Editor's note: We've updated this story to correct a detail about Steven Cozza's troop leader. His name is David Rice, not Tim Rice. Our apologies for the error.
When Scout's Honor was being filmed, its timing seemed perfect.
The movement to change Boy Scouts of America's ban on gay participants had real momentum, having already been legally challenged twice, once successfully. The U.S. Supreme Court was preparing to rule on the issue.
But that wasn't why Tom Shepard, a Colorado Springs native living in San Francisco, had decided to document the struggle. He was moved by a newspaper story of a young boy living in a rural city who had taken up the cause despite ridicule and resistance. The boy was straight.
All Shepard could think was, "What motivates a non-gay person to kind of stick their neck out for gay people?"
The story of 13-year-old Steven Cozza was powerful. When Scout's Honor was released in 2001, it won the Audience Award for Best Documentary and the Freedom of Expression Award at the Sundance Film Festival and the Grand Prize for Nonfiction Film at the USA Film Festival. And when it aired on PBS, the backlash was fierce — PBS' online commenting function was so overwhelmed it had to be temporarily shut down.
Many on the right characterized the film as "homosexual propaganda" and shunned PBS for airing it. Shepard, now 43, says he read only some of the "vitriolic" and "nasty" comments PBS received. He couldn't bear to read them all.
Slow to change
A lot has changed since then, but not the Boy Scouts. They haven't had to. While Shepard edited his film, the Supreme Court decided 5-4 in the Scouts' favor, ruling that as a private organization, they had a right under the Constitution's "freedom of association" clause to discriminate.
Little controversies bubbled up during the next decade, but it took until early this year for the Scouts to be involved in talk about dropping the national ban, and allowing individual troops to make their own policies.
Then last week, days before an expected announcement, the organization backed away, putting off a decision until May. A New York Times story says leaders intended to make the decision quietly, but a leak led to unwanted public discourse on the topic and the delay.
To Shepard, who was once a Boy Scout (albeit, he says, not a very dedicated one), the thought of the policy continuing is upsetting.
"It sends a very, very strong message to young kids ... that there is something about you that is pathological or wrong or damaging," he says. "Versus, 'You're OK, like any other kid.' And kids share those messages loud and clear."
But Shepard isn't wholly surprised that the Boy Scouts haven't budged. On the one hand, he's been shocked at how quickly the rest of the world has changed since 2001, from allowing gays in the military to the legalizing of gay marriage in several states. His own alma mater, Palmer High School — where he never felt "safe" enough to come out the closet in the 1980s — now has a gay-straight alliance.
The Boy Scouts seem to be different, he says, perhaps because churches often run troops. The Scouts have especially strong ties to the Mormon Church, which clearly hasn't welcomed the LGBT community. More liberal denominations, particularly Unitarian Universalist churches, have had strained relations with the Scouts for decades.
At a more grassroots level, Shepard found that scouting is, and always has been, fiercely local. Many troops, he says, operate more on a "don't ask, don't tell' model, knowingly allowing beloved gay scoutmasters and scouts to participate so long as they're not too vocal about their sexual preference.
But just as DADT wasn't a satisfying compromise for LGBT military members, it didn't seem like a fair deal to Cozza. The boy started Scouting for All, a nonprofit that continues advocacy work today, with a few handmade signs and a petition at the Lucky Supermarket in his hometown of Petaluma, Calif. He had the support of his parents, friends, his troop leader and his mentor, a gay man who had been Cozza's church-camp counselor.
But his activities with Scouting for All splintered his troop, and even en route to becoming an Eagle Scout, Cozza experienced a cruel backlash. The Scouts booted Cozza's dad, who served as assistant scoutmaster, and Cozza's scoutmaster, David Rice.
Rice, a senior citizen who had been involved in the Scouts since childhood, was heartbroken.
"You never know what it's like to get that letter until you open the envelope and read it," Rice says in the film. "And then it's the only time you can understand what it must have been like for Tim Curran."
A long history
Curran was the first person to challenge the Scouts' discriminatory policies. As an 18-year-old Eagle Scout, Curran was refused a position of assistant scoutmaster because he was openly gay. He sued in 1981 but lost the case in 1998, when the California Supreme Court decided that the Boy Scouts could discriminate.
By then, another challenge was on the way. James Dale, a teenage Eagle Scout and assistant scoutmaster who was expelled for his sexual orientation, sued. In 1999, the New Jersey Supreme Court found in his favor. That's when the Scouts appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and won.
Both Curran and Dale were media sensations. But the attention was often negative. Curran was paraded around talk shows where he was often assumed to be a pedophile.
One of Dale's lower court judges referred to him as a "sodomite" in the courtroom. And both men were kicked out of the Scouts after being identified as gay in newspaper articles related to their community service and outreach work.
Since those trying times both men have moved on, as has Shepard, who went on to work for NPR for a while, and made more films. His more recent works include Whiz Kids, about science prodigies competing for the prestigious Science Talent Search; Knocking, about the fight for civil rights for Jehovah's Witnesses; and The Grove, which tells the story of the transformation of the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco.
But Shepard says there was something special about Scout's Honor (available at newdaydigital.com) that's stuck with him.
"Interestingly," Shepard says, "Scout's Honor was easier than all of them, maybe because I didn't know what I was getting into."
Last week, the Boy Scouts of America decided it indeed will reconsider its policy banning gay and lesbian members and volunteers. But it will put off the decision until May.
The delay came as debate heated up, even locally. In Colorado Springs, Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, posted an article detailing why the Boy Scouts should continue to discriminate, saying he worried that gay scout leaders would be more likely to molest children.
"I realize that most homosexual males are not pedophiles but can we not face facts and ask why we would deliberately put a youngster in a heightened position of risk?" Daly wrote.
"Is it worth it? Of course not."
Studies have repeatedly shown that there is no correlation between pedophilia and homosexuality.
And Charlie Irwin, executive director of Colorado Springs Pride, retorted that the Boy Scouts' policies have marginalized scouts and parents who happened to be LGBT.
"Focus on the Family is yet again creating and using fear to spread hate while trying to counteract the voice of the 1.4 million people whose signatures were hand-delivered to BSA," he wrote in a release.