Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Ahead of the Class

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Ahead of the Class

Article excerpt

Anthony Colin and his peers take on a school district for their right to be out

Anthony Colin's home is just a block away from El Modena High School in Orange, Calif. But for the cofounder of the school's gay-straight alliance, the short walk between school and home feels like an obstacle course of taunts and threats.

"Kids will be waiting for me at the front gate," says Colin, who turned 16 on February 25. "I can't make the two-minute walk home unless I'm surrounded by my friends or picked up by my parents. The school does what it can to keep me safe, but it can't look after me every second of the day."

El Modena has become ground zero in the battle for the right of gay and lesbian student groups to meet on public-school grounds. In December the Orange Unified School District's board, reacting to complaints from parents, voted 7-0 to prohibit the alliance from meeting on school property. The group held its first meeting, which was attended by 58 students, on February 9, after a federal district court judge issued a preliminary injunction overturning the ban. Faced with a court order to treat the gay-straight alliance like any other club, the board is considering a more radical step: banning all extracurricular groups.

El Modena is a quiet school of 1,900 mostly middle-class students in the city of Orange. Yet this unlikely setting, in traditionally conservative Orange County, has become a high-stakes battleground, drawing attention from national groups such as the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, a group promoting tolerance in schools; Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund; and People for the American Way, a national liberal advocacy group. Sensing a political conflict in which parents' fears about their children would be in play, antigay groups, including the Orange County-based Traditional Values Coalition, have also joined the fray.

For alliance leaders, however, inspiration has different sources. Like other gay and lesbian students around the country, Colin and the group's other cofounder, Heather Zetin, were motivated to form the alliance by the 1998 slaying of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard and the desire to protect themselves and other gay kids from discrimination, harassment, and worse.

"I could see a lot of myself in Matthew," Colin says. "If it could happen to him, I knew it could happen to me because I could see the fury my being gay provoked in some of the other kids."

Colin is a trailblazer for a relatively new phenomenon in American life: gay adolescents living openly with the full acceptance of their families. Colin came out to his family at 13, and his parents and five sisters all support him unequivocally.

"I knew when I was 11, and I told my friend Lily about it," he says. Today, the precocious purple-haired Colin wonders what took him so long: "It took me two years to get the courage up to tell my mama."

"When Anthony told me, I cried and cried," says Jessie Colin, Anthony's mother. "I wanted to know how on earth he could understand his sexual orientation at such a young age. But then when I realized how feminine and opinionated he was--and I see those words as compliments--I understood how he knew. Then it became my job as a mother to love and protect him. …

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