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Jim Keynon: Two Kinds Of Scouts

For an organization that prides itself on teaching survival skills, the Boy Scouts of America seems to have a death wish.

As long as the Boy Scouts’ national leaders continue to insist it’s OK to discriminate against gays, the organization grows increasingly irrelevant in a society where — thank goodness — a person’s sexual orientation becomes less and less a big deal.

As you may have read, the Boy Scouts of America’s executive committee has proposed a change in membership rules: openly gay youths will no longer be excluded.

This is progress?

Hardly. The Boy Scouts will continue to ban openly gay adults from being Scout leaders. As The Washington Post said in an editorial a few days ago, “Excluding openly gay adults suggests that they are dangerous, potential child abusers or brainwashers of such threat that they should be denied any place in the Boy Scouts of America.” And as the editorial pointed out, gay Scouts would be barred from becoming leaders when they turn 18.

Fortunately, some Boy Scout troops want to make it clear that they don’t support the organization’s discriminatory policies.

I’m talking about the Norwich Boy Scouts, among others.

Norwich troop leaders Tom Porter and John Olszewski brought up the policy with their 16 Scouts, during which an 11-year-old boy asked, “What’s gay?”

The Norwich troop wanted to get out the message that, “We’re inclusive,” Porter told me when I stopped by his construction company’s office unannounced on Monday. “We really don’t care about any policy from a national organization.”

Apparently, the Norwich troop was suffering from guilt by association.

“Because of the (national) policy our numbers were dwindling,” Porter said. “People were keeping kids out of Scouts.”

In March, the troop put on a pancake breakfast to benefit the Trevor Project, a national organization focused on crisis and suicide-prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.

The breakfast attracted 200 diners and took in $1,000.

“Everyone in town was really receptive to it,” Porter said.

Porter’s two teenage sons are Scouts, as he was. The Norwich troop is into 50-mile hikes on the Appalachian Trail, canoe trips on the Connecticut and winter camping when the weather is below zero.

“I want the boys to learn how to live out of a backpack,” Porter said.

Shortly after the breakfast, Porter got a visit from Ed McCollin, who heads up the Boys Scouts’ Vermont office in Moretown. It was a cordial meeting, Porter said. When I talked with McCollin yesterday, he said the Norwich troop “didn’t do anything wrong. It was a nice thing they did.”

He met with Porter to update him on what was happening with the gay ban, nationally.

“It’s divided our Scouting family,” McCollin told me.

Even in Vermont?

“Oh, yeah,” he replied.

Which brings me to the Girl Scouts.

A couple of weeks ago, former Dartmouth-Hitchcock co-president Nancy Formella invited me to a luncheon in Concord that was held to raise money and awareness of what Girl Scouts do.

I learned the Girl Scouts of USA organization has far more going for it than thin mints.

The Girl Scouts (unlike their male counterparts) have managed to look past a person’s sexual orientation whether they be members or troop leaders. “Girl Scouts of the USA and its local councils and troops value diversity and inclusiveness and do not recruit on the basis of religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, national origin, or physical or developmental disability,” according to its website.

Patricia Mellor, the CEO for Girl Scouts of the Green and White Mountains, said the all-inclusive policy has been in place since the 1970s.

“We believe that bringing people together with differences makes our organization stronger,” said Mellor, who oversees Girl Scout troops in New Hampshire and Vermont.

The organization is confident the screening process that potential troop leaders and other volunteers go through, which includes criminal background checks, provides sufficient safeguards, Mellor said.

The Girl Scouts are more worried about things that matter. Like getting more girls interested in science and math or getting them involved in public service at an early age.

U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a former Girl Scout, told the luncheon crowd of about 200 people (no surprise that most of them were women) that for girls to be successful, they must be “willing to go outside (their) comfort zone.”

Ayotte pointed out that only 20 of the 100 U.S. senators are women. (But 70 percent of women in Congress are former Girl Scouts.) The Girl Scouts can “make sure girls have a foundation for leadership roles in the future,” she said.

During a break in the event, I asked a couple of women I knew why they thought the Girl Scouts hadn’t gotten bogged down with the sexual orientation issue.

“Women are smarter,” joked Judy McKenna, of Manchester, who was a Girl Scout 50 years ago. Later, she added, “I think women, in general, are far less threatened by lifestyle choices.”

I guess that does make them smarter.