Boy Scout Extraordinaire
Interview by Raj Ayyar
As a first generation immigrant to these shores, I've always been struck by the yawning chasm between two types of Americans— the repressive, fundamentalist, gun-loving, and violently ethnocentric Americans on one hand and those of Whitmanesque expansiveness, generosity and passionate, never-say-die idealism, on the other. This latter type celebrates an idealism that constantly challenges the status quo, fights for the rights of excluded others— women, sexual and racial minorities-- and opposes human rights violations at home and abroad.
Steven Cozza, a 15-year old, straight-identified Eagle Scout clearly exemplifies Whitmanesque America. A marcher in LGBT parades since he was four; this unusual teenager is channeling his energies and passions into championing the causes of inclusion, and of the rights of lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender people. Steven made the headlines with his recent speech at the Millennium March on Washington for Gay Rights. It was short, succinct, and passionate, and I for one, loved this mantra that he describes as a "very important truth":
Being Gay is normal!
Being Lesbian is normal!
Being Transgender is normal!
Being Bisexual is normal!
And you know something?. . . .,
Even being heterosexual is normal!
Steven Cozza has been an active campaigner against the exclusion of gays from the Boy Scouts of America. As co-founder of Scouting for All, an organization that has been fighting the bigoted, discriminatory attitudes of the Boy Scouts for some years now, Steven has petitioned Congressmen, written letters to the press, and appeared in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rallies throughout Northern California.
A resident of Petaluma California, Steven recently organized a Gay-Straight Alliance at Petaluma High, an alliance that encourages closeted teens to express themselves in a "safe" atmosphere, with straight allies.
Steven won the prestigious P-Flag Flag Bearer Award 2000, an honor he shares with Coretta King and Ted Kennedy. Even more recently this month, he won a Colin Higgins Courage Award of $10,000, which will help toward meeting college expenses. The award was founded by Colin Higgins, director and creator of that wonderful piece of anti-ageist kitsch, Harold and Maude, to honor those who display the courage of the kind described by Ernest Hemingway as "grace under fire."
It has been a privilege chatting with Steven and discussing his insights in this interview. He is a role model for all of us in the LGBT communities, and for teens of any sexual orientation or shade of the gender spectrum.
Raj Ayyar: Can you tell us about 'Scouting for All'?
Steven Cozza: It's been going on for about 2 years now. It is an organization that challenges the Boy Scouts of America's policy against gays.
Raj Ayyar: How did you come to get involved in this?
Steven Cozza: My dad came to me because we always marched in Gay Pride parades all our lives. He is open about diversity and stuff with me. And so, my dad came up to me, told me about the homophobic policy of BSA (Boy Scouts of America), and asked me if I wanted to take a stand. The first thing I said we should do was write a letter to the local newspaper and have a kick-off for the petition drive I started. There are over 50,000 signatures.
Raj Ayyar: Would you say your dad is an inspiration?
Steven Cozza: Yes. I also had a lot of gay role models that I respect and look up to.
Raj Ayyar: Such as teachers and scoutmasters?
Steven Cozza: Yes. And my church camp counselor. The BSA could discriminate against people like him. He is my friend; he is my role model and he is gay.
Raj Ayyar: I love what you were quoted as saying, "You can't catch gayness like measles." You point out that your dad went to Catholic school and didn't end up becoming a nun. Did you really say that?
Steven Cozza: Yeah (laugh).
Raj Ayyar: It is unusual to find someone who is straight to stand up for gay rights with such conviction.
Steven Cozza: Yeah, but I would say it doesn't matter because being gay is normal; being a lesbian is normal; even, being straight is normal. I don't care if someone calls me a 'fag'. It doesn't matter to me; there is nothing wrong with being gay.
Raj Ayyar: But, have you been taunted throughout your school years?
Steven Cozza: Yeah, every once and a while but not too much now. I started a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at my school. That has helped a lot.
Raj Ayyar: When did you start the Gay-Straight Alliance?
Steven Cozza: About a month ago, near the end of school. It is going good. We had about 60 kids, attending the first meeting.
Raj Ayyar: Do you still live in the Petaluma area?
Steven Cozza: Yeah, where do you live?
Raj Ayyar: I live in Florida.
Steven Cozza: Florida? Cool!
Raj Ayyar: Well, its not that cool but that is a different story. There is a lot of homophobia, bigotry, and racism here.
