By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Howard Cole
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Leif Haven
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.
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.
At 12, Steven didn't really understand what it meant to be gay and why the Scouts were so averse to gay people serving in their ranks. Scott tried to explain to his son that Scouting was not open to diversity, something everyone should be. "What's diversity?" Steven asked.
Then Scott put it this way: "Your favorite counselor at church camp can never be a Boy Scout."
"Because there are some people who are a little different from us that the Scouts don't like. Robert is gay, and the Scouts do not let gay people join."
"But Robert would be a great Boy Scout!"
Steven was upset. He wrote his citizenship letter to Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, asking how they could help him change the Boy Scouts policy. Steven received supportive form letters in response but was disappointed neither politician specifically answered his question.
People who feel ignored, Scott told his son, can better make themselves heard using their right to assembly and protest. A petition drive, for example, would show he was not alone in his views. As motivated to challenge Scout policy as Scott was, he worried Steven wouldn't want to take things to the next level. The adolescent was already becoming less inclined to listen to his father. "He was getting the attitude that if I said it was sunny out, he'd say the opposite," Scott recalls. "It was frustrating as hell, but I understood. When I brought up the petition, I expected him to say, "No way!' like with everything else I ever suggested."
Scott was also concerned about how a full-blown petition drive might look: No 12-year-old organizes such a thing on his own. "Part of my advocacy is me working through my own issues of hurt and pain," says Scott, whose mother abandoned him and his brother when they were young. He feels a certain empathy with the rejection gay kids often experience. "It could be viewed that I am doing this for my own ego. Some of it is; that's human. But I try to keep that in check as much as I can. I never saw myself using Steven for my own agenda. Not consciously, anyway."
Steven was game. Scott set up a petition drive on a weekend afternoon outside the Lucky's grocery store in Petaluma. He also arranged a press conference afterward, and Steven was a hit. Bay Area media ran with it, and the wire picked up the story, sending it nationwide. Locally, though, the reaction was much less welcoming. When Scott invited Steven's Scout troop to march with them in the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade, no one accepted. "A lot of people got pissed I would even suggest such a thing. Some were opposed for religious reasons," he says. "The parents really raked me over the coals for that one, saying, "How can you do that to your kid?'"
Scott was ejected from Troop 74, but didn't forsake Scouting. He made allies with other Bay Area adults, both gay and straight, who loved Scouting but wanted the gay ban dropped. They formed Scouting for All. Steven was allowed to stay in his troop even though he continued to speak out under his father's direction. In effect, he was being used by Scouting for All, playing an integral role in the group's strategy. "The opposition was softened by Steve," Scott says. "He's just a kid, and what possible agenda can he have? He disarms people. It's hard to go after and hate a child who speaks the truth."
Steven loved the attention. Not only was he in the paper and on the local news, he was a favorite guest on talk radio and was getting booked on national television programs like the Today show and Good Morning America. He was also in demand on the lecture and awards circuit. The ACLU gave Steven its youth activist award. New York City's Police Department honored him with a badge of courage. The Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest and most powerful gay lobby group, invited him to speak at last April's Millennium March on Washington.
Back in Petaluma, Steven braced for certain teasing at school. But the ostracism wasn't as bad as he expected. By junior high, the in-crowd already had been welcoming him, mainly for his prowess on the sports field. He was developing early for his age and stood out on the soccer, wrestling, track, and cross-country teams. And he was far from the introverted, nerdy type one might expect of a person who stays with the Boy Scouts into his teenage years. Steven was an outgoing, attractive, and popular kid who gave Scouting a good name and image. He made it look cool. In his freshman year of high school, he was voted homecoming king. Most everyone seemed to like him, especially the girls. Some of the boys made fun of his cause, calling him gay by association, but as Steven says, "things got better when I got on TV."
Steven was getting hundreds of e-mails a week from former and current Boy Scouts who offered their support. Scouting for All was granted nonprofit status, and people began to send in donations. Scott, who had spent thousands of dollars from his family's savings on the cause, could now get his $700-a-month phone bills reimbursed. Scouting for All set up a national board of directors to oversee volunteer operations in four regional districts. Scott became the group's president and Steven its spokesperson.
