Anthony Colin Made El Modena High School a Safer Place

He helped to create a haven for gay students such as himself. What happened next was heartbreaking

Anthony Colin Made El Modena High School a Safer Place
Illustration: Charlie Powell | Design: Dustin Ames

Room 525 at El Modena High School in Orange is normally where chemistry classes are held, and the décor lets you know it: tacked-up periodic tables, shelved science textbooks, noisy and uncomfortable metal stools, and shiny jet-black countertops on which students conduct simple and not-so-simple experiments. On one wall is a chart explaining how, when light hits a prism, a rainbow is formed.

Heather Zetin: "Anthony was the only out gay kid at school that I knew of, and he would get called names. It was a pretty homophobic place, in general, but it got worse once word got out that we were trying to get a club going."

Oh, wait . . . that's actually a rainbow flag. Which makes total sense because room 525 is also where the El Modena Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) club holds its meetings every other Wednesday. There are other pride emblems sprinkled around: a HATE-FREE ZONE magnet stuck on a cabinet, and several signs encouraging equality and diversity.

Symbols and slogans are nice and all, but for GSA student leaders Heather Carillo and Amanda Gremling, there's work to be done. Like making sure they have enough rainbow-hued LOVE IS LOVE buttons to sell at fund-raisers, as well as the official club T-shirts that proclaim, "I AM GAY/I AM LESBIAN/I AM STRAIGHT/I AM BISEXUAL/I AM HUMAN." Proceeds go toward club events, such as buying pizza, snacks and drinks for after-school movies with gay themes—Perks of Being a Wallflower seems to be a popular choice for next week.

Colin (center) at a 1999 Orange Unified School District board meeting
© Leonard Ortiz/The Orange County Register/
Colin (center) at a 1999 Orange Unified School District board meeting
Amanda Gremling
Dustin Ames
Amanda Gremling

It's not as if there's an entrance exam or anything, but no one has to be gay to be a member of the club—Carillo and Gremling are both straight—and they accept anyone who wants to be part of a friendly, welcoming group of peers.

"It's basically a place where you can go for half an hour and people won't judge you—and where you'll be loved on," says Gremling. "We talk about gay marriage and current events all the time and how we feel about them. There's always something new."

"We tolerate everyone," Carillo says, "even people who have different views and want to come see what we're about."

Meetings average around 15 members, a fairly decent retention rate from the 60 curious students who packed room 525 at the beginning of the academic year.

"The start of each year is when students find out about the club," says Ernesto Nodado, the chemistry teacher who advises the group and lets the GSA meet in his classroom. "Just the fact that the GSA is here matters. Even if a student isn't comfortable enough to attend one meeting during the entire four years here, at least the students who come on that first day will know it exists. It lets students know that there's a safe place."

A safe place.

Like Anthony always wanted.

*     *     *

Anthony Colin was a wiry 15-year-old with a mop of black hair, into which he would sometimes streak a lovely shade of purple. In 1999, he was also one of El Modena's few (if not only) openly gay students. Flamboyant and outspoken, his personality would make him a frequent target for taunting and bullying from less-than-tolerant peers, something he had endured since an early age.

"In kindergarten, Tony had a long braid, but on the second day of school, another student referred to him as a girl," says Jessie Colin, Anthony's mom. "He came home crying, and I cut his braid for him."

The abuse was constant throughout elementary school and junior high, and many students were suspended for the appalling way they treated him.

When he was 13, he decided it was time to reveal his orientation to his mom.

"He came home from seventh grade looking sad and very scared, and said, 'Mom, I'm gay.' I started laughing and told him, 'You're only 13 years old—how can you make such an adult decision?' He said, 'Mom, I know.' I said, 'Okay, we'll talk about it again, but you're not in trouble.'"

Freshly out, Colin found plenty of love, support and acceptance among his family and friends—"I used to tell my son God makes no mistakes, only man does," Jessie remembers—but his public-school life remained harsh and hellish. By the time he reached El Modena, the harassment became straight-up violent.

"Students threw full soda cans and food at him," Jessie recalls. "People tried to trip him. He couldn't use the boys' bathroom because he was bullied there, so he had to use the bathroom near the principal's office. He started in ninth grade taking P.E., but he was transferred to written P.E. because students were cruel to him during P.E. class. He was called 'queer,' 'sissy' and 'faggot' in P.E. and all day long."

Colin finally had enough. Spurred by the murder of Matthew Shepard a year earlier, he decided to form a Gay-Straight Alliance club on campus, so he and anyone else at El Modena would have a place, even for a little while, that was free from hostility. Similar GSA groups were beginning to pop up on high-school campuses all around the country at the time—including one at Fountain Valley High, which this year celebrated its 20th anniversary—so, Colin thought, why not one at ElMo?

Jessie Colin thought it was a fantastic idea.

But there couldn't have been a worse place to try to get one started.

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