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Gay, Latino Santa Rosa Student Overcomes Adversity To Become 1st In His Family To Attend College

SANTA ROSA (CBS SF) -- During his lunch break at Roseland University Prep in Santa Rosa, Regino Rodriguez meets with the Social Justice Club. He has a lot to share.  He is Latino and comes from a low-income family. He lives with seven other people in their home. So he understands the issues.

But his biggest challenge in life, has been that he is gay.

"It is hard," he says. "You just wish there would be someone else that is the same as you. But in this little Hispanic community that I am in, there's not many gay people that are like me."

Regino was a freshman in 2011, when a teenager in New York, Jamie Rodemeyer committed suicide, after being relentlessly bullied and teased. Rodemeyer uploaded a video of himself on "It Gets Better", on YouTube.  (

In it, Jamie says, "I was always made fun of because I have virtually no guy friends, and I only have friends that are girls. It bothered me because they would be like, faggot fag and taunt me in the hallways, and I felt like I would never escape it."

30% of gay youth attempt suicide near the age of 15 according to the group, Suicide Prevention Education Awareness for Kids, and it is the leading cause of death among gay and lesbian youth.

Jamie Rodemeyer's suicide had a big impact on Regino. "I thought I was like him," Regino says, "how he just wanted to express himself and dance and just do all these things that boys don't normally do and how all these other people were just so mean to him."

Later that year, Regino decided to come out.  "I think it was a lot of factors that led to me just being, it's time for me to come out of the closet and really show the world who I am. I'm tired of covering up. I'm tired of what is it called conforming."

Regino's teacher Kristen O'Conner understood what that took.

"For a teenager to do that, it takes incredible courage, because for him it was coming from all sides."  "It", meaning the judgments and the lack of acceptance.  "It wasn't just coming from his peer group, it was coming from pretty much everyone in his life."

"I definitely felt isolated at school but…at home like, I would lock myself in my room, listen to music, and just try really hard to just figure out who I am and what I want to do," Regino said.

He grew depressed.

Regino's mother was accepting, but overall, he felt his family was uncomfortable with his sexuality.

And there was the teasing at school.  "When he first came here, many people laughed at him," O'Conner said. "I recall the first time I met him he was wearing a beret in his hair and the kids made fun of him."

The isolation eventually got to him.

"All these ideas that society has put in my mind that gay people are bad and that they should go to hell and they don't belong here. They just drove me to the point where maybe they're right," he says. He thought about suicide but didn't plan to do it. Then, one day, his emotions overwhelmed him. He was lying in the back of his dad's truck, just listening to music and staring off into the distance. There was a rope.  "I was like, maybe this is it," he remembers.

"I just got the rope and tied it, and that I was ready to just go, but thankfully, I talked myself out of it and I called one of my cousins that's in college in Oregon and I talked to her for about two hours. Just letting go of every single issue that I had. "

Last year,  another teenage suicide in Ohio exploded into the national headlines.  When Leelah Alcorn announced she was transgender, her devoutly Christian parents could not accept it. "I feel like a girl trapped in a boy's body and I've felt that way since I was 4," she wrote on Tumblr, in her widely read suicide note. "People say, "it gets better" but that isn't true in my case. It gets worse. Each day I get worse."

There were vigils held for Leelah across the country.

Her suicide had a profound impact on Regino.  "At the end of her suicide note, she wrote that she wishes her death could mean something," Regino said.  "After reading that I felt like it's my turn to make that change. I'm not going to sit here and watch all these people just dying. It's not ok."

"He chose to value himself enough and to not allow the community around him to shame into being someone he is not," says Kristin O'Conner, who admires Regino for his strength. "He had to stand up and say 'no, I am me, his is who I am and I'm not ashamed.'"

"I want to be seen as an equal," says Regino. "We're all human and no one deserves to be dehumanized."

This fall, Regino will be the first in his family to go to college.

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