May 31, 1993 12:00 PM

THREE WEEKS AGO SCOTT PECK WAS just another college senior lugging his books to class at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County. Then his life changed. His father, Fred, a Marine Corps colonel, had left a message on Scott’s answering machine saving he had “something important” to discuss.

Scott’s heart sank as he dialed San Diego, but then his father was on the other end of the line and talking. “It’s okay, Scott!” boomed Fred, 44. “I don’t have a problem with it.” Shortly before receiving the call, the colonel had learned the secret that Scott, 24, had been hiding from his parents for years—that he was gay. Scott was astonished at his father’s acceptance of him.

“I was just floored, floored,” says Scott. “He was very forthright, very true to his nature. His sense of humor was in full command. He told me, ‘Don’t expect me to give you away at your wedding.’ And then he proceeded to outline his viewpoints on the entire issue of homosexuality.” Father and son were soon talking, exchanging intimacies as they never had before. Says Scott, who wants to be a writer: “I couldn’t have written a fiction story this good.”

But the story of the Marine colonel and his gay son was not done. The next day, May 11, Colonel Peck, who was already a familiar face to American TV viewers as military spokesman for Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the controversial proposal to end the ban on gays in the military. “My son Scott is a homosexual,” he told the stunned senators.

He then went on to explain why he would never want to see him in uniform. “If [Scott] were to follow in my footsteps as an infantry platoon leader or a company commander,” the colonel testified, “I would be very fearful that his life would be in jeopardy from his own troops. I love him as much as I do any of my [three] sons. But Scott should not serve in the military.”

The spectacle of the ramrod-stiff Marine officer attempting to reconcile his love for his gay son with his unwavering belief in the validity of the gay ban was witnessed by millions of TV viewers across the nation. But no one was more moved than Scott Peck. “What he did took guts!” exclaims Scott, who knew what his father would say. “Sure, he came down on the side that opposed lifting the ban. But he also made statements about homosexuality that I’m sure did not win friends and influence people in the Marine Corps. My dad made it clear that he believes homosexuality is genetic and he has no moral or religious problems with it. He went out on a limb—and I respect him for that.”

Scott, in a sense, was Fred Peck’s own dark secret. In 1967 Fred—the son of a Baltimore steelworker—was a plebe at the U.S. Naval Academy when he got high school sweetheart Michaele Yogan in trouble. Marriage and fatherhood were forbidden at the Academy, so the couple kept quiet about baby Scott until they married in 1970, two days after Fred’s graduation. Soon after that, Fred sailed for Vietnam and spent all but 18 months of the next six years on sea duty there and on Okinawa. Today, Scott has no childhood memories of his dad.

When Scott was 6, Michaele, feeling increasingly isolated in her husband’s absence, asked for a divorce. About four years later, she moved with her son to West Palm Beach, Fla., to live with her new husband. Scott was 15 before Michaele, dying of cancer, took desperate steps to reconnect the boy with his father, who had made no attempt to stay in touch with the boy after the split. “She knew I needed family,” says Scott.

Scott says he got along with Fred and his third wife, Marine Maj. Joanne Schilling, but he was not able to tell his father he was gay. Scott himself had known it, even if he’d denied it, for years. “I can remember way back in first grade, coming home from school,” says Scott, “and my family asked, ‘Who’s the prettiest kid in your class?’ And I said, ‘Allen!’ Well, they gave me a long talk about how boys don’t like boys. Boys like girls!”

Because his mother had introduced him to the fundamentalist Church of God, Scott blamed his growing sense of sexual difference on “demons from hell.” “It was a terrible struggle,” he says. “In Sunday school, we learned that homosexuals were men who molested little boys, men who wanted to be women. I told myself, ‘I can’t be gay, because I don’t fit the definitions of gay. But I am attracted to men.’ I told myself I was a sinner. I could feel the fires of hell lapping at my ankles every night when I went to bed.”

All the way through high school, Scott kept wondering when it was going to happen, when he was going to start being attracted to girls. Finally, he gave up waiting. He started dating Kelley Slagle, a statuesque redhead who was a fellow staffer on the Retriever, his college newspaper. “I was trying real hard to be a heterosexual,” he says. “You know, it’s not easy being gay—I mean, nobody chooses to be gay. I thought if I dated a beautiful enough person, she would be able to cure me. And that didn’t happen. Finally, I was causing her so much pain because I kept pulling away physically, I knew I had to tell her.”

Kelley calls Scott one of the most fascinating and talented people she’s ever met. “I’ll always love him,” she says. “But I was not really surprised when he told me about being gay. Maybe that’s why I took it so well.”

Scott lives today with legal secretary Bobby Hampson, 29, in a $464-a-month suburban Baltimore apartment that is strewn with barbells and CDs. Two years ago, Scott told friends and a few family members that he was gay and began writing for the Retriever on homosexual issues. A self-styled moderate on gay rights, he has blasted the more radical factions in the movement—especially the outspoken Queer Nation—for their abusive intolerance of the heterosexual mainstream.

In recent months, Fred had written Scott from Somalia, asking him to look up data that would support Fred’s case against the lifting of the gay ban. “He knew that I’d written some columns about gay issues,” says Scott, “although he certainly didn’t know that I, myself, was gay. He wanted me to round up statistics on how they segregate gays and lesbians in college housing, etc. And of course I was panicking. Suddenly, the issue was getting out of my control.”

Matters appeared even more dire when word got out that Colonel Peck would be testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Queer Nation threatened to retaliate. “A supporter of Queer Nation told me that if my father testified, he would ‘out’ me to the media in order to discredit my father and embarrass him.”

It was at this point that Scott told Joanne, his stepmother, that he was gay. At first Joanne tried to discourage Fred from testifying. But when she could make no headway, she finally followed Scott’s suggestion and told Fred everything.

“I only wish,” says Scott in the wake of his father’s poignant testimony, “that Id been able to tell my father everything when I was 15. I told my dad, ‘I wish I’d had enough faith in you back then. I could have saved myself years of turmoil.’ ”

WILLIAM PLUMMER

TOM NUGENT in Baltimore

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