When someone painted "God hates fags" on the school rock at Howell High, Shayna Kamilar did not hesitate. She called her friends, told her mother she was going out and left the house.
"We knew we had to paint over it," said Kamilar, an 18-year-old senior. "It had to happen."
Kamilar and her pals used 18 cans of spray paint to cover the rock and write the word LOVE dozens of times on school property. They got themselves accused of vandalism, suspended from class and barred from Saturday's graduation.
The community reacted strongly, praising the original spirit of the rock-painting expedition while acknowledging that the extended artwork may have gone too far. More than 200 students protested the punishment, and parents scheduled a small backyard graduation ceremony for the group's three seniors.
Now the ceremony has been moved to a football field. One teacher will speak. Another will hand out the diplomas. The valedictorian will repeat the address he is giving earlier in the day. The school photographer will record the event for free. Even the superintendent called to make sure the seniors have caps, gowns and yearbooks.
"I think we got over-punished, but I still got to stand up for what I believe in," said Vinnie Mascola, a 17-year-old senior who says he is often called a derogatory name because he works on school plays. "What we did was small, but it got big and we got people thinking."
At a time of profound political opposition to same-sex marriage, with national studies showing significant schoolyard harassment of gay teenagers, the positive response at Howell High and a suburban Detroit school this year buoyed advocates of equal rights for gay men and lesbians.
"To see allies at that young age is very heartening and encouraging," said Leslie Thompson, executive director of Affirmations, a support group in Ferndale, Mich. Noting the rise in speaking requests from Michigan schools and the more empathetic tone of hotline calls from parents, she said "things are getting better."
In Howell, a community that has long faced a reputation for intolerance, a cultural struggle already was underway. Since 2003, the school board has advanced a diversity agenda, but a student group's decision to unfurl a rainbow flag at Howell High drew anger.
Earlier this year, the NAACP and Mayor Geraldine Moen objected to a Howell dealer's auction of Ku Klux Klan robes, photographs and other memorabilia. Many items came from the estate of Klan Grand Dragon Robert Miles, who staged white supremacist rallies and cross burnings in the area.
It was a Sunday night in early May when Kamilar learned that someone had painted an anti-gay message across a promotion for "Pippin," the school theater production, which had an openly gay male lead. Kamilar and three schoolmates were determined to defend their friend.
Searching for words to paint, their first instinct was to be unkind to the gay-bashers. They considered biblical verses but settled on a single word as the most eloquent protest.
"It was one word, it was really simple, and everyone could remember it," Kamilar said.
The project became more ambitious as the night wore on.
First, the group painted the rock, which school authorities consider fair game for artistic expression. Then they decided to spread their message, in part because the rock could be repainted, as it was later that very night for someone's birthday.
After several trips to Home Depot, the group spray-painted LOVE on sidewalks and school parking lots. They say they did not think they were doing wrong because other graffiti artists had gone unpunished before them.
Halted by police and told to notify school authorities, the four trooped in to see the principal the next day. They confessed, offered to clean up the paint and pay expenses, which included $1,329.20 for sandblasting. They were suspended for 10 days, as were the two ninth-graders later identified as the authors of the original message.
The next day, more than 200 students demonstrated against the suspensions of Kamilar, Mascola, Derek Webber, 18, and their 10th-grade partner, who is a minor and was not identified. The school board affirmed the punishment and invoked a clause designed to curb rule-breaking by seniors, barring them from senior activities, including graduation.
"We congratulate and commend the students for covering hateful messages that served to alienate and hurt people," Superintendent Chuck Breiner said. "When they went beyond the rock . . . that activity became an act of vandalism."
Breiner and the Howell school district have sponsored tolerance training. By a 6 to 1 vote in December 2003, the board pledged to respect diversity including race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status and socioeconomic position.
A few months ago, when the high school Diversity Club flew a rainbow-colored flag in the central stairwell, protests flowed in, including 500 cards from the American Family Association of Michigan. Breiner said the cards accused educators of "actually teaching students to be involved in a gay and lesbian lifestyle."
The board backed the students. The flag remained.
On Monday, Howell school officials received a slur-filled e-mail headlined "God Loves Fags?" Referring to the painted rock and the "queer rainbow flag," the writer said it was "inherently offensive to be forced to walk under something."
Howell is not the only Michigan town where anti-gay sentiment is causing a backlash.
In Troy, a prosperous, multiethnic Detroit suburb about 50 miles east of Howell, parents called for the removal of a "Gay People are Everyday People" poster, which Affirmations distributed in 2002 to every school and college in Michigan. It shows five teenagers surrounded by a dozen photos of such people as soldiers, parents, teachers and mail carriers.
Parents objected on moral and religious grounds, arguing that the poster promotes homosexuality and promiscuity, which some said could lead students to contract sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. English teacher Sandra Yerke Altemann made it clear the poster was staying.
"I can't go through a day where a kid doesn't say, 'Oh, that's gay.' It's the one form of discrimination that's overtly tolerated," said Altemann, 54, who has used the poster for two years to discuss tolerance. She taped it high and fast to the wall to make it harder to pull down.
Altemann described homosexuality in Troy as something mostly unspoken. "Like the military, it's don't ask, don't tell." She objects to the idea that the poster encourages students to have gay sex: "If my poster said 'Curly-Haired People Are Everyday People,' I'm not encouraging students to get a perm."
School authorities did not intervene.
After the Howell High students were barred from Saturday's graduation, their parents scheduled a modest ceremony. When they heard that some students intended to boycott the school event in solidarity, they set a time that would not conflict. Then came the bombardment of offers.
Breiner described the punishment as necessary for deterrence. But he said, "We would encourage any teacher, any employee, to go in support of those kids for that graduation."
Kamilar said the crime was worth the time.
"I did something that changed a lot of things. I did something that will be remembered," said Kamilar, a saxophonist and self-described believer in school spirit. "I did something that may, just a little bit, help Howell come around."