Hiking, Camping, and Gay Bashing

The Boy Scouts earn a merit badge for intolerance

In the interest of full disclosure, I should acknowledge I didn't care for the Cub Scouts. My den mother was the wife of my Little League baseball coach, and while she was probably a good woman, at the time I thought she was a thief who was squirreling away my 75 cents in dues she collected every week, possibly saving the money to buy her and her calisthenics-loving husband matching sports cars. She claimed the cash was going toward art supplies and refreshments, but c'mon, 30 years ago a package of Kool-Aid cost only a few pennies, and as far as art supplies went, all I remember was some Elmer's glue and a giant bag of Good Humor popsicle sticks.

One week, while trying “to do my best,” as the scout oath commands, I made my father a pencil box. Unfortunately he thought it was an ashtray, and the first time he put out a cigarette, the wood and the glue caught fire and nearly burned down our entire apartment building. Following this ordeal I began asking questions, demanding a full accounting of where my quarters were going. Not long thereafter, my mother received a call suggesting it was best for the troop if I didn't attend anymore scout meetings. Obviously I was getting close to the truth.

Last week, I found myself once again in a rather inquisitive mood with regard to scouting. And luckily, no one has thought to call my mother to ask me to stop.

The issue: Should the Boy Scouts continue to receive public funding following a recent Supreme Court decision that allows the organization to discriminate openly against homosexuals? In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that since the Boy Scouts are a private organization, they are free to determine their own qualifications for membership, and therefore can bar gay scoutmasters.

Since the Supreme Court ruling, a number of local governments -- most notably in Chicago, San Francisco, and San Jose -- have either withdrawn, or threatened to withdraw, their support of the scouts.

Nowhere, though, has the battle been as fierce as in South Florida, where Fort Lauderdale, Miami Beach, Wilton Manors, and the Broward County School Board have all severed their ties to the Boy Scouts.

Last week the issue landed before the Miami-Dade County Commission, which was considering its annual budget. Of the $4.6 billion being allocated, $75,000 was earmarked for the Boy Scouts. Commissioner Katy Sorenson, offered a compromise: The scouts would receive one-fourth of their allocation now, and the rest would be held in reserve, to give local Boy Scout leaders, county officials, and members of the gay community a chance to meet and discuss their differences.

Sorenson's proposal was hailed and the measure passed unanimously. In contrast to the ugly debates engulfing other governmental bodies, Miami-Dade County appeared uncommonly statesmanlike.

Behind the scenes, however, it's been business as usual. And though we can hope for a miracle whereby the national leadership of the Boy Scouts realizes its policies regarding homosexuality are both bigoted and outdated, such an epiphany is unlikely.

The architect of the compromise was Jorge Mursuli, executive director for SAVE Dade, the group that worked with Sorenson to pass the county's controversial gay-rights ordinance in 1998. “I don't think the Boy Scouts are the enemy,” opines Mursuli. “It's the policy that is the problem, and public funds should never be used to promote groups that discriminate. At the same time, for me to be involved in another divisive battle is unproductive.” Mursuli says he would rather spend his time trying to educate people, and this plan will allow for the various parties to come together and talk.

Mursuli also realizes opponents of the gay-rights ordinance might use the Boy Scouts issue in their campaign to repeal the ordinance. “There are some folks who don't need much of a reason to get fired up against gay people,” he says.

Mayor Alex Penelas and Commission Chairwoman Gwen Margolis attempted to pressure Sorenson into tempering any attacks on the Boy Scouts. Early in the week, the mayor dispatched one of his aides (the always rabid but rarely effective Joe Ramallo) to remind Sorenson about all the good things that the mayor had included in the budget for her district -- which in political terms is a way of reminding Sorenson that the mayor can just as easily take those items out.

