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Gay rights advocate grows up

Steven Cozza is scheduled to speak Nov. 16 at SMYAL'S Fall Brunch
By Yusef Najafi

Steven Cozza was only 12 when he co-founded Scouting for All, a group dedicated in part to persuading the Boy Scouts of America to allow gay men to hold leadership positions and gay youths to join the organization. In
the past six years, Scouting for All, a California-based group, has assumed a national focus and Cozza, 18, now divides his time between advocacy work, competitive cycling and his girlfriend. "We need to make this world a better place for all of us, that's what the Boy Scouts of America teaches and that's what I am planning on doing," he told the Blade. Cozza of Petaluma, Calif., started a Gay-Straight Alliance at his high school and still participates in GSA meetings, even though he graduated in January 2003. "Just because you're straight doesn't
mean you can't stand up for gay rights," he said. "It's just like a white person standing up for a black person who is being discriminated against." Cozza is the keynote speaker at the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League's Fall Brunch, a local fund-raiser scheduled to take place Sunday, Nov. 16, in the Grand Ballroom of the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel.

Year of transition
SMYAL is a non-profit organization dedicated to meeting the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youths and young adults in metropolitan Washington between the ages of 13 and 21. Tony Hain, who chairs SMYAL's board of directors, said the annual brunch is expected to draw more than 400 people and that he hopes it increases awareness about the services SMYAL provides for young gay people. "Many of us live in an urban environment and feel safe," he said. "We may assume that those coming out today are having an easier time but, in reality, they could be having a harder time with the increased awareness that society has had." SMYAL has had its struggles this year. Supporters describe it as a year of transition. In August, the organization hired Bruce Weiss as its executive director to replace Arthur Padilla. Weiss formerly was executive director
of the D.C. HIV Care Consortium. Padilla was hired after SMYAL's longtime executive director Craig Bowman left to become director of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition. Padilla resigned after a relatively short tenure as SMYAL's director to pursue other career interests. Weiss and Hain said SMYAL's current annual budget was expected to be $1.1 million. But it is unclear how much the budget will be, they said this week, due to the transitions that the organization has faced this year.

"We want to serve new communities," Weiss said. "We can't do that if we are trying to raise money to keep doing what we are currently doing.

"We are relying on the gay community for support during these challenging times," he added. Cozza's lobbying efforts Cozza, who has a younger sister, was raised in a politically liberal household. His dad, a social worker, and his mother, a teacher, encouraged diversity, he said, and the family would often participate in Gay Pride events. Six years ago, after a family friend was dismissed from the Boy Scouts of America because he is gay, Cozza and his father decided to create Scouting for All. They are pushing to change the BSA's policy, which bans openly gay members from participating or holding leadership positions. The policy also prohibits atheists from participating, which Cozza also opposes. U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) supports Cozza in his fight against discrimination against gays and is scheduled to meet with him when he visits Washington next week.

They plan to hold a press conference to encourage BSA officials and President Bush to be more tolerant of gays. "The current leadership of the Boy Scouts of America is sending a message of intolerance by excluding homosexuals," Woolsey said in a written statement. " I am not saying the Boy Scouts are bad; I'm saying intolerance is bad."

"It's been six years now and the BSA has not changed its policy," Cozza says, "but even if they don't, we achieve our goal ”to educate people about gay youth." Cozza keeps busy by racing in cycling competitions around the world and recently returned from Belgium. He is a full-time biker and part-time waiter at Essential Market, in Petaluma. He said he hopes one day to win the Tour De France like his idol Lance Armstrong, the professional cyclist who has won the competition five consecutive times. At the same time, Cozza plans to continue working on issues important to Scouting for All. "I am very satisfied that the organization is still up and running," he said. "I think I must have been crazy when I started Scouting for All. I was so young and I didn't
know the dangers that would result from my actions." Nevertheless, Cozza said he has no regrets. "I want to live my life this way, and if I ever make it big in cycling like Lance Armstrong, I will take every opportunity I have to make a difference," he said. "Everyone can do that."

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