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By Erin Sherbert
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When a white, middle-class, teenage boy from the suburbs grows his hair long, dyes it fire-engine red, and refuses to wash it in hopes of getting dreadlocks, there are reasonable explanations for such behavior: restlessness, rebellion, a search for identity. He is a suburban teenager, after all. And while most parents might hate the look, they can hope it's just a phase.
But the stakes are higher in the Cozza household. Their once clean-cut son, a Boy Scout who received the distinguished Eagle badge -- a Scout's highest honor -- is something of a national figure. He is Steven Cozza, the cute and precocious kid from Petaluma who spoke out against the Boy Scouts of America policy that excludes gays from its ranks. Wasn't it hypocritical, he told reporters from the New York Times to CBS News, that Scout law would tell its charges to be kind and friendly to all yet discriminate against gays? The 12-year-old became an instant media darling, invited to talk shows and speeches across the country. He made the Advocate's "25 Coolest Straight People" list, along with the likes of Christopher Reeve, Elizabeth Taylor, and Oprah Winfrey.
The image was irresistible -- a young boy challenging an all-American institution like the Boy Scouts on an issue as controversial as gay rights -- and it made great copy. But now Steven is a rebellious 15-year-old with technicolor hair, not to mention a pierced tongue and two earrings. His parents worry that makes for great copy, too.
"It's terrible," his mom, Jeanette, says. "People will think he's a punk rocker."
"I don't care; it's my body," protests Steven, who has taken to hanging out with the skateboard punks at school, and listening to the newest rapcore music by Papa Roach and Limp Bizkit. "If people are going to judge me for how I look, that just shows how they'll grasp at anything. What are they going to say? "Oh, no, he's out to destroy the Boy Scouts -- look at his red hair!'"
"Absolutely," argues Steven's dad, Scott, who has at least as much invested in the Boy Scout protest as his son. He was expelled as a leader of Steven's troop for publicly challenging the gay ban and proposing that the Scouts march in San Francisco's Gay Pride Parade. Scott was appalled that gay kids were being denied the benefits of Scouting, and he encouraged Steven to speak out, to teach his son a lesson in civics and tolerance. Scott organized Steven's petition drive at a Petaluma grocery store, which generated so much media attention that it launched their efforts into a national campaign. He also wrote Steven's stump speeches, as father and son traveled to places like New York and Washington, D.C., to join marches and lobby politicians. And it was Scott who planned a major protest rally at the Scouts' Dallas-area headquarters, where his son was scheduled to deliver a 55,000-signature petition last month.
So when Steven decided to adopt his radical new look -- right before his trip to Dallas -- his parents had good reason to be upset. He seemed to have forgotten that he was still a very visible spokesperson in a highly charged campaign.
"I tried to calm myself down," Scott says of his reaction to his son's makeover. "I know he is trying to find out who he is, and I don't want to shame him." But that was hardly the sentiment reflected in his first words to Steven: "What were you thinking? If you go looking like that, you're putting a gun to your head and pulling the trigger!"
In the end, Steven and his dad compromised: Steven wore a baseball cap for three days in Dallas. "It made me mad I had to wear a hat, but my dad has a point. It doesn't help me in taking this stand," he says. "I should feel more pressure, but I don't. And I shouldn't have my ears pierced, but I'm just being myself."
At first glance, there is nothing very extraordinary about the Cozzas. They look like a typical suburban family: Scott and Jeanette, married 23 years; their teenage kids, Steven and Anne; and dog Teddy. But there is something that sets them apart. It is the cause. It lives with them like another member of the household, an unexpected child that requires much care and attention, and upsets the family routine. The cause is loved, but tiring, and at times resented.
The cause has also grown and changed, as have the Cozza children, which has put some strain in their home. As a 12-year-old celebrity, Steven challenged the gay ban and worked on his Scouting service projects with equal fervor. He happily remained a Scout, earning merit badges for things like citizenship and the environment. He was careful to carry his uniform on a pole instead of wearing it when he spoke with his dad at public protests, and his diligence paid off with an Eagle award. But soon after that milestone, he quit Scouting. He had been drawn to seemingly more relevant teenage pursuits like competitive sports and girls.