A Scout for Life
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."
"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."
Beyond LaFontaine's storybook family life was a wonderland gone bad of insecurity and rejection. He spent first through eighth grades at St. Ambrose, a Catholic school in Deerfield Beach, where he was the kid who made running commentary during third-grade subtraction lessons, who laughed too often and too loud, who could not stop whispering to the kid sitting next to him, and who was always prompting the teacher to put down her chalk and put an end to the foolishness. "I got bored easily," he remembers. "I think that was a lot of the problem."
All the while LaFontaine knew he was different from other children. Throughout elementary school his unique quality was nameless. But at age 12, guided by newfound sexual longings, he realized the word for his distinctive attribute was gay. "When I was younger, I kind of..." LaFontaine's voice trails off, and he laughs. "Well, you know, I discovered myself. I mean, I didn't do anything with anyone, but, you know, I discovered myself." Six years passed before he told anyone.
Knowing he was adopted only compounded his sense of being a misfit. "When you're little, you know you're different. My parents were good about it. They told me I was special," says LaFontaine, who cannot remember when he learned he was adopted. "I wasn't getting treated any differently."
Adds Barak: "The best and worst thing he had to deal with is that he's adopted. If you're adopted it means one family chose you. But it also means another family chose not to choose you."
Moreover LaFontaine had to attempt to reconcile his homosexuality with his religion. "In my strict Catholic upbringing, [homosexuality] was not thought about. It was a societal stigma," he says. "Gays were deviant, subhuman."
As LaFontaine struggled to understand himself, his classmates at St. Ambrose barraged him with malicious innuendo and sarcastic teasing. He remembers a time in music class when he had to rewrite lyrics to a song and then perform for his classmates. He chose the Flying Lizards' 1979 release, "Money." As he was warbling away, he noticed kids making lewd gestures and snickering. "That's the kind of thing that would happen," he explains.
To escape the teasing and, as much as possible, the turmoil inside himself, LaFontaine submerged himself in Scouting. His parents enrolled him in Cub Scouts early in elementary school, and he found an emotional haven in the sports, crafts, and fundraising contests. "I remember playing kick the can; that was my favorite sport," he says, smiling. "I remember doing the Pinewood Derby; that was when my dad and my brother helped me build little cars. My dad likes building things."
The best part of it, though, was social. "The people weren't judgmental," he recalls. "I remember, when I was in the Cub Scouts and then the Scouts, the jocks from school didn't join Scouting, so you didn't have to put up with that."
In ninth grade LaFontaine enrolled at Deerfield Beach High School. Ada Lyle, a close friend of his, recalls that she did not know he was gay until their ten-year high-school reunion. "Mark was a very funny and outgoing person," she remembers. "But was he a football player or a typical masculine guy? No." Lyle, who now works for a software company in Orlando, says LaFontaine often admitted the teasing hurt him, and although he never fought back, he was not weak. "He wasn't afraid of liking his own things. He was into the group Blondie, and because he didn't conform, kids picked on him," she says.
Chris Babinski, another classmate, remembers LaFontaine as part of "the intellectual crowd." Babinski says he always knew LaFontaine was gay, even though the two never discussed it. "He was always in a good mood, joking around, sociable," Babinski says. "He was always willing to help people."
LaFontaine's own memories of high school are not fond. "High school was a horrible time," he says, frowning. "I tended to befriend people that were outcasts, because I felt like I was one. I ran track, so I sort of fit in with the jocks, and I got good grades, so I sort of fit in with the brainiacs. I was more tolerated than anything."
LaFontaine tried to fool everyone into thinking he wasn't gay. "I had girlfriends, but I never had sex. I tried to be straight, and it just didn't work. I had girlfriends that wanted to have sex, and I had to switch back to religion and say I wanted to wait." LaFontaine says that the knowledge he was living a lie constantly nagged at him. "It was torture," he remembers. "You're trying to hide who you are because you're trying to be accepted by everyone else."