"Here an issue came right in our face, and we could've easily turned away and let it go by. I'm proud we didn't," Scott says. "You raise and teach your kids, do things with them, take them fishing and to baseball games. It just so happens Scouting for All is one of the other things we do together. Who says we can't fish and be activists, too?"
In a Washington, D.C., hotel room, Scott coaches his son the night before the Millennium March. A few hundred thousand people are expected to gather on the nation's Mall between the Capitol building and the Lincoln Memorial on a late spring Sunday to rally for equal rights for gays. Steven has been invited to address the crowd, his remarks to be televised live on C-SPAN. Scott plays videotapes of old Martin Luther King speeches.
"Remember to look up, into the crowd. Try not to read your notes so much."
But Steven catches King doing otherwise: "See, Dad, he looks at his notes!"
Next they argue about gesturing. Scott wants Steven to thrust his arm in the air and make a fist at the conclusion of his speech. Steven says that looks stupid.
Steven is also uncomfortable with the latest draft of his speech because it does not contain his own words. The usual drill has Steven mention what he'd like to say, while his dad actually writes the speech. Now Steven finds this system suspect and wonders if it is right. Scott tells him that some of his biggest heroes -- John and Robert Kennedy, and King -- all had speechwriters. Still, Steven insists he write his own this time.
Dad agrees, if Steven promises to raise his arm. Scott tells his son that symbols can be stronger than words. "Think of it as a call for people to unite, that we're standing up for kids' rights and gay rights and that we'll press on." Steven rolls his eyes.
Scott is adamant about the arm. In addition to regular media coverage, a documentary about the Cozzas, Scout's Honor, is being produced by the Independent Television Service for a national PBS audience. Scott envisions his son's speech before thousands as a great climax to the film. "The picture freezes with his hand raised while the credits go by," he says, playing director for a moment. "It's an image no one would forget."
The march is running long at Steven's appointed time, and organizers are trying to edit the speakers. They tell the 15-year-old to just go up and say his name and what group he is from. "No way!" Steven thinks to himself. "I didn't come all this way for nothing. I have things to say." Alone on the stage, facing a crowd of tens of thousands, Steven makes a snap decision: throw out the prepared speech and just say what he remembers from it, what he believes matters most.
"As Martin Luther King said, we must not allow any forces to make us feel like we don't count," Steven says clearly and boldly, in his deepening voice. He is growing tall and strong and has a confident presence onstage. He looks into the sea of people gathered around the Washington Monument. His hair only has bleach-blond tips for now, his body free of piercings for a few more months. "Be proud of who you are despite what the Boy Scouts say!"
At that, his clenched fist flies into the air and the crowd cheers.
Back home in Petaluma, Steven watches a tape of himself speaking at the march and likes what he sees. "I was more proud and loud," he says. "I felt stronger about the issue."
He compares his most recent performance to tapes that are now a few years old, when he spoke publicly at 12 and 13.
"Wow, I was just saying words back then," he says. "Now the words mean something."
With two teenagers home on summer vacation, the phone rings all day. Anne and Steven are out, so it's up to Mom to take down the urgent messages of high school gossip and romance -- and fend off the girls after Steven. Between calls, Jeanette tries to clean her trilevel tract home with the nicely decorated lawn and basketball hoop next to the two-car garage. Mornings are chaotic for the Cozza family. Scott was in his Honda at dawn to inch across the Golden Gate Bridge on his commute to San Francisco. Anne left behind a mess as she packed to go camping with her boyfriend. Steven, who is training for the mountain biking team, was already peddling his way to Mount Tamalpais, hoping he'll be the strongest sophomore.
Jeanette impatiently waits for her son to get back so she can take him to a doctor's appointment. He pulled a muscle a few days earlier but continues to hit the trails. Sometimes, Jeanette wishes she could strangle him.
