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CLUB CHALLENGES GAY PREJUDICE

Forming a Gay Straight Alliance at DeLand High ruffled some feathers, but is succeeding.

One boy whose hair reaches halfway down his back wore a camouflage tank top, light blue nail polish, blue eye shadow and a thick silver chain around his neck.

Another with a hint of a Marilyn Manson look donned bracelets, a ring and jet black nail polish that matched his ebony hair.

A girl sported blue and purple hair, striped leggings, a red plaid skirt and a T-shirt with pastel-colored hearts.

It was the weekly gathering of DeLand High School's Gay Straight Alliance, and a girl who probably would have blended in better playing flute in the band was so overcome with emotion she burst into tears.

"This is like the first time I ever felt welcome at anything," she sobbed as she blotted her eyes with a tissue. "I know I look like the redneck or preppie girl. That's just classification. My whole life I've been dealing with this. I always feel like the black sheep, even in my family. You guys just accepted me. You make me feel so welcome."

Another girl in the room sighed, "Oh, group hug," and within seconds teenage arms hugged away the tears and the kids offered a compassionate ear and advice only they knew how to give.

It was one of the main reasons science teacher Victor Arguelles started the Gay Straight Alliance a few months ago. Arguelles, who is gay, wanted the kids to have a safe place to share their fears and educate others at the school about the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people around them.

Arguelles first thought about creating the group after a 20-year-old gay friend of his walking in DeLand one night in the fall was badly beaten.

"I wanted to make sure that wouldn't happen to one of our students, and that they'd have a safe place to go and be safe in our community," said Arguelles, who is 24 and began teaching at DeLand High in the fall. "DeLand still has a small-town mind-set. It's just a place for them to come. A safe zone."

When Arguelles pitched his idea to principal Mitch Moyer, he said Moyer was receptive.

"We're a small town here, and we're in the Bible Belt," Moyer said. "I predict this will have mixed reviews and it will be questioned.

"But to me as a human being it's the right thing to do."

There are 3,000 Gay Straight Alliances at schools nationwide and 80 in Florida.

The 23-member Gay Straight Alliance at DeLand High, where there are nearly 3,300 students, is the only one in Volusia and Flagler counties.

As the name suggests, heterosexual kids are welcome in the club. One heterosexual memberJessica Maahs, 17.

"Now that I'm older, I see how separated the school is," Maahs said. "It's so important for people to accept our gay friends. And it's important for our generation to stop this (bigotry)."

Several kids in the DeLand group came out to their parents and friends after attending meetings. Not everyone had a happy ending. Some lost friends, and one boy was kicked out of his home, group members say.

Arguelles said "some staff members have grumbled about" the alliance, several parents have called the school, a few tried to pull their kids out of his class, and one tried to get him fired.

But Arguelles hasn't endured the tension in vain, students say.

Kerri Ryan, a 17-year-old senior, said she's getting less harassment, and "people are getting used to the fact we're here."

The group is tackling various projects, and is currently raising money for AIDS education, research and prevention.

"I'm involved in a lot of other clubs, but this is a club I'm lucky to have found a place in," said senior Michael Hristakopoulos. "This one is singularly important."

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