When she was a freshman at Portland High School, Kaleigh Colson watched daily as classmates taunted one of her friends with homophobic slurs and mocking high-pitched voices, often driving him out of class in tears.
She read stories about gay teenagers committing suicide to escape harassment and shame.
And she heard about Matthew Shepard, the college student in Wyoming who was tortured and murdered in 1998 because of his homosexuality.
It all led Colson, 17, to join Portland High’s Gay-Straight-Transgender Alliance three years ago. She wanted to serve as a “support system” for friends and classmates in need, and ended up becoming the organization’s co-president.
On June 29, President Obama will honor Colson and several dozen other youths from across the country for their work in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
It’s the third straight year that the White House has hosted such an event, which will cap off LGBT Pride Month.
“If I could have done cartwheels, I would have,” said Colson, remembering when she first saw the invitation, with its gold lettering and presidential seal. “I had to pinch myself to make sure it was real.”
Colson, who’s heterosexual, is also a leader of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight and Transgender Education Network of Southern Maine, better known as GLSTEN (pronounced “glisten”).
Last month, the organization nominated three Gay-Straight-Transgender Alliances from across Maine as high school programs for the White House to spotlight. It ultimately chose the Portland High alliance, and Colson, as examples of those making inroads toward social equality.
As co-president of the alliance, Colson has led numerous events to promote equality, dialogue and safe school environments for gay and transgender classmates.
Those programs include anything from a pizza dinner with Gene Robinson, the openly gay Episcopal bishop from New Hampshire, to Equality Prom Day, when the gay and transgender community — and its supporters — attended school in prom attire.
“The message is, you can go to prom with anyone you want, regardless of sexual orientation,” Colson said. “Even a few teachers who aren’t advisers to the GSTA dressed up this year to show their support. It was pretty cool.”
Colson, an articulate teenager with long brown hair and a penchant for statistics, said she sees verbal abuse in Portland more often than physical abuse.
“But sometimes that’s worse,” she said. “With physical harassment, the wounds eventually heal. With words, those can mess with you mentally for a long time.”
On Saturday, Colson marched in the Southern Maine Pride Parade in downtown Portland. Her father, Sam Colson, could see the festivities from his porch on Park Avenue.
A single father who works as a customer service representative, he oozes affection for his children and will accompany his daughter to the White House for this month’s reception.
“I know the pride parade was supposed to be all about having pride in the LGBT community,” Sam Colson said Monday as he sat with his children on their porch. “But I probably had more pride than anybody this weekend, and it was for my daughter. No one celebrated it as much as me.
“I’m so proud of how she fights for social justice and equality, and the passion she has for it,” he said. “I know she’s going to do something great with it. She already has.”
Kaleigh Colson said the country has made progress in recent years with the ending of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the military, and the more common acceptance of the gay and transgender communities.
But she cited a survey by GLSTEN as evidence that more work is needed: According to the 2007 survey of 1,100 middle and high school students, 42 percent of gay or transgender students who are physically harassed in high school don’t attend college, to avoid further harassment.
“That’s heartbreaking,” she said. “We still have a long way to go.”
Staff Writer Jason Singer can be reached at 791-6437 or at: