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Originally published Monday, May 19, 2014 at 5:12 PM

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Guest: Same-sex marriage and the history of panic over equal rights

The Boy Scouts recent ejection of a gay scoutleader reflects previous panics over African Americans and women when they sought equal treatment, writes guest columnist Mark Stein.


Special to The Times

Author reading

Mark Stein will talk about his new book at a Town Hall Seattle event at 7:30 p.m. on May 20. Tickets are $5.

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Strip the Boy Scouts of federal and public funding, chastise them, write about them. Still, this is their choice. It is... MORE
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THE national leadership of the Boy Scouts recently revoked the charter of a Seattle troop after learning its longtime scoutmaster is gay. A year earlier, a Richland florist made national news by refusing to provide flowers for the wedding of two men. Both incidents bore striking similarities to previous panics over African Americans and women when they sought equal treatment.

Take, for starters, florist Barronelle Stutzman saying, “I believe, biblically, that marriage is between a man and a woman.” Her statement filtered out the fact that, biblically, marriage is between a man and, potentially, several women. She also omitted the biblical stipulation of the death penalty for homosexuals and the death penalty for adulterers. Few, if any, have warned of adulterers endangering our nation or our Boy Scouts.

Former Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox also forgot that fact in 1966 when he inveighed against interracial marriage, “In choosing a wife for Isaac, he was instructed that ‘thou should not take a wife unto my son who is a daughter of the Canaanites.’ ”

Panic over LGBT and women’s rights can be seen as early as 1853, when the Vermont Journal described a women’s-rights convention as being “composed of masculine women and feminine men.” In a 1910 book, physician Andrew Macphail wrote, “The fall of the race always comes through the woman. ... Every civilization which has passed away proceeded by the road to effeminacy.”

Gays and women did not provoke political alarm as long as they stayed, respectively, in their closets and kitchens. Rainier Beach’s former scoutmaster Geoffrey McGrath related in a Seattle Times guest column that the Boy Scouts’ national leaders displayed no particular interest in his private life — he was married to his partner for 20 years — until he was asked about it in an NBC News interview. In keeping with the Boy Scout oath, he said he answered truthfully.

Likewise, in the 19th century, no one much cared what Walt Whitman did in his bedroom until, in his poetic masterpiece, “Leaves of Grass,” he celebrated all sexualities — and was promptly fired from his government job.

Current and past panics entailed warnings that equal treatment for women or gays and lesbians would endanger our children. In 1977, singer Anita Bryant declared, “As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children.”

Similarly, a 1985 Heritage Foundation report declared that feminists “promote their destructive sex ideology in the nation’s public school classrooms ... through illustrations of women mining engineers, for example, and men happily tending the baby, wearing an apron, and stirring a pot.”

Neither provided data demonstrating that exposing young people to women or gays resulted in more gay youths or the destruction of student “sex ideology.” Such unverified claims are a hallmark of political panic. The reasons these particular claims were unverified is that there is no such data.

Data do appear also to have played a role in the national leadership of the Boy Scouts becoming less specific when explaining its prohibition of gay scoutmasters. In the 1980s, it defended the ban by claiming gay scoutmasters presented a danger as potential pedophiles. But a considerable amount of research has found that pedophilia is no more prevalent among homosexuals than among heterosexuals — so much research that the various studies have received the endorsement of the American Psychological Association.

Given these patterns from the past, the uproar over gay rights and gay scoutmasters provides a window through which we can see where this nation is headed. The Boy Scouts, who are now so embattled, represents the history of panic. The thriving Girl Scouts, which accepts LGBT scoutleaders, represents the future.

Mark Stein’s newest book is “American Panic: A History of Who Scares Us and Why.” He wrote “How the States Got Their Shapes,” the basis of the History Channel series.



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