British Scouts to Gays: Come Join Up!

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday June 8, 2011

The Boy Scouts of America went to the U.S. Supreme Court to keep gays out of their ranks. But in Britain, it's a different story: The U.K. version of the Scouts is reaching out to the gay community to get more gays into their uniforms, reported British newspaper the Daily Mail on June 6.

Perhaps because of the policy of the Boy Scouts in the United States, there's a misunderstanding among some in Britain that gays are barred from joining up or volunteering for the British Scouts. That's not so, and the Scout Association -- the British version of the popular youth group -- is taking steps to dispel the misapprehension by creating a promotional video and stepping up recruitment efforts aimed at the gay demographic.

"There was an assumption that being gay meant you couldn't be part of the movement," Scouting Association spokesperson Simon Carter told the British press.

"That was never the case and we are keen to make it clear that we accept people of any particular orientation," Carter continued. "We have had youth members and adults attend Pride events and plan to do so again this year. It shows that we are not just talking about it but are demonstrating our support publicly."

Part of the Scouting Association's recruitment effort involves joining a campaign to combat homophobic bullying, the Daily Mail reported. The Scouting Association's leader, Wayne Bulpitt, appears in a new video with an anti-bullying message, the article said. The video is part of a push by GLBT equality group Stonewall.

"Bullying is wrong on every level, not just for the person being bullied, but for the bully too," notes Bulpitt in the video. "In Scouting we believe that all young people, irrespective of their sexuality, gender, race, creed or background, have an equal opportunity to develop and to be themselves."

The group has also prepared materials that advise members and leaders on issues pertaining to GLBT youth.

"Coming out is a major decision in your life," one document says. "You may decide to tell your family, a friend, your teacher or a Scout leader.

"There is nothing wrong with being gay and being a Scout and the person that you tell should be supportive and non-judgmental to what you are telling them," the document adds.

Scout leaders are also given guidelines about counseling gay youths who come to them. They are advised to keep other adults within sight during confidential conversations, and to be prepared to refer youths to the appropriate services if need be.

The British Scouts are also allowed to attend Pride events attired in their uniforms, the Daily Mail reported. Some see the group as reflecting modern society, where GLBTs and their families continue to gain wider acceptance. But for others, the policy of inclusion constitutes a foray into sexual immorality.

One parallel that does exist between the British and American Scouts is that, while the British Scouts allow gays whereas the American Scouts do not, neither organization admits atheists or agnostics.

For some who cling to faith-based exclusionary views regarding GLBTs, that's as it should be --and what's more, they'd like to see a ban put in place against gays, similar to the one that the U.S. Scouts maintains.

"My reaction to this is one of dismay and I suspect many other people will also be deeply concerned," said politician John Cormack of the Scottish Christian Party.

"Sexual morality is an area where the parents should be taking the lead, not the Scouts," added Cormack. "This is a huge step-change away from the Christian founding ethos of the Scout movement."

The American Boy Scouts have been criticized and taken to court over a ban on gays, atheists, and agnostics. But the group's stance was validated in a 2000 Supreme Court decision that found that the Boy Scouts of America, as a private organization, could exclude whomever they pleased.

Still, the ties between the BSA and local governments run deep and subsequent legal skirmishes have erupted over the use of space in public schools for scouting activities.

In Philadelphia, the Scouts and the city went to court when the city attempted to rescind a longstanding deal with the organization that saw the BSA rent space in a city-owned building for a token sum. When faced with a choice of either paying market rates or dropping the anti-gay rule, the Scouts took the city to court and won. The city then offered to sell the building to the Scouts at a deeply discounted price.

Three years ago the Los Angeles Police Department announced that they, as part of the municipality, would no longer maintain an affiliation with a Boy Scouts of America subsidiary organization with respect to a youth program for kids interested in law enforcement. The LAPD cited the group's anti-gay policy as the reason.

Moreover, the issue generates considerable social friction, especially when it comes to gay parents who wish to partake in the organization to which their children belong. In Texas, a gay father was stripped of the right to wear a Scouting uniform and participate as an official Scout volunteer in fundraising activities. In Vermont two lesbian mothers were similarly tossed out of the organization's ranks of volunteers.

Despite ongoing criticism, officials with the Boy Scouts of America have said that the organization is "more essential today than it's ever been before," as reported by the Associated Press in December of 2009, just prior to the BSA's 100th anniversary the following February.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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