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

The board's response? It proposed to ban all 38 non-academic clubs in the OUSD, including such seemingly harmless ones as the Black Student Union, rather than have the GSA forced down its throat. That idea went nowhere, so instead, it voted to require parental permission slips for all students who wanted to join clubs.

The media frenzy spread. Colin and Zetin and El Modena's GSA were written about in TIME, USA Today and The New York Times. By April, a glossy Colin—and his black nail polish—found himself on the cover of the national gay news magazine The Advocate. "GAY TEENS FIGHT BACK," the cover blurbed. "Anthony Colin leads a new generation of high school activists out of the closet."

The GSA's legal reps, meanwhile, sought—and won—a preliminary injunction from U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter against the OUSD to allow the club to meet until the end of the school year while the larger lawsuit wound through the courts.

Colin speaking to Orange school board members in 2000
© Leonard Ortiz/The Orange County Register/
Colin speaking to Orange school board members in 2000
With family
Courtesy Colin Family
With family

It was a historic victory—the first time anywhere in the country that a federal judge had ordered a public-school board to allow a GSA to meet on campus.

"Anthony was thrilled; I was thrilled—it was huge," says Codell. "The judge's opinion was resounding. He really regarded this case as important and understood the real-life issues. And I think Anthony handled himself heroically. He was regarded as a hero by many in the LGBT community, and not only by students, but also by many adults who admired his bravery and courage. Starting the club was a very noble way of responding to all those years of bullying."

Once the OUSD board realized it would have to spend huge amounts of cash it didn't have to defend the lawsuit, it folded. In September 2000, the board voted to finally allow the GSA to meet.

The club has been meeting ever since.

"I'm really proud of what we did and that we set a precedent because it means that queer kids are going to have a better time and have somewhere to be safe and supported," says Zetin. "It was really important to Anthony. He wanted to make the school and the world a better place for gay kids."

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After high school, Colin held several jobs. He worked in beauty salons and restaurants and did construction work for his father, Bob, an architect and contractor.

"He'd spend the day ripping off roofs or installing floors, then he'd come home, shower, put on some jazz and start crocheting," Jessie says.

Music, though, was his life. He loved to sing and hit the nearest karaoke bar, favoring smoky sirens such as Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughn and Billie Holiday. He also started performing in drag shows in full makeup at the since-demolished Ozz nightclub in Buena Park.

You can't do drag unless you've got a great drag name, and Colin had one: Lady Justice, a nod to his win over the OUSD. He also had an Albert Einstein quote tattooed on his arm in commemoration: "Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds."

"He chose Justice because of the fight he had, for his victory," says Shadya Guzman, a friend who instantly bonded with Colin when they met in 2004. "I found that out when we were watching TV one day, and Oprah came on—this was after I'd known him for a few years. He said, 'Oh, I was on that show!' and I was like, 'Yeah, right.' And he said 'No, for real!' That's when he opened up about all that."

In some ways, it seemed Colin was growing tired of being known as a public activist. He spoke often at LGBT events and was given several awards for what he did at El Modena. The GSA was lauded by the Orange County Human Relations Commission and the City of West Hollywood. But the attention was also exhausting.

"I think he had people who would be friends with him because of his association with the GSA, so maybe he held off telling people about that because he didn't want them to know unless he knew where he stood in the relationship," Guzman says.

"Tony opened a whole new set of avenues for other teens to have a voice," says Jessie. "But he used to say he never wanted to be a leader or a follower; he just wanted to be an individual."

Instead, Jessie says, her son became more of a personal activist.

"He talked to gay kids on the telephone and on Facebook all the time to counsel them," she says. "He would even talk to unwed mothers to help them. He would bring pregnant women into my home so we could feed them. Tony's big thing was respect. He wanted everyone to respect one another."

But self-worth issues began surfacing. Colin started experimenting with alcohol and drugs. He had severe bouts of depression. Around 2008, he tested positive for HIV. As happy, cheerful and outgoing as he often appeared to friends and family, on the inside, he was struggling.

"He would always be the first person to cheer someone up if they were down," remembers Guzman. "He would make me laugh and give me guy advice, even if he was hurting inside. I told him he was strong and that he had been through all kinds of things, that he just needed to fight."

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