As a sixth-grader, Cyrus Sinai would often drop to his knees, desperately trying to "pray the gay away."
Born to Iranian parents, active in the Mormon church and approaching puberty, young Cyrus was desperately confused about his sexual feelings.
"I felt like my life had ended," Sinai said. "I pictured living in a shadowy underworld. I felt like I had cancer."
Saturday, the 18-year-old Santa Clara High graduate planned to head off to university with a $10,000 prize he won this summer from a San Francisco-based group championing the bravery of gay youth.
"Cyrus is the most amazing activist I've ever met," said Michael Wilson, the school's Gay Straight Alliance adviser. "I've been all over the world and met a lot of activists."
To see Sinai now -- voted "easiest to talk to" in his senior class -- giving presentations on suicidal signs in gay teens and easily sharing his life story, you would have never guessed the anguish he once felt.
He first knew he was attracted to boys at age 12, when he read a Mormon booklet about "the challenge of same-gender attraction" called "A Quiet Desperation."
"I was so scared," he said. "I went to the bathroom and started shaking."
Born to parents whose culture considers homosexuality a near criminal taboo, Sinai said he tried -- and tried -- to convince himself he was straight. He and his mother were close; they had both chosen to embrace the Mormon church. He confided his secret to her. She told him he was special, that she loved him no matter what, he remembers. But she also said: "I think it's just a phase. You're too young to label yourself."
At least his mom didn't kick him out of the house, Sinai thought. But her words also weren't filled with unconditional acceptance. "A kid needs affirmation," he said. "You need to take them seriously and say, 'I love you exactly as you are.' "
If his mother, who asked that her name not be used fearing prejudice she might face at work, could have answered her son differently, she now says she would have said how talented, unique and smart he is.
"I love him now more than ever," she said.
But back then, his mother said she was ill-equipped to answer him properly.
"Iranian culture is very reserved," she said. "I never heard the word lesbian or anything like that. I hoped this was a hormone issue that would go away."
Meanwhile, Sinai's mother had joined the Mormon church, and brought him along. He said he connected to the teachings of Joseph Smith, working hard to heed church leaders preaching that he could change. "I just got so tired of agonizing over myself," he said.
He spent the rest of middle school almost friendless, locked in his room scouring the Internet for information on what he thought was a disease.
Then, entering his freshman year, Sinai traveled to Iran, Japan, and later, as a junior, to Ghana. Seeing other cultures opened his eyes. Especially Africa.
"That trip changed my life," Sinai said. "I had a whole new perspective on my suffering."
He decided upon his return that he'd tell his friends, including his jock buddies on the wrestling team, some of whom had jeered homophobic slurs in the locker room. He also told his best friend, who is straight. The response? A great big bear hug.
"He said, 'I couldn't care less,' " Sinai recalled.
That embrace showed Sinai it might not be so bad to come out to all. And at 16, he went to his first gay dance at the Billy DeFrank Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center in San Jose. He fell in love. He wrote, directed and acted in a play about a mad scientist who tried to make two gay couples straight. The mad scientist's plot didn't work, and in the end, the student actors kissed on stage. It was the first gay stage kiss at Santa Clara High.
"Needless to say," Sinai said, "it was a big step."
He became president of the school's Gay Straight Alliance, and took the initial 20-or-so member club up to its current membership of about 60 kids -- about one-third to one-half are straight.
"I just love Cyrus. I love his quirkiness. I love his leadership," said Annie Blaskovich, 16, a "straight ally" junior.
Sinai and his adviser, Wilson, are among the first to say that the anti-gay teasing hasn't stopped on campus.
"But the climate has changed considerably," Wilson said.
As Sinai headed off to study anthropology at UCLA on Saturday, he plans to continue his activism and connect with others who suffered the same agonizing childhood.
"My story is not all that extraordinary," he said. "I know that there are kids out there who have it 10 times worse than I did. I feel like this is my purpose, to use this limelight to tell everyone that you can't change who you are."