A Boy Scout No More

Since he was 12, Steven Cozza has led a crusade against the Scouts' anti-gay policies. What will happen now that he's grown up to discover sports and girls?

In a year when the Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts have a constitutional right to exclude gays and Steven Cozza started high school, it would appear the cause might have good reason to stall. Yet Steven's dad has mobilized even more vigorously to keep it alive. The family's mission continues, but life is more complicated for the Cozzas these days, and the conflicts more apparent: Scott's struggle to balance the needs of his family with those of the cause, Steven's need to find his own way, and a family's attempt to reconcile a father's passion with a son's growing up.

The cause began, innocently enough, almost 10 years ago when a neighbor in the Cozzas' Petaluma subdivision recruited Steven and his dad to the Boy Scouts. A local troop was looking for new members, and 6-year-old Steven seemed like a perfect candidate. So did his dad. The Cozza family was always packing up to go camping. Scott often took neighborhood kids fishing, and he coached a Little League team. Steven and his older sister, Anne, raised chickens in the back yard that regularly won blue ribbons at the fair.

Scott and Jeanette were born in the city but always wanted to enjoy a more rural life where they could better raise a family. So after marrying in 1977, they moved to Petaluma, a still largely agricultural area 40 miles north of San Francisco surrounded by dairy farms and hayfields. The small town of 48,000 creates a Rockwellian image for itself with a quaint Main Street and an annual "Butter and Egg Day" parade. The politics and social mores there are conservative, and the Cozzas seemed to fit in. Scott and Jeanette both came from strict Italian families and Catholic schools. She was a kindergarten teacher and he was a hospital social worker, a career choice that came after contemplating missionary work and the priesthood.

But as young adults in San Francisco in the 1970s, Scott and Jeanette witnessed tremendous societal change. Jeanette was a cashier at the Castro's Safeway market during the height of the gay renaissance, in the neighborhood that defined it. She remembers giggling with her co-workers as they learned the sexual code assigned to the various-colored bandannas men would hang from their back pockets at the time. "All my customers were gay; they were my friends," Jeanette says. "It didn't scare me. I became more familiar with the gay community than any other ethnic group in the city."

Scott's interaction with gay people was much more personal and intense. When the AIDS crisis hit in the early 1980s, the caseload at San Francisco General Hospital required the straight counselor to do full-time AIDS work. The experience endeared him to his clients and shaped his views as a gay rights advocate. Scott joined PFLAG -- Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays -- and volunteered with his wife and kids at an AIDS food bank. "Our children have never been sheltered," Jeanette says. "How many 5-year-olds from Petaluma have walked in the Gay Pride Parade?"

Indeed, at a young age Anne and Steven were exposed to many gay friends of their parents who were invited into their home. At a youth church camp, Steven's favorite counselor happened to be a gay man who became the boy's role model.

From the ages of 6 to 10, Steven rose through the Scouting ranks from Tiger Cub to Webelo, while his dad took over as den leader. "At first I vaguely knew what the Boy Scouts were, but their program turned out to be pretty cool," Scott says. "It stressed outdoor stuff, taught kids self-esteem, how to get along, and built confidence. Plus I could do things with Steven. We could be buddies."

At 11, Steven would be allowed to become a full-fledged Boy Scout. He couldn't wait. But after a troop meeting at his house, a few months shy of his 11th birthday, a parent approached his dad in the kitchen. "For someone who works with AIDS patients, I'm surprised you're working with the Boy Scouts," the mother told a perplexed Scott. "Didn't you know they ban homosexuals?"

Scott had no idea. He was enraged at the thought, and his first instinct was to pull Steven out. But his son loved Scouting so much. That Steven devoured every word in the Scouting handbook, and relished its projects and rewards, weighed heavily on his parents. Early on, Steven had been diagnosed with a learning disability. Though bright and articulate, he had trouble reading and lagged behind others his age. In school, kids teased Steven. But in the Scouts, Steven was encouraged by his peers to succeed, which helped him to improve at school.

Jeanette insisted Steven stay in the Scouts. Scott knew it was the best thing for his son, yet his conscience bothered him. "I was torn to be part of an organization that discriminates," he says. "I didn't join Scouting to start a national campaign, but we couldn't turn our backs on our gay friends. Or gay kids."

More than anything, Steven wanted someday to be an Eagle Scout. So he eagerly took on each project in the long and involved process. One early hurdle -- merit badge No. 4 -- was a turning point. The exercise in citizenship required that he write a letter to a political figure and address any national issue. It was an intimidating assignment for a 12-year-old, and Steven asked his dad for help. Scott suggested that Steven raise the topic of the gay ban.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.