Steven Cozza: Oh, I am sorry to hear that.
Steven Cozza: They haven't bugged me too much about it. I wrote two letters to the Head of Scouts, headquarters in Irvine, Texas— he never responded. So, I guess he is pretty mad at me.
Raj Ayyar: But you are still an Eagle Scout?
Steven Cozza: Oh yeah. I will always be an Eagle Scout. In my own troop, kids are cool about what I am doing. I am not in the troop now but when I was, the kids are cool about what I was doing.
Raj Ayyar: The straight kids and the gay kids?
Steven Cozza: Yeah, just any kids. It is not like an issue in our troop whether you're gay or straight.
Raj Ayyar: That is so cool, but what about your school? Isn't there any gay baiting? Have you received any threats?
Steven Cozza: Yes. I do receive some threats. Verbal, not any physical threats.
Raj Ayyar: But they never followed-up on that and tried to beat up on you in the schoolyard or anything like that?
Steven Cozza: Not yet.
Raj Ayyar: That is good to know. How many members does the Gay-Straight Alliance have?
Steven Cozza: Well, now we have about 45.
Raj Ayyar: Would you say most of them are gay and lesbian?
Steven Cozza: About half of them.
Raj Ayyar: And the rest of them are straight, like yourself?
Steven Cozza: Uh-huh.
Raj Ayyar: Was there embarrassment at first? Did the gay and lesbians members feel a little awkward at first? Or were they comfortable with the group?
Steven Cozza: I think they were happy that there was a support group. I think they were shocked that people didn't care. But, most of the LGBT people in the club . . . aren't out yet.
Raj Ayyar: I see. So, they felt nurtured by this support group.
Steven Cozza: Definitely. You could definitely tell that.
Raj Ayyar: But, if they weren't out, though, weren't they intimidated by talking to a bunch of straight folk sitting around discussing issues?
Steven Cozza: Probably so at the first meeting. At our second and third meetings, they felt more comfortable. This last meeting actually, we did these posters because we are going to the Santa Rosa Gay Pride Parade. People were printing GAY AND WE ARE PROUD on the posters.
Raj Ayyar: Have you ever run into the religious right? People who are hard core Christian fundamentalists (or any other kind of fundamentalist), that say that what you are doing is wrong, that it's against God's will etc.?
Steven Cozza: I get a lot of hate e-mail from the Internet but not too many in person. I get hate e-mail from people who say they are Eagle Scouts. You can tell they are not Eagle Scouts, or maybe they are, but they totally don't act like it when they threaten you.
Raj Ayyar: When you get this hate e-mail, does it bother you? Does it get you down?
Steven Cozza: No. Not at all. Usually they don't follow-up with what they say and I know I am doing a good thing, so it doesn't get me down at all.
Raj Ayyar: I think you are. Tell me though, you do have some friends among the liberal Christian community. I notice for example, that some United Methodist, and Episcopal ministers that are friends of yours and have invited you into their churches.
Steven Cozza: Well, yes. There is a place in San Francisco where I spoke on diversity. Recently, I was part of a Healing and Reconciliation service. It was awesome.
Raj Ayyar: You probably know that the whole business of ministers celebrating gay and lesbian marriages is a hot issue? Nationwide. Some of them are in trouble because there was this stormy meeting in Cleveland, Ohio. However, they are still keeping at it.
Steven Cozza: That is awesome. That is what we all we need to be doing [still keeping at it].
Raj Ayyar: Do you have any word for troubled gay and lesbian teens? I think you are fortunate to be in the San Francisco area . . . but what would you say to a gay, bisexual, lesbian teen that is feeling suicidal, feeling hopeless about life, growing up somewhere in the South, or growing-up in the Midwest somewhere in a boondocky town?
Steven Cozza: I can say it is not easy being gay and it is especially tough with all the ignorant people out there. I want to say that they are ahead of the game when they are already open with their sexuality. They already have a sense of ethics in knowing that the earth is diverse. I want to say, "hang in there." Probably the best thing to do is to work throughout the schools, start a Gay-Straight Alliance, and get a crew together. You would not believe how many gay people are in the schools. They are just not out about it because they are too scared. If you are in a school that is homophobic, I swear you would not believe how many gay people are in that school. Definitely, mention that to the school board or Principal. Try to get a GSA started. Be true to yourself. Being gay is normal; being lesbian is normal and so is being a transgender or bisexual person. So, don't feel bad about who you are or who you came to be as a person. Gays are wonderful people.
