El Modena High has a nickname. Students at neighboring schools in Orange County, Calif., call it "Homo-dena," spitting out the syllables with all the cruelty and attitude that high school rivalry can disgorge. And a battle is being joined in El Modena, a battle over the right to form a student club on campus similar to ones that have become increasingly popular and controversial nationwide.
It is a very physical and emotional conflict. On Wednesday Anthony Colin, 15, leader of El Modena's Gay-Straight Alliance, was hit on the head by a demonstrator who was furious because a federal judge had ruled that the group could meet on campus. The ensuing melee involved about 50 people and lasted about half an hour, halting traffic. On Friday students both for and against the group staged a walkout. Some kids complain that El Modena's reputation is suffering and that they are being bullied for coming from "the gay school"; other classmates call such fears "immature." Parents fearful that the alliance will promote a "destructive lifestyle" are pressing administrators to find ways to shut it down, and the school district continues to argue in court against the alliance's right to meet. Meanwhile, El Modena has become a culture-war magnet: anti-alliance protesters have driven in from Utah to show support even as civil rights activists rally around the alliance.
None of this fazes Colin. "I knew I would fight for this all the way," he says. His mother is staunchly behind him. "I said to him, 'If you start it, see it all the way through.' I'm proud that this little 15-year-old of mine has backed the school board into a corner, but it's sad that he has to go through this."
El Modena is the latest battleground over gay-straight alliances--student-organized clubs that promote the rights of gays, lesbians and bisexuals. Active in scattered locations for about a decade, they turned into something of a national movement after the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard. There are now more than 700 gay-straight clubs in schools from Iowa to New Jersey to Georgia, according to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. Members need not identify their sexual orientation, and many alliances serve primarily as forums for discussing all things teen. "It's really important to feel there are other people to talk to," says a gay senior at Staples High in Westport, Conn., who asked that his name not be used. Says Heather Zetin, a founding member of El Modena's alliance: "I've seen Tony and other people threatened and harassed, and people need a place to come and talk about that." Studies show that gay and lesbian youth are seven times as likely as straight kids to be threatened or injured by a weapon at school and five times as likely to skip school because they feel unsafe.