It took just a single word for Marcel Brown to make up his mind to join his school's Gay Straight Alliance.
"I was walking down the hallway with my little brother, and he was messing around with his friends and they called him a 'faggot,' " said Marcel, an eighth-grader at San Francisco's Everett Middle School. "And I thought, 'That's messed up.' My older brother is gay."
Since that day a couple of months ago, he has spent lunchtime each Tuesday in Room 107 with a dozen or so members of the middle school club.
While common in high schools across the country, chapters of the Gay Straight Alliance with the younger school set have been slower to gain a foothold, in some cases because of the controversy the clubs stir up.
But there are signs of increasing acceptance.
There are now 500 middle school Gay Straight Alliance chapters nationwide, up from a couple dozen three years ago, according to the national Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
Many of the clubs formed after publicized suicides of middle school children such as 13-year-old Seth Walsh of Tehachapi (Kern County) in 2010 and 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover of Springfield, Mass., in 2009. Both were bullied because they were believed to be gay.
Realities of middle school
At Everett, where the club started about five years ago, students talk about bullying and slurs associated with sexual orientation and brainstorm ways to address it.
While critics might argue middle school students are too young to tackle such topics, supporters disagree.
"Thinking it's too early is really blind to what it's like in middle school," said Eliza Byard, the educational network's executive director. "Anyone who walks through the halls of a middle school knows what it's like. The words 'faggot' and 'dyke' are weapons of choice."
Marcel, 14, hears those words all the time.
"It just makes me mad because they're using it in the wrong way," he said.
Studies consistently show that bullying, assault and harassment - including incidents related to gender or sexual orientation - are more common in middle school than other grades.