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Michelangelo Signorile

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Is James Beard Rolling in His Grave Over Award from Anti-Gay Scouts?

Posted: 04/19/2012 8:47 am

This week we learned that a mom in the village of Bridgeport, Ohio is the latest target of the ugly and humiliating policy of the Boy Scouts of America, which bans gay scouts and gay scoutmasters. Jennifer Tyrrell was in tears on my radio program yesterday, describing how she was told, after serving for a year as den leader of her 7 year old son's Tiger Scouts pack, that she must resign because she is a lesbian. It broke the hearts of the kids as well as many of their parents, who know how much their boys love Tyrrell -- and are also now forced to teach their children about hate.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Susan Ungaro, sometimes judge on Bravo's "Top Chef" and president of the James Beard Foundation, which annually doles out the prestigious James Beard Awards to chefs, cookbook authors, restauranteurs and others in the food industry (the "Oscars of Food," as they're called), was accepting an award herself from none other than the Boy Scouts of America.

It's troubling enough that the leader of any group, let alone one that considers itself sophisticated and tasteful, would accept an award from an organization that does not allow "avowed homosexuals" as members because they are not "morally straight and clean in thought, word and deed." It is the Boy Scouts' choice, as a private entity, to ban gays -- the Supreme Court has upheld it -- just as the Augusta National Golf Club may legally ban women. That, however, surely doesn't make it right, nor does it mean that anyone must give it legitimacy by accepting an award from an organization that the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation notes is "one of the most only cultural institutions to categorically discriminate against LGBT Americans" and sends a "dangerous" message.

But in this case it's even more problematic, simply because of James Beard himself and what he stood for. Often called the father of American cuisine, Beard was a chef and cookbook author who mentored generations of food enthusiasts through much of the 20th century, right up until the time of his in 1985. He was also openly gay in a time when it was almost impossible to be so, writing in his memoir, "by the age of seven I knew I was gay." And Beard experienced the discrimination that Jennifer Tyrrell did at the hands of the Boy Scouts, booted out of Reeds College in his hometown of Portland in 1922 because of his homosexuality.

So how could the president of an organization bearing the name of a man who experienced anti-gay bigotry accept an award from an organization that promotes anti-gay bigotry?

I put the question to Ungaro through her p.r. rep, who tersely responded in an email, "Susan Ungaro accepted the award to support the dozens of New Jersey chefs who give of their time and resources year after year to raise money to send deserving at risk youth to camp."

What she's apparently referring to is the fact that the awards event itself, the Boy Scouts of America Hospitality and Food Dinner, is a fundraiser which includes contributions from New Jersey chefs for a silent auction and which benefits needy kids. It's a pretty lame excuse considering that there are many ways to support needy kids, as well as New Jersey chefs, without taking the Distinguished Citizen Award from a group that discriminates against some of those kids. What about the at risk kids, after all, who are gay but are rejected by the Boy Scouts?

It's possible that neither Ungaro nor any of her staff or p.r. team knew about the Boy Scouts' antigay policy, though it has received national media attention for years. I don't know her personally, but I can't imagine that a respected leader in the gay-dominated foodie world, whose own organization has celebrated gay culture, would knowingly legitimize a group that stigmatizes gays, just as I can't imagine her accepting an award from a group that bans blacks -- even if that group held a yearly fundraiser to benefit needy white kids.

I did put that question to Ungaro's rep in response to the statement she sent me -- Would she indeed take an award from a group that bans blacks? -- and I put another question to her: Will Ungaro now do the right thing and return this award to the Boy Scouts? I haven't yet received a response back.


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