"He'd like to think it's true when people call him a star, but believe me, he's no god," she says. "This kid is the slob of the world and moans about doing anything around the house. You can't tell him anything -- what to do, how to dress. He knows all. He's a very typical teenager."
Posters of bikini-clad women hang on his bedroom wall. Cycling magazines are on the floor, along with a copy of Maxim, the "For Men" journal that always has a buxom model on the cover and a tag line announcing its contents -- "Sex, Sports, Beer" -- in order of importance. As a freshman last year, Steven went to a school dance with two friends who were suspended for showing up drunk. "I know all kids get into trouble. If not this time, maybe next time," Jeanette says. "I just have to trust him."
The doorbell suddenly buzzes, putting the Cozzas' giant Australian shepherd into a spastic fit. Jeanette tries to hold back her dog and let in the guests she forgot were coming. Over Teddy's piercing yelps, the phone rings again. Someone wants to know if Steven can go to the X Games. "Not today," she tells them. "He's already late for something else." Hanging up, she lets out a mock "Calgon moment" scream. The visitors laugh. The film crew in her living room has come to capture such gems of mundane suburban life for the PBS documentary they are making about the Cozza family.
"You have to wonder what's going on and ask, "Can this be real?' Yes, I was incredulous at first," says director Tom Shepard, who has followed the Cozzas for more than two years. "When it comes to parental involvement, you think science fairs and Star Search, not social justice. But I was impressed at how ordinary these people were, and yet they are doing something truly extraordinary -- something Steven very much wants to be part of. Does that make him a superkid? No. He's a kid who mouths off to his parents, especially his father, and who is a real, normal, rough-and-tumble teenage boy."
Jeanette offers the film crew a drink as they shield the camera and boom microphone from the dog. She is used to the spotlight by now, though she wouldn't mind if the picket signs cluttering her living room were gone. She would definitely like it if the Scouts changed their policy. Maybe her family could finally return to a regular life. But that doesn't seem likely.
Some of their Petaluma neighbors and various parents in Steven's Scout troop have shunned the Cozzas. And homophobic strangers from all parts of the country have left vitriolic answering machine messages and e-mails. Death threats and security consultations with the FBI have erased any hopes of a true return to normalcy for the Cozzas.
"At times I have felt this cause is consuming my family," Jeanette says. "I am the one who is the balance. I put the brakes on to protect Steven. Scott gets us involved in lots of activities -- some we want to do and some we don't. He would just wear us out if he had his druthers."
Scott is a tireless organizer who will come home from a full day of work and spend as many hours on the computer in the basement planning the cause's next move. It is not uncommon for him to answer e-mails until 2 in the morning and be up for work at 6.
"He's so dedicated, but it can be annoying," says Anne, who paged her dad at work recently to tell him she loved him because they hadn't crossed paths in several days. "I hope it will end soon; it will be nice to have some closure to it. For once it won't always be there."
Scott concedes Scouting for All has taken a toll on his family. "Maybe I take on more than I should. When my kids say I'm always on the computer, it hurts me, but it's the truth. And what hurts the most is that my relationship with my wife has been neglected. I am aware of it, and I'm working to make things better."
Finally, Steven arrives out of breath and sweaty from his early morning ride. He carries his bike to his room, nodding to the camera crew and ignoring his mom's pleas to hurry up. Just then his dad pulls into the driveway. He is home early to prepare for the protest in Dallas he and his son will travel to tomorrow. Immediately he heads to the basement, turns on the computer, and returns a call from a producer of the Today show.
Steven hears his mom honking the car horn in the driveway. He grabs a bowl of ice cream to take with him but stops for a moment at the top of the basement stairs and watches his dad work the phone. He shakes his head, relieved that he doesn't have to do all the organizing required to keep the cause alive. "Thank God," he says. "I'd have no life."
A blinding flash meets Steven's eyes as soon as he walks off the plane in Dallas. A photographer is at the gate, and Steven is annoyed. During the flight, he could only think about the big bike race he should be training for. His coach was not happy that he had to spend three days away from the trails, which bothers Steven.
