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.
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.
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.
* * *
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."
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.
* * *
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.
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.
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."
* * *
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."
By the fall of 2011, Colin was experiencing several health issues. Depression lingered, and he had foot surgery to correct painful plantar fasciitis, which left him on crutches. For several years, he had been close friends with Shar Jackson, an actress famous for her role on the TV series Moesha, as well as being the mother of Kevin Federline's two children prior to his eventual short-lived marriage to Britney Spears.
The Weekly made several unsuccessful attempts to contact Jackson for this story via a spokesperson. What follows is information that appears in a 2011 report from the Riverside County Sheriff's Department:
Colin told Jackson that he used to self-mutilate, cutting his arms and legs. Over the course of several phone calls in November 2011 to Jackson, Colin expressed his feelings of despair. "What do I have to offer?" he wondered. "I'm sick. . . . I do drugs." Colin confided that he felt completely alone and told Jackson she was his only friend.
Around noon on Nov. 21, 2011, Jackson picked Colin up from his parents' house in Orange, and the two drove to LA for some shopping. After stopping at a Buffalo Wild Wings for drinks, they returned to Jackson's home in Corona in the evening, where Colin continued to drink into the early morning. At some point, Colin said he was stepping outside for a cigarette. A half-hour went by, and Colin didn't return.
A friend of Jackson's family was leaving the house and noticed Colin leaning against a tree nearby. The friend didn't stop but called Jackson to let her know where Colin was. Jackson drove to the spot and rolled down her window to talk to Colin, but he didn't respond. When she got out of her car, Jackson noticed that Colin was hanging from the tree, suspended by his neck from a 2.5-centimeter-wide red-leather bag strap.
Jackson drove back to her house and got a relative to call 911. They drove back to Anthony and cut him down. Paramedics arrived and attempted to resuscitate Colin, but there was no response. He was pronounced dead at 3:55 a.m.
Anthony Ray Colin—Lady Justice—was 27 years old.
* * *
"It hurt a lot of people, so many people," says Guzman. "I wasn't too close with his family, but at his services, I met his mother, Jessie, and she just gave me the biggest, warmest hug and told me how much she loved me and how grateful she was to have me there. For her to be comforting me when she was the one who lost her son . . ."
"But I miss him dearly," Guzman continues. "I miss his smile and his laugh. And him telling me that I'm a crazy sexy bitch!"
"It was a heartbreaking shock," says Codell. "I had talked to him a few weeks before he died, just catching up as friends, finding out what he was up to. He was happy and doing well, and he had plans he was discussing with me. I think a thousand different things could have happened differently that day, and it would have been a different outcome.
"One of the things that makes his death so very sad, though, is that one of the purposes of the club which we argued was to help prevent suicide. And when the judge wrote in his decision allowing the club to meet, he wrote, 'This is a matter of life and death.' And he talked about how the suicide rate is so high for gay kids and how the purpose of the club is to provide support."
"One moment of bad judgment does not sum up my son," says Jessie. "There was so much more to the man."
* * *
Fourteen years after the GSA controversy, things look better not only for gay students at El Modena, but also for gay students at OC high schools everywhere. There are GSA groups at nearly 50 campuses. El Modena now has an anti-bullying policy, and there's a big assembly each year on the topic.
Chapman can't see the current OUSD board ever attempting to shut down every student group—"They're far brighter than that, and more reasonable and moderate in their thinking." (In 2001, several OUSD board members—including Martin "Mister Fister" Jacobson—were recalled by voters.)
Carillo and Gremling, the current El Modena GSA student leaders, are acutely aware of the legacy Colin, Zetin, and all the club members who came and went in between have left them. They get that every time a student tells them thanks for being there for them, for existing, for trusting them enough to confide with them what they're going through at school or home.
"I've had people this year, especially freshmen, who tell us, 'Yeah, keep going!'" Gremling says. "There seems to be a lot of freshmen interested in us this year. The entire history of it is just so crazy and important. If we just gave it up, that would be a huge disappointment to the people who've come before. It would be sad if we just let it go."
"It's really cool that we're kind of famous," says Carillo. "Being a leader of the GSA is my greatest accomplishment."
"It's a real privilege for us to be the leaders of the GSA now," says Gremling. "Miss Chapman says that when she tells us the story of the GSA, she always says that the thing that's good about it now is that no one is getting jumped just for signing up. There's no problem with being in it now. There's no issue wearing our LOVE IS LOVE buttons every day."
No issue. Like Anthony always wanted.
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