The Homecoming Court was a tradition at the University of Northern Iowa dating back to the 1960, but ultimately was retired, then revived last year.
When it was announced that the Homecoming Court would return this October, Steven Sanchez knew it would be a fun event and "a great way to raise awareness of LGBT issues," he said.
Sanchez considered running for king in drag, "just to throw people off and make them question things." But Sanchez said he "felt more comfortable running for queen."
So he nominated himself for the court and found out he was selected the week before homecoming.
"I was so nervous; I wasn't sure how the crowd would react when 'Steven Sanchez' was announced as a candidate for queen. But they called my name and I strutted up to the stage in my six-inch gold sequin pumps and the crowd cheered and immediately any fear I had felt went away," said Sanchez, who identifies as queer and gender-queer and said to use male pronouns for this story.
Sanchez, 21, is a senior who will graduate next May with a degree in communication studiesand the title, 2013 Homecoming Queen.
"When they announced that I won, I honestly couldn't believe it," Sanchez said. "I was on stage, [alongside four other finalists], and they put the crown on my head and called my name … my jaw dropped and I just froze. In that instant, so many memories came rushing back of me, [such as] feeling ashamed of my identity, and feeling like I wasn't worth anything and feeling lonely, like I would never have any real friends.
"But there I was, on stage, being crowned homecoming queen because my peers voted for me and it was honestly one of the most validating experiences of my life. I felt rejuvenated. I felt like I was shaking off all those years of loneliness and depression and starting all over."
The Sanchez story started in Texas, his native statein a much less joyous time of his life. In fact, many, many less than memorable moments.
"I honestly don't remember a time where I wasn't bullied in school," Sanchez said.
In first-grade, for instance, Sanchez wanted to play the games the girls were playing, and he was made fun of for that.
"It got worse every year," Sanchez said. "It went from making fun of my mannerisms and clothing choices to physically assaulting me. I think the worst part was that the school didn't do anything about it. They said if they didn't see anything happen, it was out of their hands. And when they did see things happen, they would tell me to stop doing the things that made the other kids make fun of me. So in a way, they were telling me to stop being myself."
The breaking point for Sanchez was in eighth-grade. The bullying was at its worst; there wasn't a class where he felt completely safe, and he also was going through a lot of personal issues at home, and he was battling depression.
"One night, I just decided I had enough of trying to make things better for myself because it seemed like things would never get better. I tried to kill myself," Sanchez said. "That wasn't a good thing, obviously, but I think that was the wake-up call my family needed to see that I really did need help. From there, I started seeing a counselor and psychiatrist, and I started taking medication. That helped me with my depression a little, but I still didn't feel safe going to school."
He dropped out after middle school.
"There is so much I wish I had known when I was a young queer kid struggling to fit in," Sanchez said. "First, I think everyone out there should know that fitting in is over-rated. If you just happen to fit in with what's considered normal or cool, that's great. But if you don't, don't try to hide it. Be honest about who you are, because that's how you find people who appreciate the real you. It is hard and it may be a while before you find those people, but when you do, it'll be worth it.
"I want young people out there to know that no matter how bad your situation is, it can get better. I know that's become a cliché within the LGBT community, but it's true. You have the strength, courage and power to create a beautiful life for yourself. It won't be easy, but you can do itbecause you are a strong and beautiful human being, and you are worthy. Keep in mind, though, that life might not look exactly how you pictured it. But if you're open to it, life can give you something better than you imagined."
For Sanchez, the crown he was given Oct. 11, at a Homecoming pep rally truly was a magical moment, one he will never forget.
"It seems like such a silly thingand [yes], it is a silly, fun thingbut for me, [the Homecoming Queen title] is so symbolic of how far I've come as a person," Sanchez said. "I used to have such crippling anxiety that I couldn't even talk to family members on the phone. I was so depressed that I couldn't get out of bed some days. I tried to kill myself. So, to go from those low [points] to standing on a stage in front of a bunch of my peers, dressed exactly how I want to be dressed, knowing enough people like me that they picked me [over] the four other candidates to represent them is amazing.
