Friday, September 20, 2002

Spokane

Gay issue quiet at Big Brothers
Complaints about mentor policy fade away

Kevin Taylor
Staff writer

The issue of mixing gays and kids can still be explosive.

For nearly a quarter-century, officials say, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America has had a national policy allowing gays and lesbians to become mentors for children from single-parent homes.

But when the organization reaffirmed that policy this summer there was a firestorm of publicity. The affiliate in Phoenix received 20,000 e-mail complaints in 24 hours. The chapter in Owensboro, Ky., voted to end its affiliati
on with Big Brothers Big Sisters over the policy.

But it's been much quieter in Spokane.

"We have not been barraged with e-mails and letters, except from a very select group that is very active," said Don Kaufman, general managing director for the Inland Northwest chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters.

In late August, after he came back from vacation, Kaufman's e-mail in-box was pinging with a flurry of complaints about the policy as well as some messages of support. The flurry quickly faded away, he said.

In the weeks since, one volunteer has quit the chapter, citing opposition to the nondiscrimination policy for gays and lesbians.

"We have three lesbian Big Sisters matched and one gay Big Brother who already has served three boys and is ready for rematching," Kaufman said. "So out of 250 volunteers we have four who are gay."

The chapter has more than four gay or lesbian single parents who seek big brothers or sisters for their children, he said.

One volunteer, who wishes to be known only as Ginny, joined BBBSA in 1994, just as she was retiring from the Air Force.

Her little sister of seven years -- who is just about to turn 14 -- doesn't know she is gay, Ginny said, because her mother never wanted the topic breached.

"My little's mom is cool with it. She has known all along, and we get along great. She would rather her daughter not know, and I respect that," Ginny said.

She said she and her little sister's mom talked about Ginny speaking to the newspaper. "My little's mom told me she thought I should do it." If the girl figures out her big sister is gay "then we will have that talk."

Ginny's experience illustrates the reality of the policy for Kaufman:

Gays and lesbians are welcome to apply to become volunteers. It doesn't mean they will become volunteers, he said. All applicants go through rigorous background checks and extensive interviews before they are accepted.

Parents are informed of a volunteer's sexual orientation. Parents are also told about a volunteer's drinking and smoking habits, religious preference -- any number of factors that may influence whether they accept or reject the volunteer.

BBBSA caseworkers check on the matches to monitor progress and listen for signs of trouble.

"What we want the public to understand is we will not discriminate upfront," Kaufman said. "But we don't just turn our matches loose in the community."

The local chapter has uncovered instances of inappropriate behavior by volunteers, Kaufman said. "We have interceded and they were dealt with by the authorities."

The numbers are small, he said, with an incident every few years, on average.

Initially, the local chapter decided to only match gay or lesbian volunteers with children older than 13, Kaufman said. Children are in the program only until they are 14.

That changed, Kaufman said, "when we had no good reason to give to a teacher who came to us to volunteer. We said she couldn't be involved with kids under 13, when she was teaching everyday in a classroom with 25 kids (younger than 13)."

To find a "little" for a gay volunteer, BBBSA staffers sit down with children and volunteers, "and make sure they know the orientation and are comfortable with each other."

Barbara Bailey, one of the caseworkers, said she has no gay parents on her client list, but has seen a change in attitude.

Bailey has been with the organization for nearly 26 years. "Parents are much more open. There has been a real shift over the years," she said.


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