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CNN AMERICAN MORNING WITH PAULA ZAHN

Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America Under Fire

Aired August 21, 2002 - 08:47   ET

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: The mentoring organization Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America under fire this morning. The group just made it official. A 25-year-old practice of not discriminating against gay and lesbian mentors, and that has certainly drawn the ire of some conservative groups, and mixed reaction from the public. Here's a sample now.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Any human being should be able to, whether they're gay, straight, black, white. I don't think that should make a difference. I think every human being has something to give.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Children should have their own choice whether they want to be gay or not, not want to be influenced by an adult. I wouldn't want them mentoring mine, because my son may come home and say, dad, I want to be gay, my teacher says it is OK.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If someone objects to it, they cannot match their child with that person, but I don't think they should be excluded.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HEMMER: Steven Friess joins us from Las Vegas this morning. He's been a mentor for the past six years, he's a journalist and he's gay.

Steven, good morning to you.

STEVEN FRIESS, GAY BIG BROTHER:: Good morning.

HEMMER: Why did you do this program?

FRIESS: We moved to Las Vegas six years ago from Chicago, and we wanted to get involved with the community, and between my partner and I, we have nine nephews and nieces, we love children and we wanted to get involved.

HEMMER: What is your relationship like with the young boy, I guess. He's age 12, is that right? What's your relationship like?

FRIESS: It's fantastic. We swim, we hang out, we do homework, we do all kinds of things that the kid would like to do with an older friend.

HEMMER: Does he know, or have you talked about your sexual affiliation, or is that something you never bring up?

FRIESS: We never brought it up in the beginning. Since I'm in a partnership and my partner also has a little brother, and the two of them have become friends, because we hang out together, he is aware. And his parents -- his mother and his grandmother did address the issue with him. But when we started our mentorship, we made a very conscience effort not to bring it up or be the one to deal with the parent's ability to deal with it with their child.

HEMMER: Hey, Steve, what did the parents say, the grandmother and the mother?

FRIESS: They never cared at all. In fact, my little brother's grandmother one time scolded me for not telling my partner on the telephone that I loved him, because she said that she always tells her husband that before she hangs up the phone. They're very positive people.

HEMMER: What do you say, Steve, to those who say this should not be, and they have objections to it?

FRIESS: I actually don't think it's any of their business. The fact of the matter is these are people who believe when they argue for things like school vouchers, that parents should be allowed to raise their children as they wish. And yet here we have a situation where the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program allows the parents to veto the gay mentors if they want to. So if these parents are giving their children gay mentors, it's their business; they've made that decision.

HEMMER: Do you see, though, how some people could have a problem with it?

FRIESS: No, I don't understand that at all.

HEMMER: Steve, thank you for your story. Steven, Friess. That's the setup again from Las Vegas, his point of view. The policy, we mentioned the subject of intense debate.

From Philly now, Mac Koonce, executive vice president of Big Brothers and Big Sisters, and also in Columbus, Mississippi, Tim Wildmon of the American Family Association, which opposed the policy.

Gentlemen, good morning to you.

Tim, we just heard Steve's story. Your take on this? You disagree with it. Give us your position.

TIM WILDMON, AMERICAN FAMILY ASSOC.: We just think it's a tragedy. I mean, you have a -- one of the premier mentoring organizations in America now instructing all 490 of its affiliates that it must pair homosexual men with young, impressionable boys from fatherless homes, and we just don't think that's a good idea whatsoever.

HEMMER: Tim, why is that a bad idea? WILDMON: I think that males need, young boys need -- from fatherless homes need instruction from heterosexual men. They need to grow up to be normal and to be accepted in society. We think homosexuality is unnatural and an unhealthy lifestyle, and we don't believe that young boys should be directed down that path.

HEMMER: Tim, I want you be a bit more specific for me, if you could. What are you worried about?

WILDMON: Well, we're worried about unhealthy relationships. We see what has happened today, unfortunately, in the Catholic Church. I mean, you're talking about young boys who are going on camping trips, who are going out on swimming trips, who are going out to ballgames, a very close, intimate relationship, and in the same way, I would assume, that the Big Sisters and the Big Brothers organization does not allow for adult men to mentor 12-year-old young girls, because of the problems that might arise there. I don't believe you should pair a man with a young boy when he's sexually attracted to males.

HEMMER: Listen, I got your position, well taken. Mac, what about that? Legitimate concerns here?

MAC KOONCE, BIG BROTHERS/BIG SISTERS: We certainly don't think so, Bill. When you really look at the facts, we're a 98-year-old organization, we've been operating with this approach for 25 years or more, we are the leading youth mentoring organization, our employees are incredibly dedicated, and motivated to serve this nation's children, and we have one of the few, proven solutions for at-risk children in the United States. And that particular process that I talked about, that's been in place for 25 years, has three elements that address all of these concerns. It starts with parental preference. We honor the right to choose for the parents...

HEMMER: You're saying if the parent comes in and has a problem with that, you'll listen to them and obey them? How can you ensure parents if indeed they're getting supervision for the young boy or young girl, that indeed they're getting it from the people they feel are more appropriate?

KOONCE: Because, again, they can approve. And because we screen all of the applicants with an incredibly efficient process. We -- on an ongoing basis, we monitor the match, we measure the outcomes, so we know this works. This is the way our system has worked for a long time. It's proven, and all parties give us incredibly high ratings, especially the parents. The parents that bring their children to Big Brothers and Big Sisters give us the highest ratings of any of the parties involved. There are no issues.

HEMMER: What some may say from the gay community is, why did it take 25 years to make it official?

WILDMON: Bill it didn't take 25 years. For over 480 of our 490 affiliates, there is no change. What just occurred was our membership organization voted to say, we want this to be imposed on us as a standard. It did not take 25 years, we've been doing this for a long time, and now we're going to do it even more consistently. HEMMER: I'm almost out of time. Tim, I want a final word from you. I know you've launched this campaign. Have you met with any success so far against Big Brothers/Big Sisters?

WILDMON: They're a private organization, they're free to do what they want to, their members and vote of directors can vote to make policy; however, you know, these are the same pressure organizations that are trying to attack the Boy Scouts of America. All across the country, they're trying to socially revolutionize our society to accept male and male marriage, for instance, and female and female marriage, as normal and acceptable, and they're just -- I believe a majority of Americans who are unwilling to accept that as normal and acceptable.

HEMMER: We're out of time. Tim Wildmon, Mac Koonce, thank for being with us, and again, our thanks to Steven Friess earlier in Las Vegas. Thank you, men.

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