Raj Ayyar: I agree, but I am looking at an increasing number of hate-crimes, particularly against young gay men. Matthew Shepard was the most popularized instance. As you probably know, there are hundreds of such cases every year in this country and around the world. Isn't it natural for someone who is gay or lesbian at any age to be scared particularly when they are going through a teen identity crisis?
Steven Cozza: Oh, definitely. Who wouldn't feel scared, especially if you live in a town with many homophobic people? You have to stand strong and. . . . Gays should have human rights like everyone else.
Raj Ayyar: And not be threatened with bashing, your house being firebombed, or actual physical violence. I do agree with you, though. If you start building up grass roots organizations like you are doing, that is the first step.
Steven Cozza: Like the Gay-Straight Alliances.
Raj Ayyar: GSA is wonderful particularly in the high school situation and even in the college situation, I think.
Steven Cozza: Yep.
Raj Ayyar: Has it ever bothered you that you might be perceived by gays as well as straights as the 'poster-child' for the gay and lesbian movement? Has it ever made you nervous or made you question your own sexuality?
Steven Cozza: No, not really. What do you mean by that question?
Raj Ayyar: Well, you are very much in the public eye about extending scouting to gays and lesbians and yet for the most part people do see you as straight. Does that ever make you nervous or make you question your own sexuality or anything else?
Steven Cozza: I don't care if I am gay or straight. It doesn't matter. I would not care if I had to question it.
Raj Ayyar: I see. So, it would not be a self-torture process for you? You know, sitting up nights worrying about whether you are or not?
Steven Cozza: Yeah. Some people are and some people aren't. It just depends on how much support you have.
Raj Ayyar: I think it is really neat that your parents have been very supportive of you in this process, and encouraged you to be passionate about human rights. Many parents are not like that at all. If your parents are not supportive, not only do you have to deal with bigots at school you also have to deal with your folks. That can be a real burden for many young gays and lesbians. You have to hide at home, hide in school, hide from threats and walk around scared all the time.
As you know, some colleges have a gay and lesbian club but I think a gay and straight alliance is needed. Straights have to be included. What do you think?
Steven Cozza: That is what it has to be for the future. Otherwise, straights will keep misunderstanding. We are all diverse. We are like a rainbow.
Raj Ayyar: When you say we are like a rainbow, how would you handle someone, who is homophobic and is a gatecrasher to the GSA, let us say?
Steven Cozza: How would they do that?
Raj Ayyar: You know, show up for a meeting but then act abusive or whatever.
Steven Cozza: Just ignore them. Let them do their thing and get the heck out of there. It makes them look bad.
Raj Ayyar: Has that actually happened to you?
Steven Cozza: No, not yet.
Raj Ayyar: This GSA is about a month old, right?
Steven Cozza: Yes. We have only had about four meetings. Next week we meet across the street from our rival high school, Casa Grande. That will be cool.
Raj Ayyar: OK. So, they have a GSA as well?
Steven Cozza: Yep.
Raj Ayyar: I think it would be neat if the idea of more GSA's spread to other parts of this country and throughout the world. I think a lot of the hurt gay and lesbian people feel, withdrawing into the closet or into a clique that says, "We are gay and lesbian and we don't want those straight people in here." That is sad, because I don't think you can actually heal that breach with straight people unless you meet with them and work them.
Steven Cozza: Definitely. If they say that, then they are doing what homophobic people do to them.
Raj Ayyar: In reverse.
Steven Cozza: No one has done that at our school yet. I guess since I am the one that started it and I am straight, I don't think they would say that. They would be kicking me out.
Raj Ayyar: How did you feel when you went to the Millennium March?
Steven Cozza: The Millennium March was cool; it was awesome. So many people involved, different in race and sexual orientation. It was definitely fun. We got over 11,500 signatures in just 2 days there.
Raj Ayyar: I liked your speech. I actually watched you on C-Span.
Steven Cozza: Oh, really? It was cut kinda short because it was near the end and they were running out of time so we had to limit our speeches to a minute.
Raj Ayyar: I noticed that too, because they were shepherding many people on the stage and then whisking them away. However, I thought what you had to say was to the point and punchy. Did you have a long speech prepared?
