Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Sunday, May 26, 2013
National OK on gay scouts doesn't raise eyebrows here

More than 60 percent of Boy Scouts of America National Council leaders voted Thursday to allow openly gay boys to be accepted as scouts.

Although openly gay adults remain barred from serving as scout leaders, the vote signals a change in the ethos of one of the largest and oldest youth organizations in the country.

Six troops comprise about 325 Boy Scouts in the Florida Keys, home to the recently renovated Camp Jackson Sawyer on Scout Key -- formerly West Summerland Key -- as well as the Florida National High Adventure Sea Base in Islamorada, where older scouts from across the country learn to sail the ocean.

Camp Sawyer Program Director Baron Bieber, who is also district executive for the Buccaneer District (the Florida Keys), said he hasn't gotten much feedback about the vote.

"Whatever the national membership and the National Council has decided is the policy we will implement," Bieber said. "I haven't had many people express strong opinions one way or another."

The bottom line is that the vote doesn't change the mission at Camp Sawyer, Bieber said. "We're here for all our youth involved in scouting and that includes the Cub Scout level, the Boy Scout level and at the Venturing level for those young men and women between 14 and 20," Bieber said. "That's pretty much it."

The vote was important, because youth-oriented groups should welcome all, said Matt Hon, events coordinator for the Key West Business Guild and volunteer with the Key West High School Gay Straight Alliance (GSA).

"We should be paying attention, because there has been a lot of discrimination in Boy Scouts over the years, and young men who have come out (as gay) have been pushed away," Hon said. "The GSA will always push for equality among all student groups."

It's still unclear what impact, if any, the vote will have on scouting, as some conservative churches that sponsor Boy Scout troops have said they would end their partnership with the youth organization if the ban on gay scouts was lifted.

Michael Berman, vice president of the Key West chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he couldn't speak on behalf of the ACLU without researching the issue, but added that personally, he had hoped the scout leaders would allow openly gay scouts.

"Myself, I would say that any organization that excludes anyone on the basis of sexual orientation is an outlier in the modern world and will be left behind in the dustbin of history," Berman said.

James Happell, a scoutmaster from Palmetto Bay, launched a petition on Change.org calling on the South Florida Council to allow openly gay Scouts.

Two of Happell's sons are Eagle Scouts -- the highest rank in Boy Scouts -- and he's been a leader in the organization since 2000.

Last year, a man from his troop who became an Eagle Scout came back as an adult to be a troop leader, but his membership was canceled when state leaders found out he was gay, Happell said.

That's when Happell decided to take a vocal role in opposing the gay ban, he said.

"My problem is, that policy is one of discrimination, and what they're saying to our kids is that it's OK to discriminate and it's not," Happell said. "Myself and other leaders in the troop suspected this man was gay when he was young and in the troop, but it was never an issue and it never came up. I know there are many other cases like it."

When asked what he would say to the national Scout leaders who voted on the issue, Happell kept it simple: "I would say it's time to end discrimination in Boy Scouts. It's well past time. I would leave it at that."

Happell added that his troop was headed down to Key West this weekend to camp at Naval Air Station Key West property on Sigsbee Park island.

alinhardt@keysnews.com

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