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Big trouble for Big Brothers

Has a crusade for kids become a crusade against gays?



Controversy can be a great tool for making money. It can sell movie tickets, turn sluggish albums into platinum records, and put books on The New York Times best-seller list. But for organizations that thrive on broad-based support, like Big Brothers Big Sisters of America [BBBSA], controversy can undermine crucial fundraising efforts.

That may be the reason behind local BBBSA executive director Danette Rector’s reticence to discuss the organization’s national policy requiring that its mentoring programs not discriminate against gays and lesbians.

Rector speaks with the diplomacy of someone who knows that being a pawn in a political melee can only hurt the kids she works so hard to help. While Rector openly and articulately discusses fundraising snarls, the chronic search for dedicated volunteers and the program’s efficacy in keeping kids out of trouble, when asked about the philosophy behind the policy she doesn’t have much to say.

“It’s a national issue,” says Rector. “I can’t tell you much.”

The controversy over whether or not to include gays and lesbians in the organization garnered a lot attention last month when a group of Republican congressmen put BBBSA in their crosshairs. The lawmakers asked President Bush and wife Laura—both honorary co-chairpersons of the organization—to pressure BBBSA to abandon its policy of non-discrimination. The nine congressmen, spearheaded by Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), say the national anti-discrimination rule forces local Big Brothers Big Sisters affiliates to welcome gay and lesbian mentors while ignoring parents’ input.

In a letter to the President and First Lady, Tancredo and the other legislators wrote: “Thousands of parents throughout the country have expressed alarm and concern with the promulgation of this new standard…Many of these kids are emotionally fragile and desperate for attention and affirmation from an adult of their own gender. They have a critical need for healthy, same-sex, adult role models.”

When individuals apply to become a Big Brother or Big Sister, they undergo an extensive interviewing and screening process. The process requires applicants to reveal their sexual orientation.

“What we are trying to do is get a good picture of whom this individual is,” says Rector. “But of course no volunteer in our program is matched with any child in our program unless it’s with the parents’ approval. The parents always have the final say.”

While this is true in BBBSA’s community-based program—the dominant part of the organization—parental involvement lessens in the school-based program. In the school program, parents sign permission slips allowing their child to participate, and the parent doesn’t necessarily meet with their child’s Big Brother or Big Sister. “The reason for this is that in the schools they are always supervised and there are case managers in the schools that run the programs,” says Rector.

But Tancredo and his peers still take offense.

“Public school children cannot take an aspirin without their parents’ knowledge—yet under this new policy, they could potentially be matched with homosexual mentors without parental notification or consent,” Tancredo says.

Some groups, like the Human Rights Campaign, consider the congressmen’s worries fabricated. The letter to the President says that Big Brothers Big Sisters has ignored both “psychological research and common sense.” But his summer, in the wake of the BBBSA mandate and the Catholic Church scandals, USA Today and The Washington Post reported that researchers who study sexual disorders say that homosexuality is not related to pedophilia. The Post even reported that “behavioral scientists are virtually unanimous in their emphatic rejection of a linkage between homosexuality and child sexual abuse.”

University of Montana psychology professor and director of clinical training Christine Fiore agrees with the newspapers’ conclusions.

“There is no evidence that someone who is homosexual is more likely to sexually abuse children that someone who is not,” says Fiore.

Still, Tancredo and his fellow congressmen ignore experts and equate pedophilia with homosexuality. The congressman references an Ohio case where a Big Brothers volunteer was charged with raping the 12-year-old boy he was supposed to be mentoring, but doesn’t mention how the case might relate to gay Big Brothers or lesbian Big Sisters.

Regardless of whether the congressmen’s campaign is based on research, the issue is something the nine Republicans show no signs of forgetting. Even though Bush has yet to answer the letter, a Tancredo aide says the representative has no plans to back off.

If the effort is successful and BBBSA were to ban gay and lesbian members, Rector’s fundraising job would become near impossible.

“Our national organization says we can’t discriminate because nationally, any federal money that we can get has to go to a non-discriminatory program,” says Rector.

Without federal grants, the Missoula Big Brothers Big Sisters would lose an essential funding source. The local affiliate, which matches 300 to 350 children a year with volunteers, has already been cut from the state Department of Public Health and Human Services budget—a loss of $21,000. The non-profit stands to lose $40,000 more next year when they aren’t included in the budget.

“That’s a big hit for us locally because we are going to have to find a way to raise at least $40,000 more for our program,” says Rector. “There is a lot of competition out there and money is tight. There are so many wonderful organizations that are in need of money like Big Brothers and Big Sisters. It’s really tough.”

If Missoulians become embroiled in Tancredo’s crusade and grow worried about what psychologists and human rights groups agree is a non-issue, the results could be disastrous. For example, if the local affiliate were forced to cut a single case manager position, as many as 130 kids could be affected.

“We’re concerned because we have already asked so much of our community,” says Rector. “We really don’t want to have to lose services.”

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