Connecticut Boy Scouts Are Changing Their Policy on Gay Members, and It's Paying Off
An all-inclusive policy has led to additional funding for some CT scout troops
The National Boy Scouts of America has a policy against allowing "open or avowed homosexuals," but some CT troops are disregarding that rule in favor of inclusiveness. (Janine Lamontagne photo / August 21, 2012)
And that non-discriminatory approach has allowed one Hartford-region scouting organization to get hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from the United Way. Another major scouting group in the New Haven-Fairfield County area appears to be missing out on United Way funding because its officers haven’t signed a declaration that they don’t discriminate against gays.
The issue of the Boy Scouts anti-gay attitude is drawing headlines and debate around the country. Both President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have come out against the long-standing national Boy Scout policy to deny membership to “open or avowed homosexuals.”
National Boy Scout leaders seem to be having trouble convincing all their local organizations to uphold that policy against admitting gays.
“We have leaders that are gay,” says Steven Smith, head of the Connecticut Rivers Council, the largest Boy Scout organization in the Hartford region. “It’s not an issue.”
Smith insists his council’s attitude doesn’t conflict with that of the national leadership of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), which last month once again announced it is standing by the group’s controversial anti-gay policy.
“You seem to see a conflict in it,” Smith says of his group’s apparent disconnect from the national organization’s policy on homosexuals. “We don’t… I’ve been in scouting for about 33 years and I’ve not removed anyone for being gay.”
Smith adds that he would back the dismissal of anyone, gay or straight, who tries to use the Boy Scouts to push a sexual agenda. “We don’t talk about sex in general,” Smith explains.
The national scouting policy states that BSA groups don’t “proactively inquire about the sexual orientation of employees, volunteers or members.” But the policy continues that membership shouldn’t be allowed for “individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA.”
Gay-rights groups and many politicians in both major parties have condemned the BSA’s anti-homosexual attitude, and the Girl Scouts of America adopted a non-discrimination policy in 1980.
“Clinging to a policy of exclusion and intolerance is hardly a good lesson for our young people,” says Darlene Nipper, deputy director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “The Boy Scouts of America continues to turn its back on a chance to demonstrate fairness, exercise sound judgment, and serve as a role model for valuing others.”
The U.S. Supreme Court, however, declared in 2000 that the Boy Scouts are exempt from state and federal anti-discrimination laws.
Yet officials for the Connecticut Rivers Council have for years routinely signed a letter certifying to the United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut that it doesn’t discriminate in any way against homosexuals or anyone else.
The United Way requires any organization asking for money to sign a “Diversity Policy Statement” guaranteeing that the group doesn’t discriminate “on the grounds of race, color, religious creed, age… sex, gender identity or expression… sexual orientation” or half-a-dozen other possible categories.
“Every agency we fund must certify every year that they do not discriminate,” says Susan Dunn, president of the United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut.
Signing that statement has meant big bucks for the Connecticut Rivers Council. In 2010, according to the latest United Way records available, the scouting group received $149,832 from the United Way’s community investment program.
The Connecticut Rivers Council isn’t the only Boy Scout group that appears to be ignoring the national BSA mandate.
Out in Minnesota, some conservative Roman Catholic leaders were stunned when their local scouting council recently declared it would continue its policy of admitting openly homosexual individuals. Scouting officials in New York City and Boston say they have routinely sidestepped the BSA’s national anti-gay standard.
David Knapp, a gay scouting activist who’s been lobbying for years to change the BSA’s discriminatory policy, says “the majority of councils in New England… have not enforced the policy.”
“The hypocracy is astronomical,” says Knapp, whose expulsion from the Boy Scouts in 1994 made national headlines. “I know gay scout leaders, and some of them are pretty public.”
The liberal approach being taken by the Connecticut Rivers Council contrasts dramatically with what’s happening in some parts of Connecticut.
The Milford-based scouting organization, Connecticut Yankee Council, has for years refused to make a similar anti-discrimination declaration, according to a top United Way official. And the local United Way has for years refused to grant them any money.
“The Boy Scouts never signed that [diversity policy statement] and haven’t applied for funding,” says Jack Healy, president of the United Way of Greater New Haven.
Knapp says that it was his explusion – on orders from the national board of the Boy Scouts after a disgruntled relative notified the board he was gay – that triggered the local United Way decision not to fund any scouting groups that refused to sign a non-discrimination statement.
Knapp, now 85, had been an Eagle Scout and served for a decade as a highly respected Boy Scout official in New York and New Jersey. After his retirement from business, Knapp says local scout officials asked him to volunteer to recruit new leaders.
“I was deeply hurt,” Knapp says of his sudden expulsion. “I loved scouting and I still do – we need it more now than ever.”
Knapp became a national activist in the effort to get the BSA to change its anti-gay stance. This past May, an anti-discrimination resolution that Knapp managed to propose through his local church and the Connecticut Yankee Council was read before the BSA’s national convention. But he says the resolution has been shunted off to a “dead end” review by national scouting’s top leaders.
In 2009 and 2010, Knapp received invitations from the council to attend an Eagle Scout banquet but was “disinvited” both times. Boy Scout spokesmen said those invitations were the result of an “administrative error” or a “database mistake.”
Knapp says he still has admiration for the Connecticut Yankee Council because it agreed to submit that resolution to alter the BSA’s anti-gay policies. “That took a lot of guts,” Knapp says.
Dustin Shaver, the new scouting executive and CEO of the Connecticut Yankee Council, says he’s not familiar with the group’s history on admitting homosexuals or the issue with United Way funding.
“My understanding is that we haven’t declined to sign anything,” Shaver says. “We simply haven’t applied [for any United Way money].”
Shaver, who has been in Connecticut less than two months, says he’s not familiar with Knapp’s case. Shaver also dodges questions about what he would do if he found out one of his Boy Scout leaders was openly gay.
“I hesitate to deal in hypotheticals,” Shaver says. “Is a person interfering with our ability to deliver our message? Is that individual’s behavior interfering with our parents’ rights to deal with these issues on their own terms?”
Shaver also slides around questions about whether he supports the national BSA policy to deny membership to any “open or avowed homosexuals.”
He says he supports those scouting parents who believes this “is a sensitive issue that they want to deal with personally with their kids… Scouting is not the right forum to discuss these sensitive issues.”
United Way officials say the declaration of non-discrimination they require from groups that receive United Way funding only applies to some of the money the charity handles.
Individuals and groups can make “donor designated” donations to the United Way and have that money sent to any non-profit organization (including the Boy Scouts). Dunn says that in those cases it’s up to the person or organization donating the money to decide if the recipient is handling the issue of discrimination appropriately.
More than a decade ago, the state of Connecticut removed the Boy Scouts from its list of charities that state workers could donate to through the state’s payroll deduction plan.
Nancy Wyman, who was then state comptroller and is now lieutenant governor, says Connecticut’s anti-discrimination law required her to take that action.
She says that, at the time, scouting officials “wouldn’t sign the paper that every other state vendor has to sign saying they wouldn’t discriminate… And I support that law.”
Connecticut Boy Scout leaders are all extremely wary of questions about gays in scouting and insist their organization is about other things than sex. But they also know this isn’t going away and that no solution will satisfy everyone.
As Bob Porell, public relations director for the Connecticut Rivers Council explains, “It’s a very tricky issue.”