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Boy Scouts of America need a moral compass

Jennifer Tyrrell right arrives Boys Scouts Americnational offices with her family sJude Burns 5 second from right  partner AliciBurns

Jennifer Tyrrell, right, arrives at the Boys Scouts of America national offices with her family son Jude Burns, 5, second from right, partner Alicia Burns, and son Cruz Burns, 7, left, for a meeting Wednesday, July 18, 2012, in Irving, Texas. The Ohio woman ousted as a den mother because she is a lesbian delivered a petition with 300,000 signatures to the Boy Scouts of America headquarters urging the organization to reinstate her and abandon its policy of excluding gays. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

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Updated: August 21, 2012 6:25AM

‘Poor Little Black Fellow” is a short story by Langston Hughes. You can find it in his first collection, The Ways of White Folks, published in 1934.

It’s the tale of Arnie, the only child of a pair of black servants, who both die, leaving the Pembertons, a wealthy white couple, to raise the infant “as their Christian duty.”

Which the couple gamely tries to do. Yes, they at first refer to the baby as “it” but also treat him with a sort of kindness, the only black child in a town that tolerates his presence with an almost hysterical acceptance.

“Throughout the years the whole of Mapleton began to preen itself on its charity and kindness to Arnie,” Hughes writes. “One would think that nobody in the town need ever again do a good deed: that this acceptance of a black boy was quite enough.”

Life gets more complicated as Arnie becomes a teen. People today may forget the strong sexual element of racism — the terror that white America had at the idea of interracial dating. “Everything might have been all right forever had not Arnie begun to grow up.” He could not go to parties, with their “kissing games.” Dances of course were out.

“Then there had arisen that problem of the Boy Scouts,” Hughes writes. “When Arnie was sixteen the Pembertons applied for him to be admitted to a Summer camp for the Scouts at Barrow Beach, and the camp had refused. In a personal letter to Mr. Pemberton, they said they simply could not admit Negroes. Too many parents would object.”

Sound familiar? This week the Boy Scouts, in the 2012 version of banning integrated Scout troops, announced it would be sticking by its bias against gay Scouts and leaders. “Too many parents would object” was expressed as “The vast majority of the parents of youth we serve value their right to address issues of same-sex orientation within their family, with spiritual advisers and at the appropriate time and in the right setting.”

You must shake your head in wonder at the ignorant assumption behind that statement, which says far more about the people doing the banning than about those being banned. The Scout hierarchy seems to be saying that just having a gay person in the room, reciting the pledge of allegiance alongside you, is enough to raise “issues of same-sex orientation.” That allowing a lesbian mom to be a den mother undercuts the construction of leather coin purses and the selling of popcorn. Give the Scouts credit, at least they don’t blame the den mom, the way opponents of gay marriage feel compelled to conjure up imaginary harms — that gays somehow ineffably ruin their marriages. The Scouts seem to be saying: If gays are around, we can’t stop thinking about homosexuality.

Which again echoes the old fear about blacks — you couldn’t let them in the party because the white girls would flock to them. The unstated fear is, as the Scouts say in a statement, inclusion of gays “would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA.”

All Mapleton was distracted by Arnie. “Everyone was a little baffled and a little ashamed,” which about sums up the Scout stance on gays. America eventually learned that if you are distracted by the presence of a person, the solution is not to send the person away (the Pembertons send Arnie to Paris) but to get over it. (One wonders why the Scouts don’t form all-gay troops the way they once had all-black troops). The Scouts had a chance to get over their distraction, as the United States military has done, and predictably chose not to. Again. The issuance of merit badges must be a more demanding activity than the protection of the United States, and you have to laugh that the Cub Scouts feel the need to apply a sexual litmus test that the Marines do not.

Or cry. As a former Scout, I have too much affection for the organization to take any pleasure in this latest embarrassment. “They’re stuck in the Dark Ages,” my mother said, over the telephone, and she’s 76.

One thing I’ve learned in this job is that bigotry hurts two groups. We tend to focus on the first, the objects of prejudice, and there are real children and adults who are hurt by the Scouts’ immoral ban. But they’ll be fine without Scouting — you can hike any time. Arnie ends up happy in Jazz Age Paris.

But there is a second victim group that doesn’t get noticed: the bigots themselves. Scouting, like some churches, harms itself by scrapping its supposed ethical system over a perceived slight delivered by the sexuality of others. A straight Scout leader would be just as wrong talking about his escapades as a gay would, but the gay is barred at the door, in case he might be tempted to raise the subject. It’s a fearful, unfair view that punishes not what people do but who they are. The Scouts lost their moral compass and, using a very old map, wander about, year after year, stumbling into pits of bad publicity, while society, which finally figured out where it is going, strides into the future without them.

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