TOGETHER the Levi Strauss jean company and the Boy Scouts might be seen to represent all that is manly and wholesome in America. No longer. The two are locked in combat over policy towards homosexuals in a battle that is spawning a chain reaction of boycotts and counter-boycotts and threatening the Scouts' funding.
At issue is the 'Three Gs' principle that has guided the Scouts' membership policy since its founding in America more than 80 years ago on the model of Lord Baden-Powell's scouting movement in Britain. That is to say everyone is welcome, provided they are not gay, godless or a girl.
The Scouts depend on private donations and this year some of their benefactors, Levi's among them, have begun to question whether they can support an organisation that formally excludes both homosexuals and atheists. Levi's and the Wells Fargo Corporation, both based in San Francisco, pulled their funding earlier this year.
The San Francisco division of America's monster charity, the United Way, meanwhile, has also suspended funding and other divisions around the country are considering similar action. Elsewhere, some schools have stopped giving the Scouts access to their facilities and students.
As the dispute widens, so it begins to reverberate ever more clearly through the presidential campaign, where so-called family values are the hot theme of the season. A group of Republican congressmen has rallied to the Scouts, urging a counter-boycott drive, notably against Levi's. In Texas, citizens are being urged to burn their Levi's jeans in the streets.
For now, the Scouts and their critics are in a stand-off that may never be overcome. The Scouts complain they are being asked to abandon values that have earned them the reputation as the standard bearer of innocence and virtue for all American families. Most parents, they say, would object to scout leaders who are homosexuals.
'We reflect what most American families want for their young people,' said Blake Lewis, a Scouts spokesman, yesterday. 'We have absolutely no intention in the future of abandoning our standards and values.'
But Levi Strauss also turns to the family-values debate to defend its position. 'One of the family values of this company is treating people who are different from you the same as you'd like to be treated,' a spokeswoman said. With many homosexual employees working in its headquarters, the company seems unlikely to relent.
Gay activists, meanwhile, have not been shy in pointing to recent biographical evidence that Lord Baden-Powell was himself a repressed homosexual, notably documented in the recently published work, The Boy-Man, about Baden-Powell by the British biographer, Tim Jeal.
In Congress, a Republican, Dana Rohrabacher, vowed last week to encourage a 'grassroots' counter-boycott of Levi Strauss and Wells Fargo in defence of the Scouts. 'Throughout Middle America in the next six months, people are going to be wearing a lot more Lees and Wranglers and a lot fewer Levi's,' he said.
His Texan colleage, Tom DeLay, has been more extreme: 'When Texans find out that the Levi's they have on go toward attacks on the Boy Scouts of America . . . they'll take off those Levi's and burn them in the streets.'
So far, the financial impact on the Scouts has been small, with the lost Levi's donation amounting only to dollars 80,000 (pounds 40,000) a year. According to Mr Lewis, such has been the indignation among the Scouts' 5.5 million members, that the level of individual contributions has risen. A general United Way boycott, however, could hurt the organisation badly.
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