With so much to escape, LaFontaine focused even more on the Boy Scouts. "Scouting was my outlet. There not only did I fit in, but I was a leader," he says. "Kids joked around and things like that, but I don't think there was a time when kids were ever malicious or spiteful to me. Our leaders were pretty good about keeping a close watch on that." It was during high school that LaFontaine took the pictures of the outdoors that fill his photo album. In the spring of 1983, at age 15, he finished his Eagle Scout project: building benches for a meditation garden at the First United Methodist Church in Boca Raton.
It wasn't until LaFontaine was 18 years old that he told anyone he was gay. The first person in whom he confided was his scoutmaster, William Dunne. "It kind of happened so quickly. I can't even remember what brought it up. I had dated his daughter previously, and it was after we had broken up. I think I had been very depressed, and at the spur of the moment, I said I was confused about my sexuality," LaFontaine remembers. "I said I wanted to be straight but I didn't think I could." Dunne, who seemed uncomfortable with the admission, offered to help LaFontaine talk to his parents or a priest. Embarrassed, the young man turned down the offer.
"After that I was sweating bullets -- I was afraid he would tell my parents. I distanced myself from him," LaFontaine remembers. But Dunne kept the concerns confidential.
Why didn't the Scouts exclude him? There was no formal antigay policy in the early '80s. According to Scouting for All's Website (scoutingforall.org), the rule has never been stated in any Scouting manual, nor has it appeared in applications, training materials, or handbooks. "The earliest written record [of such a policy] was in an internal memo dated 1978; it first reached public attention when Tim Curran sued the BSA in 1980; and it was discussed in Scouting magazine twice only in 1992," according to the Website. "It appears in various briefing and position papers for BSA internal use only."
To justify the discriminatory policy, the organization's National Council cites the Scout Oath ("to keep myself morally straight") and the Scout Law ("A Scout is clean"). A statement released by the council following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling reads, "We believe an avowed homosexual is not a role model for the values espoused in the Scout Oath and Law. Boy Scouting makes no effort to discover the sexual orientation of any person."
LaFontaine says he remembers no mention of homosexuality -- or any sexuality -- while he was in the Boy Scouts. He attributes the newfound fanaticism to the influence of the religious right.
After high school LaFontaine entered the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York. A few weeks after his arrival, he shouted at an officer who was, according to LaFontaine, verbally abusing a midshipman whose mother had recently died. LaFontaine was soon told to leave.
For the next two years, LaFontaine had little direction. He took some physical education classes at Broward Community College, worked at Mike's Family Restaurant in Deerfield Beach, and went to a lot of parties. "At that time in my life, I was confused," he says. "I became a born-again Christian. I was searching for answers, and I wasn't finding any." His parents, concerned their son was floundering, suggested he give the U.S. Coast Guard a try.
During boot camp soldiers constantly asked him if he was gay. He lied and said no. He soon became a deck hand aboard a 180-foot Coast Guard cutter, The Basswood. "When we were stationed in Guam, we would go out to geisha bars," he remembers. "It became obvious that I was not partaking in "guy stuff.' When people asked me why, I would say it was because I was Catholic."
One night LaFontaine and a friend got drunk together. The friend, whose name LaFontaine does not recall, confessed that higher-ups had ordered him to determine if LaFontaine was gay. "I just said I understood," LaFontaine remembers, adding that he has had difficulty trusting others ever since. The story is consistent with other dehumanizing tales from that time period. It was not at all unusual for the military to put suspected homosexuals under surveillance in the pre"don't ask, don't tell" days, according to Steve Ralls of the Service Members Legal Defense Network, an organization dedicated to ending homophobic military policies through outreach and litigation.
Devastated and scared, LaFontaine could no longer endure the pressure of pretending to be straight. For the second time in his life, he told someone he was gay. This time his confidant was an officer, who said LaFontaine could stay on the ship if he kept his homosexuality secret. "I said I wanted to stay but that I didn't want to live a lie," LaFontaine recalls.
