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Derrick Z. Jackson

Allow all children in Boy Scouts

(Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe)
By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / June 11, 2011

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IN SPEAKING to the recent annual national meeting of the Boy Scouts of America, acclaimed author Richard Louv performed a gentle act of diplomacy. Most of his speech was about reconnecting youth and adults to the natural world, the subject of his 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods’’ and his new book, “The Nature Principle.’’ Toward the end, he asked the Scouts in carefully chosen words to let go of their anti-gay policies.

“No other youth group like the Scouts has trained so many future leaders while at the same time being a nature organization with its outdoor focus,’’ Louv said in a telephone interview this week from Denver. “I said I hoped that they would in the future take their great qualities of leadership and make them available to everyone. I think I said at one point that nature is for ‘every child.’ I think I repeated it, ‘every child.’ ’’

Louv said he told the BSA in advance that he would make his pitch. “I gave them the chance to back out,’’ he said. “I told them I couldn’t give the speech in good conscience without some mention of the issue. I said I would be concise, brief, and gentle and not beat them over the head. But I have to say something. To their credit, they said it was fine.’’

It would be finer still if Louv’s appearance were a sign of changes in the making. The Boy Scouts of America’s policies of not allowing openly gay members or girls full membership are more antiquated by the day, especially with the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ in the military.

Officially, no change is imminent. In an e-mail statement yesterday, the BSA said the invitation to Louv “illustrates how people of different opinions can disagree on a variety of topics while agreeing to focus on common goals.’’ But while saying inclusion “continues to be discussed and debated,’’ the BSA said it “does not plan to change its policies.’’

The dawdling continues at a cost. BSA membership, 4.8 million in the 1970s, slipped last year to 2.7 million. It is difficult to see how much longer the Scouts can hold onto the past when open-minded youth and parents increasingly cross off from consideration organizations that openly discriminate. Last year alone, the number of Cub Scout leaders dropped nearly 6 percent (full disclosure: I am a Scout volunteer).

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom Scouting Association enjoyed its biggest single-year increase in 38 years in 2009 with a comprehensive strategy of making outdoor activities cool again and saying clearly that scouting is for every child, including girls and gay youth. UK chief scout commissioner Wayne Bulpitt recently did a video for an anti-gay-bullying campaign.

Louv said one thing that motivated him to prod the BSA was hearing a gay student once tell him that the woods “was the only place he could go that he did not feel judged and where he did not judge himself.’’ Other experts on American society who hope the Scouts stop judging against such young men and women include Robert Putnam, author of “Bowling Alone,’’ the 2000 book on the crumbling of the American community.

Putnam said in a phone interview, “The BSA was a great invention a century ago, is still relevant today, and can be even more wonderful if it was inclusive. Sometimes, we make the environment and the outdoors into broccoli, good for you, but tough to eat. The Scouts are a great civic institution that teaches kids ethics and makes the outdoors and conservation fun. That is a real contribution and it could even be more so.’’

That contribution will indeed be more so the day the Boy Scouts of America take Louv’s gentle words to heart, and open their membership to girls and gays.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.