"There was a camera in my face, and I was tired and not in the mood. I was like, "Just let me go back to California,'" he says. "But my dad was so happy to get the publicity. He's really into it; I'm semi into it. He wants me to wear my uniform in public and is always hassling me if I don't. We disagree, but he usually wins. It's not perfect every minute."
Steven dreams of riding in the Tour de France. Lance Armstrong is his hero now, and he is intent on turning pro -- a goal that his biking coach does not think is so far-fetched considering Steven's ability. Athletics are his thing, and he is not especially excited about school or particularly good at it. He complains that the teachers expect him to be smarter than he is because of his activist background and well-spoken media appearances. He hates it when people assume they know him before they meet him.
"Some people think of me as a perfect type of kid that only helps others," Steven says. "I don't want them to look at me as just a Scouting for All, stand-up-for-gays type of kid. I want them to see me for who I am: a normal person. I'm not just an activist. Barely."
Yet he and his older sister did start a gay/straight alliance club at Petaluma High, and they are friends with the school's only openly gay student.
Scott says he doesn't want his kids to feel forced into doing anything. Anne usually keeps a distance from the cause, and Scott respects that. But he admits things may be different for Steven. "Even though I give him the choice, he may not always feel the choice is there," Scott says. "My passion is so strong, the underlying message may be: "You don't have a choice.' I hope that wasn't the case, though it could be. I'm sure he wants to please me."
But Steven does believe in the cause and willfully participates -- to a reasonable limit. "If this was all I lived for like my dad, then I'd say, "Why did I ever start this?' But it's not the only thing I'm going to do," he says.
Once Steven accepted the fact he would be taking a three-day break from his biking regimen, got used to hiding his hair with a hat, and concentrated on the task at hand, he handled himself impressively in Dallas. Father and son had agreed on a speech, but at the last minute Steven did not want to read it. He pushed aside the podium, pulled up a chair in front of the crowd, and sat down. He began speaking extemporaneously. "If I really wanted to go against my dad, then I'd refuse to do any interviews or speak," Steven says. "I want the Scouts to change their policy, and I can't drop it halfway through. I can't wait to tell my kids I helped change the policy. It's kind of like helping stop slavery; it's a big deal."
"When I heard him in Dallas, I could see the passion behind his words," Scott says. "It was genuinely him talking, not me. He had made the message his own."
As an observer of Steven and the Cozzas for more than two years, Tom Shepard says one of the biggest questions his PBS documentary tries to answer is how Steven has internalized what he's doing, what is meaningful for him, and how much agency he has had in all of it. "It was frustrating, because teenage boys do not share their innermost feelings. They act," Shepard says. "It took me a year before I could feel his investment and conviction, but it's there, and his actions show it."
At 15, Steven has discovered he is concerned about many things beyond the Boy Scouts and its policies. Things that personally affect him, like competitive biking, the latest music, and girls. Back at school this month, it was his coach -- not his dad -- who persuaded him to shave his red dreadlocks. "Scouting is only a speck in my life now," he admits. But he remains the mouthpiece of his cause. His words and image have helped do what the courts can't: pressure the Scouts to lift the ban by turning public opinion -- and dollars -- against the organization. Already since June's Supreme Court ruling, corporate donations to the Boy Scouts have dropped by the millions. It is just the beginning of a tide, Steven's dad believes, that will force a change in policy. If only they can keep pushing the issue. In the meantime, Steven is a maturing, ever more handsome young man, who is equally popular for his commanding presence on the sports field and social grace at the after-school party. Yet he is well aware that he is part of something bigger than himself. Like a good, young Kennedy, however reluctantly, he always steps up to his duty. And when he does, like in Washington or Dallas, his message is flawless.
"When I'm 20, I'll probably look back and say I was crazy; normal kids don't do that," Steven says. "But I'll never regret it. I'll know I helped a lot of people, and helped a lot of gay kids realize there's nothing wrong with them, even if the Boy Scouts say there is."