Boy Scouts fail the tolerance test

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 per cent 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. The official position of the Girl Scouts, in fact, is to let each of the 317 local councils sort it all out by themselves. Membership rose from 2.5 million in 1998 to 2.8 million last year - in part, at least, because of ferocious Girl Scout cookie sellers.

But when it comes to boys, American parents are less sanguine: having a son taken camping by a gay man is an altogether less welcome prospect than a daughter being taken by a gay woman. Private polling by the BSA indicates that as many as 30 per cent of parents are coming round to the view that gays must not be excluded, but many are cynical about the genuineness of this data: "Would you allow your son to be taken out camping into the woods by a [gay man]?" is the immediate rejoinder to most of those proposing a relaxation in the approach. And the at-least anecdotal response of most parents? "No way."

As with so many American issues, it will all probably finally boil down to money. The Mormon and Roman Catholic Churches (which between them sponsor 750,000 Scouts) support the no-gays rule, but Baptist and Anglican Churches have now asked the Scouts to rethink. The Methodist Church sponsors the most Scouts, at 417,000 - followed closely by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which sponsors 411,000. No church can afford to fail to put its money where its mouth is, especially where so inflammatory a subject as homosexuals in scouting is concerned.

Perhaps seeing this storm brewing, some corporate donors - such as CVS, a huge, mainly East Coast chain of pharmacies - has stopped supporting the BSA altogether, as has Levi Strauss. Wells Fargo and Fleet Banks have cut back on funding. But other major US financial institutions - the Chase Manhattan Bank and Merrill Lynch, for example - have, so far, shown no sign of stepping back funding. In a way that scouting never did in Britain, it has really entered the bloodstream of society here, producing such alumni as not just Spielberg but Neil Armstrong, Ross Perot and Gerald Ford.

But I'm afraid I have always had an aversion to grown men who voluntarily choose to dress up in uniforms; and my only actual experience of Boy Scouting here was in the Cubs section, where I watched fathers almost literally fight each other over their sons' Pinewood Derby races of cars that the seven-year-old boys had supposedly whittled themselves out of wood. At least the Boy Scouts is an altogether healthier operation than these "tough-love" camps.

And let us spare a thought for the 14-year-old in Arizona last month who, hallucinating after being forced to stand in the desert sun because he wanted to go home, was left to drown in a bath.

Tough.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The Murdochs: a family saga