June 05, 2000 12:00 PM

Anguished by the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student left to die after being pistol-whipped in Wyoming in 1998, Anthony Colin felt impelled to take action. Openly gay since eighth grade, Colin, 16, decided last September to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at El Modena High School in Orange, 25 miles southeast of Los Angeles, where he is a sophomore. Colin was inspired by hundreds of similar clubs nationwide, formed to promote tolerance. “I’ve been harassed since kindergarten,” he says. “For all I know, the next death might be me.”

Following guidelines, Colin says he gathered about 500 signatures from the school’s 1,900 students. Next, he submitted an application to principal Nancy Murray. Instead of approving the proposal, Murray forwarded it to the Orange Unified School District officials. The next thing Colin knew, he and his club were the focus of heated debate. A series of school-board meetings drew angry parents and antigay picketers from as far away as Utah. One gathering devolved into a free-for-all in which a student bit the arm of a principal from another school. Says school district spokeswoman Judith Frutig: “Things got totally out of hand here.”

To cool tempers and calm fears, Colin assured officials that the Gay-Straight Alliance was about fostering understanding, not sex. In November he filed a federal suit charging that the school district was being discriminatory in not acting on his application. The school board then voted on Dec. 7 to prohibit the club from meeting on school grounds because the group’s name was too sexually explicit and the board feared the club would discuss sex. Two weeks later, backed by several public-interest organizations, Colin filed an amended complaint challenging the decision. “The case is really a matter of principle,” says Laura Brill, one of his pro bono attorneys. “Can the club meet on the same terms as other clubs?”

Absolutely not, argue opponents. “This group is saying they will never talk about sex, and that is ludicrous,” says Donna Sigalas, 51, a local mother of eight who formed Parents’ Rights USA, a group of more than 100 parents, to start a national network that opposes such clubs in schools. “If you think the gay kids aren’t seducing the other kids, you’re nuts,” says Sigalas. “We would like to promote abstinence.”

Federal District Judge David O.Carter issued a preliminary injunction against the ban on the grounds that it is likely discriminatory. On Feb. 9 the club, which had been convening on the sidewalk across the street from the school, held its first on-campus meeting, attended by 58 students, a majority of whom were straight. “I think it’s settled into normalcy,” says drama teacher Maryina Herde, 56, the club’s faculty adviser. But while protests have abated—signs depicting people with AIDS and graphic sexual couplings were commonplace—Herde admits the club still gets hate mail.

The main target of abuse, Colin has been staunchly backed by his parents, Bob, 44, an architect, and Jessie, 45, a pottery artist, who also have three daughters. “This type of kid, either the system breaks them or makes them,” says Bob. Describing Anthony as “a typical teenager,” his mother says he held up better than she did when confronted by verbally abusive protesters. “I was full of several emotions: hate, kill, hurt,” she admits. But though Anthony puts on a brave face, his grades have suffered, and, Herde says, “he’s exhausted.”

A final court decision is months away, but Sigalas and her group are-already considering a contingency plan in case the Gay-Straight Alliance wins: They will ask the school board to follow the example of the Salt Lake City School District by banning all noncurricular clubs on campus. (The Utah ban is being contested in court.) Whatever happens, Colin feels the fight has helped instill in him some of the very attitudes he wants his club to teach.

“I’ve learned not to hate,” he says. “Sooner or later it’s going to be over, and I’m still going to be here.”

Nick Charles

Leslie Berestein in Orange

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