There were ten students on the University of Northern Iowa’s stage, all clad in the school's colors of purple and gold—five competing for homecoming queen and five for homecoming king. The announcer hovered over each student to build up suspense. And then, history was made: Steven Sanchez, 21, a “transgender queer” who identifies as both male and female, was crowned homecoming queen.
“I was in the crowd, taking pictures and video, and I started crying a little bit because I knew how much it meant to him and how much of a beacon that was for LGBT people and trans people,” said Sanchez’s best friend, David Pope.
In the run-up to UNI's Friday’s pep rally, the homecoming contenders each had to perform a routine for Pride Cry to sell their candidacy. Sanchez, who frequently performs in the neighborhood in drag as “Lola,” performed two Selena Gomez songs.
“I think part of the reason I ran is that I finally found that [LGBT] community where I feel accepted and I knew I would have people supporting me whether I won or lost,” Sanchez told The Daily Beast. “But I don’t think I realized how the overall community was so supportive until I ran and won—and since I won and it’s been publicized, I’ve had strangers come up and say congratulations and they’re happy with what I did and they are proud of their school for letting me run.”
“Both Steven and I are really excited about how many conversations this has started—and that’s really the main thing beyond him winning. That for any young LGBT trans people, this could be you. It really does get better," Pope said.
Sanchez and Pope are active in UNI Proud, which describes itself as a “social and political organization … founded on the principles of promoting an inclusive and accepting campus environment” for gay and lesbian students. Sanchez began volunteering for the group when he first arrived at UNI, and now is the director of media relations. In addition to his social activism, Pope (who is the president of UNI Proud) said Sanchez is very recognizable on campus because he’s always dancing to his iPod to and always dancing around.”
In addition to UNI Proud, Sanchez is also creating a blog at LGBTeen.org for young people to share their own experiences. “I think something I’ve learned from this experience is people hearing personal stories of overcoming obstacles can be so inspiring to people—and I want to give people the opportunity to share their stories.”
Even with the cheering onstage, UNI was not always such a welcoming place for LGBT students. The university is just opening its first LGBT center this year (in large part, Sanchez said, to UNI Proud)—and one of Sanchez’s friends, Stormy O’Brink, a senior, recalled in 2009 that a faculty member erased a chalk announcement about Pride Week.
“For any young LGBT trans people, this could be you. It really does get better.”
O’Brink said her friend's turn on the homecoming court has made her “really proud of my community—there were times when I thought maybe I should have transfer outside of UNI [but] this experience, seeing him being crowned as homecoming queen, really quashed those regrets about UNI.”
Sanchez’s homecoming win was even more epic when you consider his past. Raised by his grandparents in San Antonio, Texas, he was bullied mercilessly in middle school—and even attempted suicide. The bullying has had a “massive effect” in Sanchez’s life, even to this day. “One of thing that would be discoursing for me is that whenever I would make a little bit of progress with my self-esteem or my self-image or anything like that—or even other things like I would do well in school—I would belittled it or acted like it didn’t matter because I had this idea driven into my head that I wasn’t worth anything, so it made it hard to see that I had worth," he said.
Finally, Sanchez said he realized that he was bullied “when I tried to fit in and when I tried to be myself 100 percent,” so he “learned that people are going to criticize me no matter what, so you just have to stay true to yourself, as cheesy as that sounds. You just have to stay true to yourself and make yourself happy, because other people are never going to be satisfied … it’s kind of a bittersweet moment where I appreciate that. Because I never would have thought it was necessary to run for homecoming queen or do the sort of activist stuff that I’m interested in now if I hadn’t had that sort of struggle growing up.”
Struggling to fit in, Sanchez dropped out of school after middle school and spent a few years working before landing at community college in San Antonio, where he completed both his high school diploma and his associate’s degree. While at community college, he heard about a program to transfer his credits to the University of Northern Iowa, or UNI, a 12,000-student college located in Cedar Falls, in central Iowa. Now two years later, Sanchez is in his final semester at UNI and majoring in communications and minoring in journalism.
Once on campus, Sanchez got involved with UNI Proud—which he called “the only place I felt accepted.” Through the organization, Sanchez met Pope, O’Brink, and many others. His friends know that Sanchez's homecoming queen win "was really important as his growth as a person because he gets to live what high school could have been like,” O’Brink said.
“I was never really in the closet—but that’s different from being out to other kids and I didn’t really have a crazy dating life, so I didn’t really feel like I had to come out,” Sanchez said about his life before UNI. “But at the same time, when I came here, I realized this is an opportunity to explore that side of myself.”
In addition to UNI Proud, Sanchez also performs in drag at Pride Fest, the campus student union and a local bar in Waterloo, Iowa. Performing Selena Gomez at the homecoming event, he said, “kind of makes sense” because his performances were “the starting point of me coming into my transgender queer identity.”