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On Their Honor, They Will Try to Bend the Scout Law

Ban on gays has prompted protests from a small but vocal number of longtime supporters.

August 31, 2000|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a tough neighborhood in the Bronx, back in the '40s, Howard Menzer thought that the Boy Scouts of America was forever. That his bond with the Scouts would be as strong as the knots that he and his buddies learned to tie. Buddies like Frankie, who invited him over for Christmas dinners and didn't care that he was Jewish. And Barry, the chubby kid who turned into a tall, strapping Scout, and Lenny, who later would be openly gay. Together, they camped in the snow at the Delaware River and played curb ball in front of Sadies' candy store.

Five decades later, Menzer still pins a Boy Scout emblem to his jacket every day before heading to work as a TV salesman at Sears in San Diego. The 63-year-old grandfather still carries a membership card in his wallet and, until recently, served as a Scouts volunteer. He still loves the Boy Scouts but says he can no longer volunteer for an organization that he sees as discriminatory.

For years, Menzer sat quietly as the Boy Scouts fought court battles to defend its ban on agnostics, gays and others who don't meet membership standards. Then, in June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the organization's right to exclude gays from its ranks. (By contrast, the Girl Scouts, a separate organization, does not exclude gays, a spokeswoman says.)

Enough, thought Menzer, a former Eagle Scout and 54-year Scouting member.

Since then, Menzer and a small but clamorous number of longtime Scouts supporters--including funders and public officials--have publicly rebuked the organization. Boy Scouts executives, meanwhile, underscore that they are a member-driven organization--and the numbers are up, despite the ongoing controversy. But some former Eagle Scouts, including gays and straights, have turned in their badges, renouncing the Scouts completely. Others, like Menzer, are deeply conflicted, torn between their conscience and their loyalty to a group that helped shape who they are.

"I'm ashamed of the policies, not the organization," says Menzer, whose now-grown son was a Boy Scout. "It's a great organization for boys. The only problem is when they start teaching hate. . . . I'm very proud of what I've done with the Boy Scouts. I'm very saddened by what it has become."

Last week, wearing his old khaki Scout leader's uniform, Menzer led an eight-person demonstration in San Diego, part of a nationwide protest against the Boy Scouts. Menzer decided to lead the local protest after hooking up with a nonprofit advocacy group, Scouting for All, which spearheaded the National Day of Protest rallies last week in 40 cities.

Nationwide, a fledgling movement against the Boy Scouts is picking up steam. In San Diego, for instance, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit Monday seeking to force the city to oust the local Scouts from public property. In other fallout, major funders are reevaluating their support of the national organization.

So far, the financial impact has been minimal, but the symbolism is unmistakable--a group that has long been synonymous with all-American, apple pie righteousness is falling out of favor in key circles, including with at least 11 members of Congress who signed a letter to President Clinton urging him to resign as honorary head of the Boy Scouts. In what would be a symbolic gesture, Rep. Lynn C. Woolsey (D-Petaluma) has introduced legislation to revoke the Boy Scouts' federal charter.

Also, some major companies, including Chase Manhattan Corp., are reviewing their financial support of the Scouts, and several local United Ways across the country have decided to withdraw funding. (The United Way of Greater Los Angeles is not among them).

"We recognize their right to do so," says Gregg Shields, national spokesman for the Boy Scouts in Irving, Texas. "At the same time, in recent years, we've seen a tremendous increase in the number of members. We see this as a tremendous sign of support. . . . We believe parents want for their children, for their youth, the kinds of values and beliefs that the Boy Scouts is teaching." In the past three years, Shields says, membership has grown 7% nationwide to 6.2 million. He says the Boy Scouts has no way of knowing how many members have quit in protest of the ban on gays.

In the Boy Scouts' Los Angeles Area Council, no Scouts or troop leaders have dropped out in protest. But two or three of the 98 board and advisory board members have resigned since the Supreme Court's decision, says Joey Robinson, the council's spokesman. He would not divulge their names.

At the Boy Scouts' Long Beach Area Council, Scouts executive Lee Martin says he has received several hundred calls in response to the Supreme Court's decision, "100% of them in favor of it. No one--and this is the amazing thing--has been negative toward the gay community. The reaction is, 'OK, it's decided. Let's get on with life.' "

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