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Topics In the News
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Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 04/20/12
Last updated on: 04/21/12
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Susan Ungaro in 2009.

On April 16, 2012, Susan Ungaro, President of the James Beard Foundation, accepted the "Distinguished Citizen Award" from the Boy Scouts of America for her work with the Foundation in supporting culinary education. However, within hours of Michelangelo Signorile's pointing out the Boy Scouts' history of bigotry, Ungaro rescinded her acceptance of the award. The incident reveals something about the toxicity of the BSA's discriminatory policies and about the power of the gay blogosphere to call attention to them.

Ungaro, former editor of Family Circle and sometime judge on Bravo's Top Chefs television show, was honored by the Boy Scouts of America at a fundraiser in Jersey City, New Jersey for her work with the James Beard Foundation, which has, over the past 20 years, awarded nearly $4 million in financial aid to high school students and adults seeking a culinary school education. According to Jersey Journal's Adam Robb, Ungaro happily accepted the BSA's Distinguished Citizen Award.

However, on April 19, 2012, Michelangelo Signorile, who had earlier in the week interviewed on his SiriusXM radio show Jennifer Tyrrell, a lesbian mother who has been summarily dismissed as den leader of her son's Tiger Scouts pack, asked in The Huffington Post, where he serves as General Editor of "Gay Voices," whether James Beard might be rolling over in his grave over the news that Ungaro accepted an award from the Boy Scouts.

Signorile wrote, "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 this policy), 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 (GLAAD) notes is 'one of the only cultural institutions to categorically discriminate against LGBT Americans' and sends a 'dangerous' message."

"But in this case it's even more problematic," Signorile continued, "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 death in 1985. He was also openly gay in a time when it was almost impossible to be so, writing in his memoir, '[B]y 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 Reed College in his hometown of Portland in 1922 because of his homosexuality."

Signorile contacted Ungaro through her public relations representative, who replied in an e-mail as follows: "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."

Signorile characterized the explanation as "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. After all, what about the at-risk kids who are gay but are rejected by the Boy Scouts?"

Signorile further observed that though he does not know Ungaro personally, "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."

So he posed two other questions to Ungaro's publicist: 1) would she take an award from a group that bans African Americans?; and 2) "will Ungaro now do the right thing and return this award to the Boy Scouts?"

Within hours of the appearance of Signorile's article on Huffington Post, Ungaro announced that she was indeed rescinding her acceptance of the award.

She issued this statement: "While I support all the poverty and hunger-fighting programs of the Boy Scouts of America, including sending at-risk youth to camp, your report brought to my attention that accepting the Distinguished Citizen Award implied I support their anti-gay policy, which I absolutely do not. When I accepted the honor, I was focused on supporting the New Jersey chefs and restaurant community."

This story is particularly interesting not only because it illustrates the increasing toxicity of the Boy Scout's discriminatory practices among respectable people, at least when someone like Michelangelo Signorile points it out to them, but it also demonstrates the increasing power of the gay blogosphere.

Admittedly, Ungaro was in a particularly vulnerable position. Beard's homosexuality is well known and his own experience of discrimination added a level of unbearable irony to the fact that the president of a foundation named in his honor would accept an award from an organization that so openly discriminates against glbtq people.

Ungaro's quick capitulation, after an initial defense, shows her realization both that she had made a mistake and that any further attempt to justify her acceptance of the award would only make things worse, given the power of the blogosphere to spread the news so far and so fast.

The story also illustrates once again that although the Boys Scouts won a significant Supreme Court victory in 2000 that permits the organization to discriminate, they are losing the war in respectable public opinion. Indeed, the homophobia practiced by the leaders of the BSA has badly damaged the brand of a once-revered American institution.

In the video below, from 2009, Susan Ungaro discusses the work of the James Beard Foundation.

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