David Knapp, long-time activist for gay Boy Scouts, was born in New York City on September 2, 1926. His father, Donald Knapp, grew up in Beacon, New York, where his father owned a men’s and boys’ clothing store. Donald dropped out of high school to work, then returned to finish his secondary degree. He studied mechanical engineering at Rutgers and worked at Johnson & Johnson to pay his way. He caught the attention of CEO Robert Woods Johnson, who helped him get a masters degree from Harvard in one year (unheard of at the time) He worked a long and successful career at Johnson & Johnson, much of it setting up plants in other countries, and retired as Vice-President of Johnson & Johnson International Co. David’s mother, Margaret Allen, grew up in Staten Island. After her graduation from Vassar, she married Donald and David was born soon thereafter. David’s sister Patricia was born three years later.
The family lived in Stelton, a rather rural area outside New Brunswick, New Jersey. The community was mostly blue collar. As his father’s career progressed, David spent summers at Sunset Lake where he did boating, swimming and horseback riding. He was a good student in school and a voracious reader—reading magazines as well as books he borrowed from the public library.
The family was actively involved in a liberal American Baptist Church. David’s parents were church leaders and David was active in Sunday School and was confirmed and baptized there. David’s mother instilled him with the sensitivity to care for poor and needy families.
When David was 12 his father bought him a Boy Scouts uniform and enrolled him in the New Brunswick troop. David thrived in the program—participating in hikes, camps and other activities—and became an assistant patrol leader and then patrol leader. He worked to become a Scout first class and aspired to become an Eagle Scout. However, his scoutmaster at the time was not so competent and could not help David move forward.
David’s parents paid tuition to place him in the Highland Park High School, a more affluent community where the other students were largely from executive and business families. One of David’s high school friends was active in the Highland Park troop. David went with his friend to observe his troop and was impressed with the level of activity there. He transferred to that troop where he became patrol leader and then Eagle Scout. During his junior year of high school he was invited to become the waterfront director for the area Scout camp—a position of significant responsibility but no pay.
He enrolled in Wesleyan University in 1945 with the intention of studying premed. He was in school with many veterans who had returned from the War. He joined the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and lived in the fraternity house. Midway through he changed his major to history and economics and earned a B.A. degree in 1949.
He returned home after college and got a teaching certificate from Rutgers University. He did clerical work during the day while in night school at Rutgers. He then applied for teaching positions at a number of prep schools, but none of these came through. During this time he volunteered to start an Explorer Program for older Scouts at his old troop; Explorers was a new program initiated in 1949. While serving in this position he learned that the Boy Scouts had paid positions. He was hired as an executive with the Suffolk County Long Island Council in 1951. He loved working long hours recruiting and organizing Scout activities and directing Scout camps in the summer. After five years he moved to a similar position with the Orange Mountain Council in New Jersey.
Through his involvement at a local Presbyterian church he met Adelaide Wheeler and they married in 1958. David became stepdaughter to her two daughters. Another daughter was born a year later. In order to better support his family, David left the Scouting position in 1961 and began working as a sales manager for World Book Encyclopedia and then for textbook sales. As his sales region grew to include all of New England, he moved his family to Madison, Connecticut in 1970. Adelaide came from Methodist roots and so the family was active in Methodist congregations in New Jersey and Connecticut.
Around the age of 50 David began exploring his sexual attraction to men. He visited a gay bookstore in Boston and found directories of gay bars, baths and other services. He agonized over his sexual desires. He was a recognized community leader—lay leader in his Methodist congregation and was a candidate for a local school board. He felt that he was breaking his marriage vows. He was referred to Canon Clinton Jones at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford. There for the first time he talked openly about his desires and his torment. He was amazed that Jones affirmed the possibility of a gay identity and gave him books to read. He joined a gay married men’s support group in Boston and gradually grew in self-confidence.
In 1986, David decided he was ready to live a gay life and so came out to his wife. They divorced amicably, but relations were strained with other family members. He still remained publicly closeted. Not long thereafter he retired and accepted an invitation from local Boy Scout leaders to recruit and train adult Scouting leaders.
In 1993, the vice president of his Scout Council came to his home and told David he was expelled from the Boy Scouts. As David pressed for an explanation, he learned that they had received a letter indicating that he was a homosexual. David later learned that the letter came from a family member. The story was leaked to the press, so a number of area newspapers reported his outing and expulsion. David was deeply hurt and angered by these events and soon resolved to fight to reverse the ban on gay Scouts.
He was a prominent leader at the Methodist Church in Clinton, but when this news broke, he was asked to leave the church.
The Boy Scouts ban on gay Scouts had been adopted in 1978, long after Knapp had become an Eagle Scout and was trained and employed by the organization. David quickly and unexpectedly became an activist. He petitioned and picketed local councils. He marched in the New York City Pride Parade in a Scout uniform. He spoke to the press about his life in Scouting and the injustice of the antigay policy. He joined a more welcoming congregation—First Congregational Church in Guilford—where he organized a PFLAG chapter and helped lead the congregation in the process of becoming Open and Affirming. Despite David’s relentless advocacy and demonstrations, the Boy Scouts organization stonewalled and resisted any consideration of change.
As the cause was seeming hopeless, in 2012, a number of straight Eagle Scouts joined together to form Scouts for Equality. They enlisted the support of corporate sponsors and lobbied Scouting officials to overturn the ban on gay Scouts. David accompanied members of Scouts for Equality to the 1993 annual meeting of the Boy Scouts of America in the Dallas area. After extensive debate the proposal to overturn the ban was adopted by a vote of 59% to 39%. As of January 1, 2014, Scout troops can have gay members. David was overjoyed to his effort finally succeed. In appreciation of his efforts, David was selected by Advocate magazine for its "Out100" list as "one of the most compelling gay people of the year.” One of David’s biggest joys in retirement is getting involved in Scouting and Eagle Courts of Honor.
(This biographical statement written by Mark Bowman from an interview with David Knapp and Internet sources and was edited by Knapp.)
David died on July 29, 2023 at the age of 98,
Biography Date: January 2022
Obituary in New Haven Register: https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/nhregister/name/david-knapp-obituary?id=52615768
United Church of Christ/Congregational Church | Activist (religious institutions) | New Jersey | Connecticut
“David Knapp | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed December 01, 2023, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/david-knapp.
“David relentlessly pursued me and my now wife in the early 2000's to be part of Stonewall Speakers. We did many speaking engagements over the next few years. I was the first co-president of Stonewall Speakers. ”
– as remembered by Eila Algood on May 15, 2023
Know David Knapp? Tell us your experience.
(All entries are reviewed by the LGBT-RAN office before posting.)