Early the next morning, a plane whisked LaFontaine and his belongings to the military base in Guam. Officers immediately put him under barracks arrest. After a few days, a petty officer took him to a "huge slab of concrete" in the middle of a remote field and handed him a chisel. From 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day for three weeks, LaFontaine recalls, his task was to break up concrete with a chisel. "Guam in August is very hot," he remembers. After the first week, his hands bore open wounds and blisters, but the petty officer denied a request for gloves. After two weeks, "not to get too graphic, but I... I could actually see the bones in my hands," he says softly. After another week the petty officer sent him to solitary confinement.
Though parts of LaFontaine's tale may sound implausible, such horrific treatment has been oft-reported (most notably in Randy Shiltz's 1993 book, Conduct Unbecoming). "In 1987 it's very possible it could have happened. They do very inhumane things," says David Brunelle, a former president of a California chapter of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Veterans of America. "I've experienced some pretty bad torture."
LaFontaine spent the next two months under barracks arrest, then five months in psychiatric treatment. He says the psychiatrist told him the military was evaluating him. "They also said they had to validate that my claim [of being homosexual] was accurate," he says. "The doctor was pretty nice about it."
On December 23, 1987, LaFontaine says he was honorably discharged. The Coast Guard would confirm only the dates of his service.
After his discharge LaFontaine called his mother and father for the first time in eight months. He told them he was gay, an admission that upset his parents. They encouraged him not to tell anyone.
He stayed in Guam two more years. "I was living with someone I was seeing," he says. "He was the first person I was intimate with. He worked on the military base." When his boyfriend ended the relationship, LaFontaine tried to kill himself. "It was stupid. I had gone out, and I drank a lot," he says. "Then I took maximum-strength Tylenol. I probably took 150 to 200 pills." The cocktail of Tylenol and White Russians knocked him out cold. A friend, Kelvin McClamb, dragged LaFontaine to his car and took him to the hospital, where doctors pumped his stomach.
Two months after his suicide attempt, LaFontaine flew home.
He spent the next few years working at Wendy's and Kmart in Coral Springs. Then, his best friend, Dennis Torres, became sick with AIDS. "When he was dying, he said, "I want you to go back to school,'" LaFontaine muses. "That was the hardest thing that has ever happened to me. It was a big turning point, a smack in the face." By January he was enrolled in Florida Metropolitan University. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in accounting in October 1997 and went directly to Florida International University to earn a master's degree in tax accounting. In 1999 LaFontaine incorporated his own accounting firm, CheckMark Services.
Finally his life was going smoothly. He was teaching finance classes at Florida Metropolitan and saving money for a house. Then, in early September, turbulence hit once again. But for the first time, LaFontaine generated the uproar.
At the encouragement of friends, LaFontaine spent the afternoon of Saturday, September 9, at Wilton Manors City Hall, in the heat of an ongoing debate about withholding tax dollars from the Scouts. Conservatives held an antigay rally, so LaFontaine and others staged a counter protest. "I wore my Scout uniform, and that thrust me into the papers. I wore the uniform because I have the right to wear the uniform. But more importantly I wore it to make a statement," he says. "As an Eagle Scout, and a Scout for life, I don't feel like the Boy Scouts have the right to make a policy that can exclude me."
LaFontaine became an activist "instantaneously," he explains. "You think of the ramifications at the same time you're dealing with it. I wasn't going to let someone come into where I live and tell me I'm not a person of good character. My parents weren't too thrilled with the publicity, but it all seemed to snowball. The issue was [then] brought up in Fort Lauderdale City Hall. I felt obligated to go to speak."
On September 11, for the second time in his life, LaFontaine spoke publicly on behalf of a cause. "It was hectic," he remembers. "It's nerve-racking any time you get up in front of a group of people." The meeting, at which commissioners voted against granting money to the Scouts, was a primer on the human capacity for contention and furor. LaFontaine listened to hours of irate ranting, impassioned testimony, and hateful rhetoric.
