The directors of Scouts Canada were a bit puzzled by the application to charter Toronto’s 129th Scout troop: In the boxes declaring “male” or “female,” some members had checked both.
But true to their motto, the Scouts were prepared for anything. Late last month, they officially approved North America’s first gay Scout troop.
“To us, it’s just like another one of our troops that addresses the needs of a community,” said Scott Morris, a spokesman for Scouts Canada. “We have a Cantonese troop on the West Coast, French-speaking troops in Quebec and special troops for Mormons.”
The new troop is limited to members ages 18 to 26; unlike the United States, Canada has adult-only troops, called Rovers. Troop 129 is open to gays and heterosexuals, and 12 people have signed on so far. All have identified themselves as gay or transgender. Thanks to a coeducational policy introduced by Scouts Canada last year, seven members are women.
They’ll do traditional scouting activities, with special attention to serving the gay and lesbian community: camping, service projects and Christmas caroling at a local AIDS hospice.
“People keep asking me, ‘Why?’ ” said Bonte Minnema, a gay University of Toronto senior and boyhood Scout who founded the new troop. “My answer is, ‘Why not?’ No one asks why straight people get together. When young people are coming out, it’s important for them to have empowering, skill-building groups like the Scouts.”
Minnema said he has received calls from teens asking if he can start a troop for 14- to 17-year-olds who are gay or questioning their sexual orientation, as well as from gay and lesbian parents seeking a tolerant environment for their children. Morris said Scouts Canada would consider such an application.
The reaction in Canada so far to the gay troop has been “positive to neutral,” Morris said. “People got much more angry about girls joining the Scouts than about gays and lesbians.”
Some groups split off in protest of the coed policy but not so far in reaction to the formation of the new Toronto troop. Canada is, after all, a country where the feeling is more “live and let live” than “don’t ask, don’t tell.” There are gays serving openly in the military, equal benefits in most provinces for same-sex partners, gay churches and an alternative gay high school here. And Canada has no policy excluding gay Scout leaders.
That’s a big difference from the United States, where the Scout Oath says all Boy Scouts should do their “duty to God” and be “morally straight"--elements that national Scout officials argue are incompatible with homosexuality.
But the Scout Law also says a good Scout “seeks to understand others” and “respects those with ideas and customs other than his own.” And so, the issue of homosexuals in the Boy Scouts of America has split the organization, divided its sponsoring churches and resulted in lawsuits. One case, in which the organization is appealing a New Jersey court decision that gay men can’t be banned from being Scout leaders, is before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Although all Scout troops fall under an umbrella of the World Organization of the Scout Movement, there is no direct affiliation between the Canadian and U.S. groups. But for Toronto’s Troop 129, the only complaints have come from south of the border: A radical preacher from Kansas, the Rev. Fred Phelps, threatened to burn the Canadian flag in protest in front of the Scouts Canada headquarters here last Monday. The Scouts called Canadian immigration officials to see if he could be banned from crossing the border under this country’s hate crimes law. Phelps never showed up.
That’s not to say there’s no homophobia in Canada, Minnema says. “But Canada is a much more subtle country,” he said.
Minnema was a Scout in a small country town from the time he was 5 years old until he earned the rank of Chief Scout at 13, a level similar to an Eagle Scout in the U.S. That was about the time he realized he had no interest in girls and was perhaps, he said, “a bit different” from the rest of the guys. Others were beginning to realize it too.
“There was the usual name-calling and homophobic behavior,” he said. “I wish there was a gay troop then.”
He left rural Ontario to attend college in Toronto and has become an activist in Canada’s most multiethnic, cosmopolitan city. In between classes and exams, he sits on the board of the alternative high school, is active at the Christos Metropolitan Community Church, which has agreed to sponsor the troop, and works with a gay youth hotline that receives about 400 calls a month.
His efforts to educate people about issues of sexual orientation have focused on Toronto. But after news of his troop spread across the country, he realized that it was having an effect on rural enclaves like his hometown that perhaps most need troops like his. The first clue? Minnema’s former scoutmaster recognized him on television and sent him a congratulatory note.
“That,” he said, “was pretty great.”