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Boy Scouts survey seeks to measure attitudes on gay membership

James Oliver, left, hugs his brother and fellow Eagle Scout, Will Oliver, who is gay, as Will and other supporters carry four boxes filled with a petition in front of the Boy Scouts of America headquarters in Dallas. Boy Scout officials are surveying adult members about their attitudes on gay membership, which will be voted on in late spring.
(Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)

The Boy Scouts of America is surveying adult members about their attitude toward gays in Scouting as the group’s leaders consider potentially lifting their ban on gay membership later this spring.

The 13-question survey is being distributed to 1.1 million Scouts leaders, alumni, volunteers and parents. It asks them to respond to hypothetical situations involving homosexuality, gays camping with children and gays in church leadership. Members can respond according to a scale of feelings that ranges from strong support to strong opposition.

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The survey was given to The Times by a Boy Scouts spokesman. Many of the survey questions address situations that may occur if the ban is lifted. For instance:

“Johnny, a first-grade boy, has joined Tiger Cubs with his friends. Johnny’s friends and their parents unanimously nominate Johnny’s mom, who is known by them to be lesbian, to be the den leader. Johnny’s pack is chartered to a church where the doctrine of that faith does not teach that homosexuality is wrong. Is it acceptable or unacceptable for his mother to serve as a den leader for his Cub Scout den?”

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“David, a Boy Scout, believes that homosexuality is wrong. His troop is chartered to a church where the doctrine of that faith also teaches that homosexuality is wrong. Steve, an openly gay youth, applies to be a member in the troop and is denied membership. Is it acceptable or unacceptable for this troop to deny Steve membership in their troop?”

“A gay male troop leader, along with another adult leader, is taking a group of boys on a camping trip following the youth protection guidelines of two-deep leadership. Is it acceptable or unacceptable for the gay adult leader to take adolescent boys on an overnight camping trip?”

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Some of the hypothetical situations appear to be based in fact. For instance, Jennifer Tyrrell was leading her son’s Tiger Cubs as an openly gay lesbian at a church in Bridgeport, Ohio, when she was forced out last year by the Boy Scouts for being gay. She has since joined the campaign to lift the ban.

The survey also includes two open-ended questions about the impact of either banning or allowing gay members.

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The questions are part of a twice-annual survey called “The Voice of the Scout” emailed to leaders, parents, and youth over 14 years of age for whom the organization had addresses. Scout alumni will receive the surveys in “the next couple of days,” Boy Scouts spokesman Deron Smith told The Times. Current Boy Scouts were not sent the questions about the gay ban, he said.

The survey marks an ongoing shift in the group’s policy on gays. Historically, the organization had a strict anti-gay policy, grouping some members found to be gay along with child abusers in its secret “perversion” files.

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But Scouting has evolved to include troops that refuse to honor the national ban on gays, including some in California. However, troops that take a public stand against the policy risk losing their charter.

That could all change in May, when the Scouts’ National Council is expected to meet near the headquarters in Irving, Texas, to vote on a proposed resolution that will address whether to modify or lift the ban on gays.

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A vote had been expected during a Boy Scouts national board meeting last month. President Obama, several senators, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and others spoke out in favor of ending the ban, and petitions purportedly bearing 1.4 million signatures were presented at Scouting headquarters in Texas. But as about 100 opponents protested outside headquarters, many in uniform with children in tow, leaders postponed their decision.

Some members of the Boy Scouts board have spoken out in favor of ending the ban, and experts said the decision to postpone a vote signaled a shift at a time when the group is struggling to maintain its membership. It was down about 19% during the last decade to about 2.7 million as of 2011, the most recent year available.

The survey was developed by Alexandria, Va.-based North Star Opinion Research.

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“We are currently in the ‘listening phase,’ where the BSA’s committees engage key stakeholders for input and develop a summary report,” Smith said in an email to The Times. “Part of this process is to survey a variety of key stakeholders.” He said public updates on the process leading up to the May vote will be posted on a new webpage.

The Boy Scouts first convened a committee of Scouting officials and volunteers to review the gay ban three years ago. After two years of consideration, they decided to maintain the policy, Smith said.

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Advocates of lifting the ban said they were discouraged by the survey’s wording, which they felt was loaded.

“A lot of the questions are very leading in nature. Their vocabulary when it comes to gay issues just goes to show how far the Boy Scouts have to go on gay and lesbian issues,” said Rich Ferraro, a spokesman for New York-based Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

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For instance, he noted the survey often said “homosexual” instead of “gay and lesbian,” and used what he called “scare tactics” such as conjuring the image of gays sleeping in the same tents as Scouts.

“This survey is not going to show them what’s best for their organization,” Ferraro said. “What we’ve seen with the U.S. military is that these scare tactics just don’t play out if you have an inclusive organization.”

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Rather than using hypothetical situations that play on members’ fears, Ferraro said the group could ask about the impact of the ban, “ask young gay Scouts how they feel, what type of harm that causes, what type of bullying.”

He said GLAAD officials offered to organize such discussions, but that Scouting officials did not take them up on the offer.

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“We’re hopeful that in May they’ll make the right decision and the decision that’s best for Scouts,” Ferraro said.

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