local press. They placed copies in the elementary school, for parents who were picking up information about Pack 197.

The position, he said, "helped us retain our sponsorship at the local school and made parents happy." The troop was never penalized by Scout officials for its stance, he said. A troop in West Hartford, Conn., that passed an antidiscrimination resolution also was not punished for going against the national policy.

D'Acosta would rather think about projects such as building pushcarts for the Memorial Day parade. Still, he's occasionally reminded that he's part of an organization that, in one area, clashes with his own values.

He recalled a Scouting trip to Washington, D.C., to see the site of the World War II monument. D'Acosta was in a hotel lobby in his Boy Scout uniform when a couple approached him. They were from Oklahoma, and in town lobbying on some issue. The woman "reached out her hand and wanted to thank me for the position that Boy Scouts had taken on homosexuality."

D'Acosta sat her down, and told her that not everyone in Scouting agrees with that position.

Such experiences raise a question - are these parents being intellectually honest if they are still paying, uniform-wearing members?

Former Scout supporters such as John Archer, a Massachusetts businessman, don't think so.

Archer owns an insurance business in Danvers, Mass. He sits on the boards of his local United Way and Salvation Army. And for years, he lent his name to the local Boy Scouts' fundraising letter. No more.

"By going along with it a little bit, you're going along with it a lot," Archer said by phone.

The troops in his area, "there's not one problem. But still, they are governed by this organization in Texas ... Their basic premise is that gay people are no good. It's pretty bad, and I'm not saying this lightly, it's disgusting. (The Boy Scout headquarters in) Irving, Texas, is a bad place, bad. They foster into a young man the idea that discrimination is OK. Take that with a young mind, a six-pack of beer and a gun, and someone is dead."

Scouting for All, a national campaign of Scouts, former Scouts and others who are working to change the Boy Scouts of America's stand on gay members, said parents who complain from within the ranks have the best chance of changing the policy.

"We are really pushing that," said Wil Fisher, the group's Northeast coordinator. "We don't want our move to change this policy to seem like an outside group of radical lobbyists pushing something onto a private organization."

The Scouting parents are also influential, Fisher believes, because the national Boy Scout organization does not want to lose members and funding. The United Way of Southeastern New England, for one, eliminated its $200,000 annual award to the Narragansett Boy Scouts three years ago when the Scouts refused to sign an antidiscrimination statement, which included sexual orientation, according to Hank Sennott, spokesman for the local United Way. The statement had been given to all agencies funded by the United Way.

Said Fisher, of Scouting for All, "With the small troops, they seem to brush it under the table. A lot of that comes from pressure the different troops are getting from funding and the United Way."

"It's when larger councils go directly against the policy that national feels obligated to go and take action," he said, referring to a dispute in Philadelphia, where the Boy Scout council passed an antidiscrimination resolution in May and was promptly ordered to rescind it. They did.

As for parents who formally object to the scout's policy, Shields, the spokesman for the national Boy Scouts, said, "certainly we don't revoke membership of people for having divergent opinions.

However, he said, "taking action directly contrary to the national policy would draw a little different" response.

Even last month's U.S. Supreme Court decision supporting homosexual rights is not swaying the Boy Scouts.

Just recently, Venture Crew 488 of Sebastopol, in the redwoods of northern California, learned how strongly the Scouts believe in their policy.

The crew, a Boy Scout high-adventure unit for teens and young adults, was sponsored by the Kiwanis and led by Bev Buswell, a true Scout mom.

Buswell, who sells real estate as her regular job, was assistant scoutmaster, merit badge counselor, activity chair and high-adventure chair.

Her son is an Eagle Scout, and Scouting, Buswell said, is the second-most important influence on her son. Family is first.

After the Supreme Court decision upholding the Boy Scouts, she decided that "this is a good organization" that she was going to stay with, but make some noise.

She wrote to the executives of the Boy Scouts of America, suggesting that they choose their Scout leaders based on strengths. She'd had a unimpressive assistant scoutmaster, and it had nothing to do with his sexual preference.

He had to "leave the meeting about five times for a cigarette, reeked of smoke, carried the same never-cleaned coffee cup for years," she wrote. "Apparently, he was morally straight."

Scouting for All posted her letter on its Web site, with all the others from like-minded parents. Contacted to inquire how Venture Crew 488 is doing, Buswell said she had bad news.

She said publicly for the first time, to The Providence Journal, that her Venture crew had lost its charter.

For a letter? Well, no, she explained.

In December, she had "upped the ante." When she sent her annual charter application to the Redwood Empire Council, she attached a resolution saying she would not follow the Boy Scouts' rule on gay scouts and leaders. She was told if she wanted to keep her venture crew, she would need to take back her statement. She wouldn't.

In a recent phone interview, Mike Randolph, a district executive for the Redwood Council, confirmed that Buswell's charter had been revoked. The council had enforced the national policy. "There's no other option," he said.

Randolph said he did give Buswell an option to be part of a separate Boy Scout program that offers after-school programs and career training. It's not "traditional Scouting," he said.

"I gave Bev" that option, Randolph said, but "got no response."

Asked if it was hard to lose a longtime Scout like Buswell, whose father was the scoutmaster of her brother's troop, Randolph said: "We're comforted by a number of surveys indicating that the majority of American parents support our position, which of course has been upheld by the Supreme Court."

Buswell is disappointed. She had hoped to be the "inner movement, the change from within. Or are we slowly getting thrown out one by one?"

"We've got a kid with two moms," she said. "I mean, what do I tell this kid?"

The Narragansett Council has made no moves to revoke the charters of its two dissenting troops in Providence. Asked to comment on the troops, a spokesman for the council provided a statement, which said that the organization is "disheartened" by the Boy Scout of America's refusal to "thoroughly and completely review" its rule concerning gays. The council has also formally requested a review.

Dennison, the assistant scoutmaster of Troop 28, said that behind the scenes, the Narragansett Council is protecting his troop and Pack 88 - and would rather they keep quiet.

"They are uncomfortable. They don't really want to us to talk to the press," he said. "They believe that if we talk to the press ... they are going to get pilloried by national." Dennison, however, does not believe the national organization will bother with troops in more liberal places such as Providence.

"They're basically trying to submerge the issue, because they realize they're not going to win."

But civil rights and ideological debates seem far away on a June night at the Central Congregational Church.

During the Eagle Scout ceremony, the boys walk up toward a stage decorated in red, white and blue, put three fingers up, and recite the Scout Law in unison.

The "troop historian" recaps the year, dryly explaining how he learned, the messy way, with a can of ravioli and a big fire, a physics law about how heated things tend to expand.

Cicilline, on the stage next to an American flag, tells the Scouts what has worked for him: finding a passion, being conscious of his responsibility to society, and fighting for what he believes in, even if it's difficult.

As the night ends, and two boys are fooling around on an old Steinway in the church hall, there are three new Eagle Scouts heading into the world.

Prepared for life, Dennison likes to think.

After all, he said, there's a good chance they'll go to work for a big organization that's been "led awry" by its leaders.

"Do you stay and fight or do you drop out? Do you just go along and get your Eagle and be quiet?" he said. "What is your stance?"

---

2003, The Providence Journal.

Visit projo.com, the online service of The Providence Journal at http://www.projo.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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