After watching the Boy Scouts come under attack for banning homosexual youth leaders, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBS) is fending off attacks for allowing them.
At issue: new enforcement of a policy that prohibits discrimination against volunteers based on sexual preference.
Although a BBBS vice president said nondiscrimination based on “affectional preference” has been the national policy since 1977, some affiliates were rejecting volunteers based on sexual orientation. So after affiliates voted last year to make clear that the policy applies to everyone, the national board approved a policy statement in February, and it took effect July 1.
“It’s something required by our agencies” in order to retain their affiliation with the 98-year-old group, said Joe Radelet, vice president of program and agency development for the Philadelphia-based agency.
A June reminder to the roughly 500 affiliates sparked outrage from organizations that oppose homosexuality and gay rights.
“We think homosexuality is a gender identity disorder, and therefore homosexuals are not fit to be role models,” said Peter Sprigg, senior director of culture studies for the Family Research Council, based in Washington.
“Nearly all the recent molestation incidents involving the Catholic Church were between a man and a boy. In light of that, Big Brothers’ new policy seems irresponsible,” said Bill Maier, a vice president and psychologist-in-residence for Focus on the Family, based in Colorado Springs, Colo. “Research clearly shows that gay men are attracted to adolescent boys. … Many mainstream gay leaders continue to advocate the virtue of sex between men and boys.”
The debate over linkages between homosexuality and pedophilia is unsettled. Gay-rights advocates such as the Human Rights Campaign in Washington and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation cite research showing no relationship.
“Gay people can make just as good role models as anyone else,” said Wayne Besen of the Human Rights Campaign.
While some local affiliates may be concerned about the policy, others are not.
One affiliate is “having serious difficulties [and] it appears they will disassociate,” Radelet said. He declined to identify the organization.
The Wichita, Kan., affiliate used to have a policy against gay mentors, and says the policy was intended to protect kids with such mentors from being harassed by people opposed to homosexuality.
“People were very emotional about it,” said Nick Mork, CEO of the Kansas BBBS. Much of the opposition to accepting gays is steeped in religion and is not easily countered. “When you have people who have such deeply held beliefs and you go against them, it’s amazing what people will say and do,” Mork said. “There was too much jeopardy there” for kids to be placed with gays.
But Julie Cervantes-Salomons, executive director of the Heartland BBBS in Lincoln, Neb., said, “Children are not more likely to be molested by homosexuals. There are people who are pedophiles and there are people who are not. It doesn’t have anything to do with sexual preference.”
Opponents of the BBBS policy said the same rationale against pairing children with mentors of the opposite sex should be applied with homosexuals.
“If it makes no sense to appoint a man to mentor a young girl, it makes no sense to appoint a homosexual male with a young boy,” Sprigg said.
The BBBS does not require mentors to be of the same sex, although it usually happens that way, Radelet said. “Something like 99.99 percent of mothers with sons are looking for a big brother, and mothers with daughters are looking for a big sister,” he said. Parents can request a mentor of the opposite sex if they choose.
All potential volunteers are rigorously screened, Radelet said. “We are the recognized leaders in screening” potential mentors.
BBBS runs two mentoring programs: a site-based program that pairs mentors with children to meet at specific sites, and the more traditional community-based program that allows mentors more independence.
Parents can choose or reject mentors for any reason if their children are part of a community-based program. For the site-based program, parents generally sign a blanket authorization to let their children participate. They may not be aware if a mentor is gay.
The local affiliate may not know, either.
“We don’t always know what a person’s sexual preference is. We don’t think that’s an issue,” Cervantes-Salomons said.
About 220,000 children participated in BBBS in 2001: about 150,000 in community-based and 70,000 in site-based programs.
Groups opposed to the policy are concerned that parents may not know if their child’s site-based mentor is gay or not. “Clearly this violates parental rights and undermines parental values,” Maier said.
Radelet said site-based programs are more complicated. Mentors might be staff at a school that prohibits asking about sexual orientation, for example. In addition, the visits take place in public settings, with many programs using high school students to mentor elementary kids.
“It’s more structured and supervised, so the need for information for parents may not be necessary,” he said.
Regardless of whether there are any links to pedophilia, individuals opposed to the policy are not likely to change their minds.
“We’re going to take a lot of heat here,” said Mork from Wichita. “I think in some parts of the country it’s easier for people to understand [the policy] than in other parts of the country.”
Contact: Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, (215) 567-7000, www.bbbsa.org; Focus on the Family, (800) 232-6459, www.family.org.