Although an uneasy consensus is forming in favor of gay equality, the toughest test is what that equality will mean for our kids. This week the U.S. Supreme Court will take that test when it hears oral arguments in the case of Boy Scouts of America v. James Dale. The ruling, expected by summer, should settle the question of whether the Boy Scouts have to admit openly gay men and boys.
The Scouts have fought gays several times before, going back to the '70s, and always won. But this is the first such case to reach the high court, and it comes after a unanimous lower-court ruling against the Scouts. If the gay activists pushing Dale's case win, they will have cracked one of America's most traditional fraternities, a group that receives strong support from conservatives. If the Scouts win, they will help activists on the right reinforce a crumbling heteros-only wall around key social institutions (marriage being the most fraught).
The case will also help decide how much legislators can advance gay equality. Eleven states have laws barring employers from firing workers for being gay, and at least eight more have considered such legislation this year. The Boy Scouts contend that hiring openly gay leaders would interfere with the Scouts' First Amendment right to express the view that homosexuality is wrong and would violate their First Amendment freedom to associate, or not, with whomever they please. They also warn that if they lose, all organizations that serve a specific group--they point to the N.A.A.C.P--would have to become all-inclusive.
Gay-activist attorneys say the presence of a few gays wouldn't keep Scout officials from maintaining anti-gay views, since the vast majority of scouting activities never involve discussions of sexuality or politics. They say the issue isn't so much a group's right to exclusivity--no one is arguing that the Ku Klux Klan must admit Jews--as it is whether a group like the Boy Scouts, which generally welcomes every boy, can claim that being anti-gay is part of its core values. (As a practical matter, the N.A.A.C.P isn't worried: it has filed a brief against the Scouts.)
But even if most scouts and their parents don't discuss homosexuality, some care deeply about it. Opponents of gay equality--not just Scout officials but also Fundamentalist Christian landlords who don't want gays to move in, and conservative charitable groups that don't want to serve gays--are increasingly using the First Amendment as a shield. At the heart of these conflicts is this question: If all Americans must eventually associate with gay people, even in a close-knit setting like a Scout troop, how will some continue to express their contrary moral views about gays?
James Dale, 29, walks into Florent, a hip French eatery near a predominantly gay neighborhood in Manhattan. "Hi, Jaaaaames," coos Bruce, the maitre d', as he leans over in his black leather pants to kiss Dale, who has become something of a gay celebrity because of his case. Later, as Dale slices into his medium-rare tuna steak and sips a glass of Chardonnay, he seems a world away from S'mores over a campfire.
But Dale used to love all that stuff back in Middletown, N.J., where he grew up and, at age 8, entered Pack 142 of the Cub Scouts. Then known as James Dick--he understandably had the name changed--he became a model scout, earning 30 merit badges as well as the coveted eagle scout rank. He was on a first-name basis with the older men who ran scouting locally, and he gladly gave speeches to civic groups extolling pinewood derbies and asking for donations. According to the rules, scouts stop being scouts at 18, but Dale quickly became an assistant scoutmaster.
Then he went to college at Rutgers, and it changed him. Dale, who had attended a military high school and voted for George Bush three months after his 18th birthday, got involved with left-wing campus groups, according to acquaintances. He became a vegetarian and wore combat boots. After he came out of the closet during his sophomore year, he was elected co-president of the campus gay group.
The men from the Monmouth County Boy Scout Council might never have known, since Dale didn't have much contact with them from college. But on July 8, 1990, the Newark daily newspaper ran an earnest article about the plight of "homosexual teenagers," of whom Dale was still one. He had spoken at a conference on why gay teens commit suicide at high rates, and his picture appeared, showing him gesticulating next to a lesbian fellow student.