"I was shocked and surprised," LaFontaine recalls, adding that the most objectionable part was that children were listening. "The fact that they claimed to be religious Christians -- I found it to be ironic. They were claiming to be concerned about children's morals and values, but they were in staunch opposition to the principles of Scouting."
After the hearing LaFontaine had another new experience: Television reporters accosted him. "Everybody was blurting out questions," he explains. "You can't concentrate like that." So he ordered the reporters to step away, pull back their microphones, and take turns. Without thinking he engineered a press conference. The media used him, and he used the media.
For the rest of September, LaFontaine was busy preparing statements, public speaking, and consulting with advisers at both Lambda Legal Defense, a New York based gay-advocacy group, and Scouting for All. On September 18 he spoke at the school board's Diversity Committee meeting. After the hearing, which was full of fireworks, LaFontaine and White announced their intentions to apply to be troop leaders. "I didn't want to see an innocent youth or adults outed and pushed into the spotlight," LaFontaine explains.
The next day he again addressed the Fort Lauderdale City Commission. With 80 speakers on the agenda and police managing the crowds, the second meeting was as contentious and caustic as the first. The commission stood by its decision to deny a $10,000 grant to the Scouts' school program for at-risk and disabled children.
On September 22 LaFontaine and White hand-delivered their applications to the South Florida Council's headquarters in Miami Lakes. Their odyssey was documented by a trail of reporters. Cameras rolled as David Shorter, program director of the South Florida Council, told the men homosexuals were not welcome in Scouting. It was exactly what LaFontaine expected.
Jeffrie Herrmann, another South Florida Council executive, insists the actions of LaFontaine and White are inconsequential. "It will have no negative effect on Scouting," he says. "I think it was political grandstanding that they did that, knowing exactly what the result was going to be."
Bookending his first month of activism with Wilton Manors events, LaFontaine spoke at a September 26 commission debate of an antidiscrimination ordinance. The intensity of venom and hatred hadn't lessened, but LaFontaine was starting to get the hang of it. "It got a little easier each time I went, and I felt a little more prepared," he says. "When you're emotional it tends to waste energy," he says. "I just become more determined to get my views across."
Late on November 14, LaFontaine, wearing a crisp, navy blue suit and yellow paisley tie, stepped up to the podium facing the half-moon of school board members. Visibly nervous, he looked at their tired faces and introduced himself as the gay Eagle Scout who had been denied a position as a troop leader. Holding a stack of white papers, he introduced a petition with the signatures of 1752 people who supported a ban of the Scouting organization in Broward public schools.
LaFontaine took a deep breath. He explained his connections to the community and the school system, then he responded to several parents who spoke before him. "To my dismay a lot of the comments that I hear are from these pro-Scouts preaching, "Well, you chose your lifestyle.' And I am adamantly angry about that, because, and I tell you, I was born this way." His were eyes wide and bright, his voice laced with the kind of emotion that is so raw it is almost unbearable.
LaFontaine, ready to read his statement, took another deep breath. "When I was a youth in grade school and high school, I was harassed, ridiculed, spat at, and tormented physically and mentally by my peers for being gay. Not for acknowledging that I was gay but merely because others thought so," he read. "According to the Boy Scouts' own Website (www.scouting.org), they have 1,023,142 children that participate as of 1998. If the statistics are right, between 5 and 10 percent of these youth might be gay. We're talking no less than 51,000 children [who] will be asked to leave Scouting because they're unfit or immoral. I cannot imagine what that would do to the youth of today. I know what it has done to me. Part of it has made me a stronger person, but there have been times in my life when I have contemplated suicide."
To end his speech, which lasted about five minutes, he told the school board, "My message is clear: When I look at your rules in relation to the Boy Scouts, it's comply or goodbye."
