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Mom Fights the Good Fight for Gay Son

Felisa Ihly never cared much for politics, was never much of an activist when her kids were young.

She worked full time, got dinner on the table each night, drove carpool, helped with homework.

“She was just a mom,” says her 18-year-old son, Jared Nayfack.

Now, Ihly is a mom on a mission--the kind who spends Mother’s Day writing letters to politicians, camps out in the halls of the Capitol, travels up and down the state to promote her cause.

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Her cause is her son and children like him, who pass their school days running a gantlet of hate and ignorance. And her goal is legislation that will make it a crime for kids to harass classmates just because they are gay.

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It’s called the Dignity for All Students Act, and, depending on whom you ask, it is either an important blow to intolerance in an increasingly hateful world or a tool to legitimize homosexuality and push a “gay agenda” on schools.

The measure would give gay youths a legal shield against abuse, putting them in the same category as students harassed because of their gender, religion, race or ethnicity. It was passed this summer by the state Senate and approved by the Assembly--by a one-vote margin--10 days ago. It awaits the signature of Gov. Gray Davis.

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Its critics are still waging a campaign to persuade Davis to veto the bill. And its supporters, like Ihly, are working just as hard to make it law.

“Intellectually, I see it as a civil rights struggle. But emotionally, I just want my child to be safe and not subject to abuse. And as a mother . . . I don’t want another child to go through what Jared went through.”

According to a survey funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of every 13 students has been taunted or attacked because classmates thought he or she was gay. Two years ago, during his senior year at an Orange County high school, Jared Nayfack was one.

“I was the only student at my entire school who was ‘out’ ” he said. He wore nail polish, makeup and 3-inch heels. “I guess I was an easy target.”

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For months, Jared says, he was harassed by other students . . . taunted, shoved, spit upon.

His parents complained to school officials, who blamed Jared for the problem and suggested he withdraw from the school. Jared tried to fight back. His circle of friends--some straight, others secretly gay--formed an alliance to push for tolerance on campus. A rally they held drew more than 100 students.

But school officials forbade the club, and his efforts drew more attention--and more harassment.

“I tried to roll with the punches, but it really did destroy me inside,” he says.

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So midway through his senior year, he enrolled in an independent study program and graduated a few months later, alone.

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Ihly always knew something was different about Jared. She’d raised three sons.

“I know boys,” she says.

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And Jared realized early on that he was gay. “I told my closest friend when I was 11. I came to terms with it earlier than a lot of kids,” he said.

Still, he was 15 before he came out to his family.

“My mom would ask me, and I’d say no or maybe or I don’t know. When I finally told her, she said it didn’t make any difference. But I didn’t believe it. I saw her crying, and I knew what I was putting her through. I didn’t know what this would do to us.”

What it has done is make them closer than ever . . . activist mom and activist son, both fighting for the same cause.

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Now Jared is a sophomore at UC Santa Cruz, a mentor and advisor to freshmen students and a counselor in the school’s HIV testing program. He’s received a grant to publish a book of student art, poetry and prose to raise money for AIDS research.

And he’s apt to run into his mom on the lobbying circuit.

“I’ve started calling her ‘crazy activist mommy,’ ” he says, chuckling. “Suddenly it’s like we’re on the same team. Me and my mom, and we’re going to save the world.”

Sandy Banks can be reached by e-mail at sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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