Symbolic actions matter in quest for civil rights | April 5, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - April 5, 2013

Symbolic actions matter in quest for civil rights

As we await Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage and Boy Scout vote on membership policies, local actions can help demonstrate changing norms

In the 1960s, political and community leaders in Palo Alto were among those who stepped up to publicly advocate for federal and state fair-housing laws against red-lining and other forms of racial discrimination in housing.

It was bold and courageous, and it also reflected clear majority sentiment among Palo Altans. Similar actions across the nation helped demonstrate that it was time for the country to enact or repeal laws that would eliminate legalized racial discrimination.

But as these and other efforts have shown, when it comes to the expansion of civil rights to those who have been historically denied, change does not come easy, quickly or without advocacy.

It is no coincidence that today local governments and local Boy Scout councils across the country are grappling with how far the country is ready to go in granting equal rights to gays and lesbians, and Palo Alto is once again in a position to provide leadership, however symbolic. Like the civil rights debates of the 1960s, local actions can send powerful messages to state and federal legislators and judges about changing societal norms and expectations.

So while some in the community complain about the appropriateness of the City Council taking an hour of its meeting Monday to endorse same-sex marriage and approving the flying of the rainbow flag at City Hall, signifying this community's commitment to full rights for gays, we join with those who applaud the symbolism.

Joining other progressive communities in flying the flag is a quiet yet powerful way to show support for achieving the current generation's equivalent to eliminating racial discrimination. It required no investment of staff time and was efficiently and respectfully discussed Monday night and adopted on a unanimous vote of the six council members present at the meeting.

With 76 percent of Palo Alto voters having rejected Proposition 8 on the November 2008 state ballot, there can be no question that today, more than four years later, the overwhelming majority of city residents support the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Given the interest expressed by some Supreme Court justices on whether society is "ready" for gay marriage, it is entirely appropriate for local communities to convey their readiness and acceptance.

Meanwhile, the Boy Scouts of America is set to make a decision on the issue of gay membership at its upcoming national council meeting next month, and it has asked local councils around the country to weigh in.

In February the national council, consisting of 1,400 voting members from all over the U.S., put off a vote to allow more time to gauge sentiment from scouting families and their troops and councils.

Locally, the Pacific Skyline Council, which encompasses the nearly 8,000 scouts ages 7 to 20 on the Peninsula, is holding closed meetings to gather input from its member families. According to those attending a meeting last week at the Boy Scout offices at the Lucie Stern Community Center in Palo Alto, there was strong agreement that the national membership policy should be changed to remove any barriers to participation by gay youth or adult leaders.

The Boy Scouts nationally have had the equivalent of a "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding both youth membership and scout leaders, but clearly prohibit those who are public with their gay sexual preference. Pressure is mounting, however, for the national council to either abolish its membership policies against gay scouts entirely or, at a minimum, grant local councils the freedom to establish their own rules.

Interestingly, there is no record of how the national Boy Scout membership policy came to include a ban on gay membership, but it was part of a controversial evolution of the national organization taking more control away from local councils during the last few decades.

Complicating matters is that local Boy Scout troops are chartered by sponsoring organizations that are bringing their own pressure. Here in Palo Alto, for example, the Barron Park Association charters local Boy Scouts Troop 52 and some association members want the affiliation to end if the scouting membership rules are not changed.

Hopefully, the Pacific Skyline Council will be empowered by its member troops to send a strong message to the national leadership that discriminatory membership policies against gays must be repealed. The future of scouting, in this area at least, is at stake.

And let us hope that by mid-summer, both the Supreme Court and the Boy Scouts of America will have reached decisions that achieve new and historic civil rights for our gay and lesbian community members of all ages.