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03/02/2022 07:30 AM

Speaking Out for Positive Change: David Knapp

On Feb. 6, with a section of the national AIDS Memorial Quilt as a backdrop, David Knapp spoke to members of Guilford’s First Congregational Church on the 25th anniversary of becoming an open and affirming church, a change in which Knapp, now 95, played a significant role bringing about. Photo courtesy of David Knapp

In 1994, David Knapp stood up at First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ (UCC to share something many wouldn’t dare to say at the time: that he was a closeted, gay church member.

Last month, on Sunday, Feb. 6, with 8 colorful, poignant panels of the famed AIDS Memorial Quilt as a backdrop, David spoke to the congregation once again, during a celebration of First Congregational’s 25th anniversary as an open and affirming church for LGBTQ+ members.

David helped to initiate the church’s process toward the final confirmation vote made in 1997 among its 900 members to become open and affirming. Due to that vote, “for 25 years, UCC has provided a safe and supportive place for LGBTQ adults and youth,” says David.

Helping UCC Become Open and Affirming

David, now 95, first joined Guilford First Congregational Church, UCC in 1987, “and did not know one single member of the of the church who was LGBTQ,” he recounts.

After raising his family in Madison with his former wife and completing a successful career as a sales executive, David says he came to realize he was a gay man, at the age of 60. He began the next chapter of his life living in Guilford, while also continuing his lifetime of support for Boy Scouts of America (BSA). At the time, David was a professional scouting executive. That affiliation changed in 1994, he says.

“In 1994, an article appeared in the New Haven Register stating that a member of the local Boy Scout Council by the name of Scott, who was a member of Guilford UCC, had been kicked out of the council for being gay,” says David.

At the time, David was also serving as an usher at his church’s Sunday services.

“As a result of the article, I made the decision to announce, during the sharing hour of our church, that I was the anonymous Scott,” says David, who had selected his grandson’s first name for a pseudonym when speaking to the reporter.

David says he hadn’t planned to make the announcement at church that day, but felt compelled to speak after someone else took to the microphone during the sharing hour.

“A member of the choir asked for prayers for the member known as Scott. So I just stood up and took the mic and said, ‘I am the anonymous Scott.’ I said, ‘This is the most painful thing I’ve ever been through in my life.’ And then, I think, I started crying. I sat down and thought, ‘What a dumb, stupid thing to do.’”

David also remembers the “love and support” he immediately felt from church leaderships and the congregation in return, including members who shared that they cared for someone in the LGBTQ+ community.

“At the end of the service, I had so many people come up to me and say, ‘I have a brother, I have a sister, I have a friend,’ and so forth,” says David. “So I came to the conclusion that, well, maybe this dumb, stupid thing was a good thing. Because it was the first time, ever, people even said the word ‘homosexual.’ Because in those days, you didn’t even say the word.”

David says former First Church minister Kendrick Norris was not only especially supportive, but also grateful for David’s statement that day.

“When he came to my 90th birthday, he mentioned that incident and said he would never forget. And I will never forget it, too,” says David.

As a result of the overwhelming support David received that day from his church, “we embarked on a two-year program of workshops with speakers and programs, studying all aspects of the gay community” and sharing the information with the congregation on the way to crafting a covenant to become an open and affirming church. Surveys and other activities also sought input from the membership.

David says any fears or questions that may have come up during the process of working with church members “were not realized.”

“All of the worries about loss of membership, money, and attracting new members after becoming open and affirming did not materialize. We are not only a stronger, more diverse church, but we’ve been a role model for [other] UCC churches in the area who’ve since become open and affirming,” he says, including UCC churches of Madison, North Madison, and North Guilford.

At the Feb. 6 event, David was welcomed to speak by First Congregational Minister Ginger Brasher-Cunningham, who also shared her sentiments, together with several others, including former deacon Paul Kuehn, who also led the congregation in speaking the church’s Opening and Affirming Covenant.

To add even more significance to the event, among squares making up the 12’ x 12’ section of the AIDS Quilt that traveled to the church to be on display for the 25th anniversary was one honoring Kevin Lawson, a childhood friend of David’s who died at age 35 from AIDS in 1989. Kevin’s and David’s mothers were close friends while raising their families in New Jersey, David’s native state. Before he was claimed by AIDS, “Kevin went on to be maître d’ at the top of the World Trade Tower,” in New York City, says David.

David was in Washington, D.C. in 1987 when the AIDS Memorial Quilt was displayed for the first time on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Back then, it incorporated nearly 2,000 panels. Today, there are nearly 50,000. Portions of the quilt travel the country through the non-profit international NAMES Project Foundation.

Taking on BSA

David not only played an important role in First Church’s important decision to be among one of the area’s first to become open and affirming. He also shares he had a big part, “behind the scenes,” in the BSA National Council’s May, 2013 decision to allow gay youth to participate in scouting.

In the time leading up to that vote, following his dismissal from BSA in 1994, David worked to raise awareness about the issue of allowing and accepting LGBTQ+ members in BSA.