Later that night the board unanimously voted to evict the Scouts. (Other systems have either withdrawn support or are considering action against the organization. Among them are Minneapolis, Miami, New York, and Los Angeles.)
Norman Silber, a Miami lawyer and troop leader, isn't an irate parent who rants at public meetings, but he is sympathetic to their concerns. "On at least one occasion, a mother came up to me after visiting our troop and said she had visited another troop, and that the leader seemed "swishy.' She was looking for a certain type of role model for her son. I know that plays into stereotypes and that not every gay man is swishy and not every swishy man is gay," he says. "But the point is that a lot of boys come from single-parent homes, and that single parent is often the mother. Those boys need positive role models."
Silber says rejecting openly gay applicants is "no different" than turning down an applicant who belongs to a club dedicated to having unprotected sex with multiple partners. Silber, however, does not think Scouting is gay-free. "Do we really think we're 100 percent heterosexual? Come on. Get real," he says, adding the distinction is whether gays are open about their sexual orientation.
While Silber is sensitive to the idea that the policy might send a painful message to boys who are starting to understand they are gay, he believes most Scouts don't know about the controversy. "We're certainly not going out of our way to make any child feel bad about himself," he says. "Kids, especially during the teenage years, can be exceptionally cruel, and one of the challenges as a troop leader is to teach about mutual respect."
When it comes to LaFontaine's campaign to end Scout-inspired homophobia, Silber chooses his words carefully: "I don't know Mr. LaFontaine. I respect him as living in a great country where he has the freedom to live."
BSA South Florida Council executive Herrmann admits that dealing with Scouts like LaFontaine presents a difficult issue. A boy who publicly says he is gay should be kicked out of the organization, but one who tells his scoutmaster he is confused should not be asked to leave. Instead the scoutmaster should find a parent, school counselor, or religious leader to talk to the child. The organization has set down no rule or guideline. "We don't talk about sex," Herrmann explains. "It simply is not a part of our program." The council has never had to confront an avowed homosexual Boy Scout, Herrmann claims.
On December 4 the BSA filed suit against the Broward school board, arguing its ban was unconstitutional. Despite the efforts of LaFontaine, White, and others, the board delayed imposition of the policy until March 30 while it fights the legal battle.
Meanwhile LaFontaine's life has evolved into something far different than taking orders from petty officers and Wendy's customers. "Obviously now I'm at a point where I'm very satisfied and comfortable with myself," he says. "I used to do things just to please my parents. But now I know it's most important to please myself." It seems the internal conflict that once tormented him has been replaced by an initiative to fight injustice.
LaFontaine says his energy springs from anger and bitterness, from all the pain he has endured. "I try not to dwell on the past. It's just wasted time if you dwell on it, and you get depressed. You're not helping anyone." Recently he has been making a full-force effort to gum up the works. Since applying to be a troop leader, he has appealed his rejection and is now awaiting a hearing before a Scouts council in Atlanta.
He is under consideration for an administrative position at Scouting for All and recently applied for membership in the National Eagle Scout Association (NESA). On December 28 he received an acceptance letter from NESA president Robert M. Gates stating, "I welcome you to the growing fellowship of Eagle Scouts.... [W]e would like to encourage you to volunteer." NESA is not only affiliated with the Scouts, it shares its headquarters with BSA in Irving, Texas. The acceptance may be significant because LaFontaine informed NESA that he is gay. A telephone message left at NESA seeking comment was not returned, and BSA executive Benny High declined comment on the acceptance.
LaFontaine says he doesn't hate the Scouts. He even asserts that, if he ever becomes a father, he would let his son join Scouting. "Growing up, I saw all too often that people seemed to generalize and stereotype. Because I guess I've had to go through all this garbage in my life, I try to remember to see people as individuals. And I tell people to judge me on an individual basis," he says. "If I didn't, I would be no better than the Aryan Nation or the KKK."
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.