Steven Cozza: I had to edit the speech while I was up there thinking on my feet. It was a pain in the butt. Oh, well.
Raj Ayyar: How did you feel about addressing that many lesbian, gay, bisexuals, and transgender people all in one place?
Steven Cozza: It felt good because I let them know how I feel and how I think Boy Scouts of America should be. It was perfect timing so; many people were there.
Raj Ayyar: Plus millions of people watching television and listening to you on radio.
Steven Cozza: That's true, too. So, many people watched the news?
Raj Ayyar: C-span covered the whole thing. It was the one time I stayed glued to my television. It was very moving. I think this was the first time we had a GLBT parade that was multi-cultural. Normally, it is largely white or it is largely gay male, but this time everyone was there. There were Native Americans, South Asians, and Indian lesbians. I am from India originally. I could relate to the multi-culturalism very easily.
Steven Cozza: It was cool. A good experience.
Raj Ayyar: Did you actually have to reserve a space there? Someone invite you to the March?
Steven Cozza: Someone invited us there. The guy that organized it for us is Scott Pusilio. He was helpful— he is in the Boy Scouts. He is just an awesome guy. In fact, he lives in New Jersey and he just got kicked out of the Boy Scouts.
Raj Ayyar: Really. Do you have any thoughts about this James Dale case that is coming up before the US Supreme Court?
Steven Cozza: Yes, I met him. He gave me an award. He is awesome. I want to say, I wish there were more scoutmasters like him.
Raj Ayyar: You know Steven, the weird thing is he won the case in New Jersey and the Boy Scouts of America decided to take him to the US Supreme Court.
Steven Cozza: Yeah. I heard the vote is going to be four to one his side.
Raj Ayyar: That is good.
Steven Cozza: You will find an answer near the end of June probably.
Raj Ayyar: OK. I will be looking for it because I have been following the news on him. He is the last of a long line of scoutmasters that have been kicked out, like many gay teachers that have been kicked out, particularly of elementary schools and high schools. In one of your interviews, you said that Matthew Shepard was a Boy Scout himself and that one of his killers was an Eagle Scout.
Steven Cozza: Oh, yeah. Henderson may not have been persuaded by the Boy Scouts to kill Shepard, but it just lets you know how the homophobia of the BSA teaches Scouts to hate gays.
Raj Ayyar: Right. So, being a scout, despite all the noble ideals of the scout movement, as laid down by Baden Powell and others makes no difference. You can still be a homophobe, beat up people, and kill them.
Steven Cozza: Yep. They just encourage us scouts to have a hatred against gays.
Raj Ayyar: Which is really sad, when you think of the other ideals of scouting.
Steven Cozza: Definitely.
Raj Ayyar: Neither the gay nor the straight press actually mentioned that Matthew Shepard was a scout and that one his killers, Henderson, is an Eagle Scout.
Steven Cozza: That is sad.
Raj Ayyar: I don't think you can blame the Boy Scouts of America directly for Matthew Shepard's murder but you are right— the more they promote that kind of homophobia and hatred against gays, the likelier scouts are to get involved in crimes like this.
Steven Cozza: Yes. If you think of it this way, how can an Eagle Scout kill someone just because they are gay? If the Boy Scouts were for Human Rights that Boy Scout might have had a different view of gay people. But, I guess they didn't do that. It is very sad.
Raj Ayyar: You say, you are no longer with your scout troop?
Steven Cozza: No. I ended up leaving because they kicked my dad out.
Raj Ayyar: Why did they kick your dad out?
Steven Cozza: Because of his beliefs.
Raj Ayyar: That is terrible.
Steven Cozza: He is not even gay. It is because he has the belief that gays should be in the Boy Scouts.
Raj Ayyar: He was a scoutmaster?
Steven Cozza: Yes.
Raj Ayyar: And they kicked him out?
Steven Cozza: Yes. They kicked him out. They said he couldn't come back; he was not welcome.
Raj Ayyar: That is sickening.
Steven Cozza: I know.
Raj Ayyar: When did this happen?
Steven Cozza: About a year ago.
Raj Ayyar: I have talked to your dad and your mom and they are super people.
Steven Cozza: Yeah.
Raj Ayyar: Here is a man who is a dad, a family man. I understand he works with people with HIV, and he does a lot of social work.
