A Scout for Life

Gay Eagle Scout Mark LaFontaine nudged the Broward school board to historic heights

Mark LaFontaine has the flu. He sniffles as he walks through his dining room, a hooded, red-and-blue terry-cloth robe swaddling his tall, athletic body. In Scooby-Doo slippers he pads to the back of the house and, after a few minutes, returns with his hands full. He unloads onto the dining room table a photo album, a scrapbook, and an oversize leather briefcase crammed with Boy Scout memorabilia: at least 15 white or yellow neckerchiefs, 10 patches from jamborees, and a half-dozen crisp, white award-ceremony programs. "My Scouting stuff is the only thing I kept from my childhood," he says, excitement creeping into his voice. "My Scouting years were the most important parts of growing up."

The faux-leather photo album is full of amateur snapshots -- most of them hazy and brownish -- of boys with feathered 1980s hair wearing tan shorts and tube socks pulled to midcalf. Pictures show Boy Scout Troop 337's adventures to the Minnesota wilderness and Canadian islands and trips to Georgia Bible camps. With particular pride LaFontaine points to two photos in which he and his parents beam with pride. They were taken in 1983, seconds after he received his Eagle Scout award, the organization's highest level of achievement.

Dozens of congratulatory letters, each mounted neatly behind a clear-plastic page cover, fill his scrapbook. In missives dated May 1983 are the typed praises of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, Vice President George Bush, Florida governor Bob Graham, and U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw. LaFontaine reads the last paragraph of Ford's letter out loud: "Scouting has been good to you as a boy. Be good to Scouting as an adult."

Joshua Prezant
BSA South Florida Council executive Jeffrie Herrmann says avowed homosexuals are unwelcome in his organization
Joshua Prezant
BSA South Florida Council executive Jeffrie Herrmann says avowed homosexuals are unwelcome in his organization

"That's what I'm doing," he says, raising his brown, half-moon eyebrows.

For LaFontaine, who is gay, being good to Scouting has meant taking on the role of a parent determined to reform his delinquent son. Since September he has campaigned to deny the organization public funding until it changes a policy that bars gays from joining. "I feel an allegiance to Scouting because it is part of me," he says, "but I'm not supportive of policies on the national level."

In June the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), as a private organization, may legally discriminate against homosexuals. The decision caused a flurry of debate about the group's access to government funding and property. LaFontaine, who estimates he spends 20 hours per week fighting the Scouts' rule, has elbowed his way to the center of the action. He provokes confrontation and, like a child who has figured out exactly how to enrage his mother, knows the precise recipe for angering homophobic politicians and BSA administrators. "He was out there pounding the ground and putting himself at risk for a cause," says Jeremy Liebbe of Scouting for All, a Petaluma, California­based organization dedicated to including gays, girls, and atheists in Scouts. "He's definitely the one that's been leading the charge on it."

LaFontaine achieved his most notable success with the Broward County school board. After the citizen-run Diversity Committee ruled in September that the school board would need evidence of discrimination to evict the Scouts from public-school facilities, LaFontaine and another gay Eagle Scout, Doug White, applied to be troop leaders. They were rejected, and on November 14 the board had the evidence it needed to unanimously deny school space to the Scouts. Broward County distinguished itself as one of the first counties in America where education officials took such a radical stand.

LaFontaine's childhood was one of bowling alley birthday parties, daily lists of after-school chores, and parents who, both on principle and out of financial necessity, refused to spring for Jordache jeans or Nike shoes. It was Catholic, middle-class suburbia, complete with a brick-and-stucco ranch home in Deerfield Beach. "We were your typical family with two girls, two boys, and two parents happily married," says LaFontaine's sister, Laura Barak, who is the baby of the family. "And I mean, my parents really were happily married." LaFontaine, the third child, was adopted; his brother and sisters were not.

Barak, three years younger than LaFontaine, says she warmly remembers playing kickball in the road, rushing to finish chores in the five minutes before her parents got home from work, and fishing in a canal behind their back yard. "One time Mark caught a stingray on his birthday," she says. "And one time he came running into the house saying, "Mom! Mom! There's a sea monster in the canal!' It was probably a manatee. He had a great imagination." LaFontaine's parents were supportive and loving but strict. "They had expectations for each of us. It wasn't a question of, "Should I meet them?' It was, "You meet them,' and there was no other way," Barak says, adding that LaFontaine's fierce desire to resist authority often made for domestic fireworks.

"He was always the kid that said, "No!' They'd say, "Clean your room,' and he'd say, "No! I don't feel like it.' My parents were pretty strict, and that didn't go over well," Barak says. "Also, he was not a morning person. He didn't want to be spoken to in the morning. He just wanted to read his paper. My mom was a morning person, though, and she would always talk to us." She laughs, adding, "It didn't really start the day off right with Mom."

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