Anyone who knows Sorenson knows this is the wrong way to approach her, and following Ramallo's little pep talk -- plus a similar message sent by one of Margolis's aides -- Sorenson was ready to go to war with the Boy Scouts, willing to tie their funding into so many knots she would have earned a dozen merit badges. But her own good sense and Mursuli's diplomacy prevailed.

Sorenson says she is cautiously optimistic the Boy Scouts might be willing to change. She notes, for example, that Ryder Systems CEO Tony Burns is president of the South Florida Council for the Boy Scouts and is considered a likely contender to be president of the national governing board. As a matter of corporate policy, Ryder extends benefits to same-sex couples -- a policy Burns not only supported but championed.

I have no doubt that members of the South Florida Council, responsible for the scouting program in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Monroe counties, believe the discriminatory policy is wrong. They are powerless, though, to do anything about it.

When I asked the council's executive director, Jeff Herrmann, if there was any room to compromise on the issue of gay scoutmasters, he flatly answered no. “We have no wiggle room on that,” declares Herrmann. “Avowed homosexuals are not role models the way we interpret the scout oath and law.” He argues that the South Florida Council of the Boy Scouts is committed to this policy. “We are in lock step on this issue,” he says.

Which means that unless the Boy Scouts withdraw their request for the rest of their allocation from the county, Miami-Dade and the Boy Scouts are almost certainly headed for a showdown. If Penelas and Margolis feel like twisting a few arms instead of threatening Sorenson and her allies, they should try exerting a little pressure on Burns and the South Florida Council to abandon their efforts to collect more money from taxpayers.

The county commission, however, cannot simply acquiesce to bigotry in order to avoid the type of messy debates that have taken place in other communities. Nor can they do so out of fear that their actions will be used as a pretext to repeal the gay-rights ordinance. That ordinance only has meaning if the county commission supports it through word and deed.

The commission should be applauded for trying to settle its differences with the Boy Scouts in a calm, thoughtful manner, but when the talking stops and the differences remain, the commission must be willing to stand tall and confront discrimination wherever it exists.

That's called leading by example. A lesson the Boy Scouts still need to learn.


Eston “Dusty” Melton III is one of Miami-Dade County's most influential lobbyists. Before that he was a journalist. Throughout it all, though, he's been an Eagle Scout.

To argue that the Boy Scouts are in his blood is an understatement. His father is an Eagle Scout, two of his brothers are Eagle Scouts, his oldest son is an Eagle Scout. His father's father was a scoutmaster and his mother's father was awarded the Silver Beaver and the Silver Antelope in 1954 for outstanding volunteer service.

He has been a prodigious fundraiser for the Boy Scouts and was named a member of the Founders Circle last year after changing his will to bequeath $100,000 to the Boy Scouts.

He has served on the executive board of the South Florida Council since 1991, and for the past five years he's been on the governing board for the southern region of the Boy Scouts, which oversees scouting in thirteen states.

Last week he resigned those posts in protest over the scout's continuing policy of discrimination against gays. “I was personally hoping we would lose the [Supreme Court] case, and we would become more inclusive,” he says. “But when that didn't happen, it forced many of us to confront our own personal feelings and scrutinize, for the first time, in a serious, sober way, our level of discomfort with this national policy.”

Melton found himself recalling what he considers to be the defining moment of his life: winning the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award in 1976. He was editor of his college newspaper at the University of Virginia, and used the paper to focus attention on the plight of blacks on campus and in the community. One story exposed that the president of the university belonged to a country club that did not allow black members.

“And now, all these years later, I found myself in a club that discriminates arbitrarily on the basis of private sexual preference, and I found that to be equally inappropriate,” he offers. He expects to continue volunteering his time to the Boy Scouts because he believes the group does help children; he just won't serve on any of its governing boards.

Melton says he had hoped to “unravel” from the Boy Scouts as quietly as possible, and had encouraged other members who were thinking of resigning in protest to the policy to cite other reasons for leaving the group so as not to embarrass the organization.

“I don't have a choice,” he says.

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