In the United States, it is an issue that has roiled the national Boy Scout convention, divided churches and led to numerous lawsuits, including one now before the Supreme Court: Should homosexuals be allowed to participate in the Boy Scouts?
But in Canada, the prospect that the first gay scout troop will soon hold its first meeting here in Toronto has barely raised an eyebrow.
No petitions. No court battles. Not even a meeting of the Scouts Canada board of directors. In fact, according to a spokesman, the only reason that national headquarters got involved at all was because of media inquiries from the United States and the prospect that a fundamentalist preacher from Kansas would lead a protest today.
The preacher never showed up--nor did any protesters. The only ones who did show up were gay rights supporters.
"In Canada, we are secure enough in our own identities and lifestyles that we don't have to try to impose them on others," Amelia Golden, a lawyer with the League of Human Rights of B'nai B'rith of Canada, told the small gathering as an early snow began to fall.
The 129th Toronto Scouting Group is the brainchild of Bonte Minnema, a gay University of Toronto senior who was a scout until he was 14, earning the rank of Chief Scout, the equivalent of the American Eagle Scout. He persuaded the Christos Metropolitan Community Church, one of Toronto's two gay churches, to sponsor the troop and its pastor, Rev. Susan Mabey, to serve as the troop leader.
And not only will this Boy Scout troop be gay; it looks to be half female, as well, under the coeducational policy adopted by Scouts Canada in 1998. According to Minnema, of the 12 people who have signed up for the troop, seven are lesbians. Many are also students at local universities or at a program for gay students run by an alternative high school in downtown Toronto. All are between the ages of 18 and 26, and are in a category of scouting that does not have a counterpart in the United States.
Minnema said he expects his troop will do all the things other troops do--go camping, attend scouting jamborees, perform community service projects. The point of a gay troop, he said, is that it helps challenge the traditional stereotypes about gays and provides another support group at a particularly vulnerable time, when many are first acknowledging their sexual orientation.
In Ottawa, Scouts Canada headquarters reported receiving only about a dozen calls about the new troop. Spokesman Andy McLaughlin said the organization would welcome other applications, including for troops for youths from 14 to 17.
It's all quite a contrast to the United States, where gays are not eligible to participate in the Boy Scouts and girls can join only in programs for older children.
At the headquarters of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) in Irving, Tex., spokesman Greg Shields said allowing gays to participate is inconsistent with the organization's mission to promote traditional family values and "duty to God" as well as the scout's pledge to be "morally straight" and "clean."
Over the years, said Shields, the issue of gay scouts hasn't come up much, in part because most U.S. programs end by the time boys reach age 18. But the policy of banning gay men from serving as troop leaders, he said, has been legally challenged in a number of states, including the District. When the New Jersey Supreme Court struck down the ban this summer, the BSA appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Even as it defends its no-gays policy in court, however, the BSA has been meeting increased resistance from its own membership, which ordered a review of the issue at its most recent national convention. And the United Methodist Church, which sponsors 15 percent of the troops in the United States, is deeply split over the issue, with the General Board of Church and Society having adopted a statement of "non-support" of the Boy Scouts because of its refusal to welcome gays.
Here in Canada, experts said the easy acceptance of gay scouting reflects several factors, including the smaller role religion plays in politics and daily life and the smaller size and influence of fundamentalist religions. For the same reason, issues like abortion or school prayer have never become cutting issues in Canadian politics.
But others noted that while Canada may be a more tolerant country, it is not necessarily more accepting.
Neil Nevitte, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said public opinion polls show that Canadians and Americans have similar levels of discomfort and disapproval about homosexuality. The difference, he said, is that while Americans act on those impulses publicly, and try to impose their beliefs on others, Canadians are more private about their views and inclined to take a live-and-let-live attitude.