Steven Cozza: Yes, and with homeless people. He is a great guy and they just kicked him out because of his beliefs. They also kicked out another of my scoutmasters, Dave Rice. He has been in scouting for 59 years. He told the Boy Scouts that he disagreed with their policy and they actually kicked him out too. Fifty-nine years of scouting.
Steven Cozza: It will definitely make a difference for gays.
Raj Ayyar: Would it restore your dad?
Steven Cozza: Hopefully.
Raj Ayyar: So, Scouting for All does not have any affiliation with BSA?
Steven Cozza: We used to, but not now. Some troops have contact with us. We have written BSA headquarters. There are many troops that have taken individual stands. I definitely recommend troops do that---take a stand like a Boy Scout should do. Then contact our WebPage.
Raj Ayyar: What is your Web address?
Steven Cozza: www.scoutingforall.org
Raj Ayyar: Will someone from Scouting for All reply if people write letters?
Steven Cozza: Oh, definitely. We have tons of people to reply.
Raj Ayyar: So, you have a whole host of volunteers?
Steven Cozza: Yes. I try to reply too, but I can't always when I am busy.
Raj Ayyar: Are you actually an officer with Scouting for All? Are you the president?
Steven Cozza: No. I am the spokesperson. My dad is the president.
Raj Ayyar: Do you do a lot of speeches and benefits? Signature campaigns? You say that in the Gay Pride March on Washington you got many signatures for the organization.
Steven: Cozza: Yep. You might say that I am the activist.
Raj Ayyar: You are the activist for the organization. It is a non-profit organization?
Steven Cozza: Yes. Non-profit.
Raj Ayyar: Does your dad work full-time?
Steven Cozza: He has a full-time job in the city.
Raj Ayyar: Working as a Social Worker?
Steven Cozza: Yes.
Raj Ayyar: And your mom?
Steven Cozza: She is a kindergarten teacher.
Raj Ayyar: When your dad said to stand-up for Human Rights and to get involved with this cause, was your mom supportive as well?
Steven Cozza: Yes, she is supportive.
Raj Ayyar: And your sister, is she comfortable with the activism?
Steven Cozza: Yes. She actually helps me with the high school GSA.
Raj Ayyar: Is she a Girl Scout?
Steven Cozza: No. She is not a Girl Scout. Girl Scouts do not discriminate.
Raj Ayyar: Oh, you mean it is only Boy Scouts that discriminate?
Steven Cozza: Yeah. Boy Scouts are the only non-religiously affiliated organization that discriminates as far as boys and girls clubs go.
Raj Ayyar: Which means you can be a lesbian and be a Girl Scout?
Steven Cozza: Yeah.
Raj Ayyar: Or a lesbian and a Girl Scout Leader?
Steven Cozza: Yes.
Raj Ayyar: Well, that is strange. That is a double standard. Are you familiar with policies around the world? Is this just true of the Boy Scouts of America?
Steven Cozza: Actually, the European Scouts don't discriminate and it is co-ed. Just called Scouts. And then there are the Queer Scouts of Canada.
Raj Ayyar: do the Boy Scouts of Canada recognize them?
Steven Cozza: Yeah, I am pretty sure.
Raj Ayyar: So they are not like BSA?
Steven Cozza: No.
Raj Ayyar: In general, many European countries and Canada have laws that are more liberal as far as gays and lesbians. It is appalling the number of states in the United States that still have sodomy laws on the books. Which means that almost any sexual act, except a man and a woman in a missionary position (and if they are married) is sodomy in many states. Not that they prosecute them because our jails would be fuller than they are. There is however always the likelihood of using these laws against the LGBT communities.
Steven Cozza: Yeah. That is terrible. I hate that.
Raj Ayyar: I think agencies like yours, Steven, are doing a terrific job. You know, talking to you has been a real inspiration. You've certainly challenged the negative stereotype of the gun-toting teenager. What do you make of the rash of teen violence against peers and teachers?
Steven Cozza: You mean, since Columbine High?
Raj Ayyar: Actually, violence has been a feature of inner city for a long time.
Steven Cozza: I think that a lot of violence comes from being abused and made to look small by peers, teachers, and others. If people keep making fun of you because you are gay or different in any, it's going to make you angry. And that can lead to violence.
Raj Ayyar: Steven, Thank you. It's been a pleasure chatting with you.
Steven Cozza: It is just an honor to be interviewed by you, Raj. This is awesome. Goodbye.
Raj Ayyar: Keep it up. Au revoir