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

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Jessie Colin: "He talked to gay kids . . . all the time to counsel them. He would even talk to unwed mothers to help them. He would bring pregnant women into my home so we could feed them. . . . He wanted everyone to respect one another."

Carillo and Gremling, El Modena's current GSA leaders, were only 3 years old in 1999, and Nodado, the adviser, had yet to make his way to Orange County. So every year before the group's first meeting begins, social-sciences teacher Heather Chapman drops by to give the students a history lesson of the club, one forgotten almost everywhere else.

"It was a different time," Chapman says. "Things are so much calmer now, but people don't really know how bad it was. There were students in previous years who had tried to start a GSA, but they had been discouraged and were told no."

Heather Carillo
Dustin Ames
Heather Carillo
Heather Chapman and Ernesto Nodado
Dustin Ames
Heather Chapman and Ernesto Nodado

Back then, Chapman was a roving teacher employed by the Orange Unified School District (OUSD), which El Modena is part of. New non-academic student-led clubs had to be approved by the OUSD school board. For much of the 1990s, a well-funded clandestine organization called the Education Alliance had quietly gotten Christian conservatives elected to the board, correctly assuming that voters in the OUSD didn't pay much attention to the candidates or their backgrounds. (Voter ignorance in the OUSD would manifest itself most famously in 2004, when fabulously entertaining conspiracy theorist Steve Rocco managed to get himself elected simply by listing his occupation as "teacher" on the ballot.)

By 1999, conservatives held the majority of seats on the seven-member board, and they were seriously pissing some people off. The board removed on-campus guidance counselors. They attempted to privatize the district's food-services department, one that operated in the black and was cited for excellence by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They tried to downplay evolution in the curriculum. They refused—under the guise of not wanting to be controlled by the federal government—to accept a $25,000 grant intended for poor students.

Individual members had made names for themselves as well. Martin Jacobson campaigned for his seat in 1993 wearing an electronic-surveillance bracelet, a reward he earned for blocking an abortion-clinic entrance, while Maureen Aschoff and Bill Lewis took campaign money from the Reverend Lou "Fred Phelps of Orange County" Sheldon and his Traditional Values Coalition.

To this bunch, the idea that gay students even existed seemed completely foreign.

Enter a certain 15-year-old who's not only saying he's gay, but also wants to start a club filled with them.

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Colin wasn't alone. He got support from other students, and one of them, Heather Zetin, eventually became the club's co-founder.

"I wanted there to be a safe place for gay kids," Zetin explains. "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."

Colin applied to get the club started, but then-El Modena principal Nancy Murray ignored his request. Eventually, the OUSD board tried to hold a closed-door meeting on the matter, but when local media found out about it, the board was forced to go public. One issue was the group's Gay-Straight Alliance name—the easily offended board had a problem with the word gay being used in any context and suggested strange linguistic tweaks, including rebranding it the Tolerance Club. Board member Kathy Ward bizarrely suggested that "many people find the word straight offensive."

They scheduled a vote on whether to allow the club for Dec. 7, 1999, which unsurprisingly attracted a ton of media scrutiny. Several TV-news crews did live remote reports outside the district office for their evening broadcasts. Crowds both pro- and anti-GSA yelled at one another.

"There was a lot of irrational opposition based on a misunderstanding of what the purpose of the club was, which was to promote respect," says attorney David Codell. "The board members portrayed the club as if it only existed to promote sex, so some created this public hysteria."

Indeed, some on the board assumed that even the most benign discussion of gay issues among gay and gay-friendly teenagers would somehow lead directly to a pants-dropping orgy.

"They would say really ugly, gross stuff that was completely off-topic," says Chapman.

Martin Jacobson was one of the more obscene offenders. He had ranted about material he claimed was used at a Massachusetts GSA that taught kids how to engage in oral sex, anal sex and fisting; he warned that the ultimate goal of the El Modena GSA was "to legitimize homosexual behavior. . . . This battle is for the minds of children."

"One of the members said the El Modena GSA would show 'blue' films and other things that were more graphic," Chapman recalls, "and Anthony whispered in my ear, 'Miss Chapman, what is that?' These kids had no idea what [the board members] were talking about."

Predictably, given the political bent of the board, it voted 7-0 to deny the GSA from forming.

But on the club's behalf, Codell and several other lawyers and plaintiffs wound up filing a federal lawsuit against the OUSD, arguing that the board was not only denying the GSA's First Amendment rights, but that it was also in violation of the 1984 Federal Equal Access law. Originally written so religious and non-academic student-led groups could use public-school rooms when regular classes weren't in session, the law also favored GSA clubs.

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