“For almost 20 years, I went to almost every national meeting, all over the country, with about 10 or 12 others,” including mostly heterosexual scout leaders, David notes.

Dressed in their scouting uniforms, “we would go and picket the national meetings [with] signs that said, ‘Don’t Discriminate.’”

At the time, David also picketed all of the Connecticut council offices, assisted by members of two PFLAG chapters he’d founded in Madison and New Haven. It was also early days for PFLAG, one of the first organizations established to support LGBTQ+ people, their parents, families, and allies.

“With my PFLAG friends, who were mostly heterosexual, and my gay friends, I picketed the council offices...but we weren’t getting anywhere. I didn’t see any changes,” says David.

As someone who had been a trained, professional scout executive, “...I knew the constitution and all the bylaws,” says David. “I decided to work within the Boy Scouts’ system, even though I had been kicked out. I had the professional training and I’d worked as a professional scout executive 80 hours a week for 10 years. My boss told me I was the best district scout executive he ever had.”

Every scout unit—pack, post, etc.—has to be sponsored by an approved civic organization, and every sponsor has representation on the local council through service on committees. While David had been forced to end his association with BSA, he realized he could implement an effective strategy as a member of First Congregational Church, the sponsoring organization of BSA Troop 474 in Guilford.

“One interesting thing about a UCC church is you can form new committees,” says David. “So we formed a Peace and Affirmation Committee, which also played a big part in overturning the death penalty law in Connecticut. I was a member of the committee for a while. I sent a resolution to our committee about repealing the [BSA] policy for gay members.”

David recalls his committee chair, who was also an eagle scout, helped to revise and alter the resolution so that it would have a better opportunity to be accepted by the scout executives and Connecticut Yankee Council. The revised resolution requested a special commission from the National Council for the Connecticut Yankee Council accept and welcome LGBTQ+ people as members.

“Our representative took it to the [Connecticut Yankee] council in 2011 and the scout executives accepted it and took it to national council as delegates,” says David.

Things got a bit rocky at the national level, which was to be expected, David says.

“The first year, the resolution was rejected [by the national council]. They wouldn’t let it come up. That was a big downer. The next year, the same delegation from our Connecticut Yankee Council took the resolution back, and this time, [the national council] allowed it to be read aloud but not voted on. That was the finger in the dike,” he says of the change everyone could sense was approaching. “It made a big hit.”

The following year, David and many people he’d been with through years of picketing national meetings flew to Texas to be present when the national council convened. He stayed at a hotel right next to the delegates and was in the press room when the decision came down.

“The next year, they brought the resolution back, but the national council scrapped our resolution and put forth their resolution of removing the policy for boys 7 to 18,” says David of the landmark BSA vote. “So that was a big deal! But we had a big part in making that happen, behind the scenes.”

David says the close vote—61 percent in favor, 39 percent against—was very likely swayed by his friend’s wife. David’s friend was a volunteer on the national council. His wife was a leader of PFLAG. Their son, who was gay, was diagnosed at the time with “full-blown AIDS,” David recounts.

“His wife was on board of PFLAG. She called my room before the vote, and said they allowed two speakers from each of the four regions, and she was going to be one of the speakers. She told me she was going to talk about her gay son,” says David.

He then took another call, shortly after the vote, where his friend told him the resolution had passed. As it turned out, “her talk had some of them in tears and changed some of the votes,” says David.

David remembers “bedlam and crying” in the press room following the vote. Among those in the happy celebration were his co-picketing leader, a California scouting executive of 20 years who was not gay, as well as a 17-year-old scout who had been receiving national recognition for having been ousted from the BSA just before earning his eagle due to being gay. David says he and his friend were recognized as “two veterans” of the policy overturn effort to crews of ABC and NBC news and media in the press room, but that recognition never made it on the air.

“That was a moment I will never forget in my life, and it never hit the press,” he says.

Speaking of press, David recently learned part of his story plays a role in a good friend’s newly published autobiography, Gay, Catholic and American: My Legal Battle for Marriage, Equality and Inclusion by Greg Bourke (Notre Dame Press, 2022).

Bourke and his partner represented the state of Kentucky at the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of the gay marriage ban. Bourke also battled Catholic leadership of his state in a bid to be reinstated as scout master of his son’s troop.

In 2013, “...Greg and the 17-year-old eagle scout and I, we were selected as three of the most outstanding LGBTQ+ people in the country,” among the annual list of 100 published by Out Magazine, says David. The three were pictured in their scouting uniforms in the magazine, David also notes.

Also in 2013, shortly after the BSA vote, David received a call from a local council executive and was invited to rejoin scouting. David accepted the invitation and continues to serve as a volunteer commissioner assigned to UCC’s BSA Troop 474, assisting in advisory capacity.

“And so, I have been giving advice—some of it they take, some of it they don’t, which I respect,” says David. “It’s been a very rewarding experience. I think I’ve been a help, in many ways.”