"I used to feel like I would never find one true friend. Now I have a huge group of people who support me and love me for who I am, and they want me to be successful. More than that, I have confidence in myself to be who I want to be and let everyone else say and think what they want. After years of struggling with depression and feeling worthless, I'm finally happy with who I am."
Donna Red Wing, the executive director of One Iowa, the state's largest equality organization, said Sanchez "represents the community in this unique and historic and, may we say, a fabulous manner."
"The reaction here in the Heartland has been overwhelmingly positive, and we commend the University of Northern Iowa's students and faculty," Red Wing said. "It's obvious that Steven enjoys a lot of support from his peers and teachers, and that is wonderful. We're witnessing the equality revolution here in Iowa. Steven is part of that revolution. As the LGBT movement for full equality moves forward, it is clear that the Midwest has a great deal to teach the rest of the nation."
So who is the real Steven Sanchez?
"I am a male-bodied person who is attracted to other male-bodied people, regardless of their gender identity or expression," Sanchez said. "I hesitate to call myself a gay man because my gender identity is evolving. I don't really feel like a 'man,' but I don't feel like a 'woman' either. I'm kind of in the middle, so I don't know if a gay person would even be attracted to me."
Sanchez is currently single and admittedly has never really had a serious boyfriend. But, he said he's "definitely excited to experience that, when the time is right."
He said he is attracted to many different types of people, though primarily to male bodies.
"I identify as queer because, for me, attraction can't necessarily be boiled down to a body part or even a gender identify. It's about each individual person and how you feel around them. It just so happens that I'm mostly attracted to male-bodied people."
Sanchez said he does not appear as either a traditional man or woman. "Even when I'm wearing slacks and a button-up for work, I'll pair it with a cute pair of heels," he said. "Even if I'm [wearing] a large t-shirt and sweats, I'll have my nails painted. Going by society's definition, I don't really fit into either box. But I don't really think anyone does. As a society, we attribute gender to so many things that aren't inherently gendered. Why is a shoe with a pointy heel only for women? High heels fit my feet. I can walk in them. Why shouldn't I be allowed to wear them?"
More from Steven Sanchez:
On relationships: "I think young LGBT people should know that being in a relationship isn't the most important thing in the world. It's OK to want one, but don't feel like you're not as good as someone because they have a boyfriend and you don't. Some people click and some people don't, and you have your whole life to meet amazing people who you will have amazing experiences with. Some will be better than others, but they'll all make amazing stories."
On gender non-conforming: "Almost everyone is born male or female, and most of those people don't have a problem with the gender identity [that] society has prescribed to them. In society, there are men and there are women. Obviously, over time those roles have evolved, but there are still things that we consider to be either masculine or feminine. For most people, being male means being a man and being female means being a woman, even though I don't believe anyone fits completely in the boxes society tries to fit us in, most people don't see a problem with those boxes and even try to fit into them. A gender non-conforming person doesn't really fit into those boxes. Whether they're a female-bodied person who identifies more with what's considered the more masculine side of things, or whether they're someone who doesn't really fit into either box, being gender non-conforming just means you don't fit the traditional idea of what it means to be a 'man' or 'woman.'"
Steven on Steven: "I'm gender non-conforming because I'm a male-bodied person who likes things that are considered feminine. I like make-up; I like painting my nails; I love wearing high heels and dresses. I don't believe that any of these things are inherently feminine, but society tells me they are, so by liking those things, I'm not conforming to my gender role as a 'man.' That said, I do believe there is something deeper to me being attracted to these things, but I'm still trying to figure out exactly what that is."
On life at UNI: "My first year was hard. I mean, leaving home is always difficult, but it was especially hard for me because I was still dealing with a lot of the scars from my past experiences. But I've grown so much as a person since then and I've built so many relationships here to the point where I finally feel like I'm living the life I've always wanted to live. My life isn't perfect and I am still struggling with a lot of things. But I finally have confidence in myself that I can deal with these things and overcome them. It will be hard, but I can do it. I just have to remember how much harder it had been for me. I never want to forget how sad, desperate and lonely I was. If I forget that, I won't be able to appreciate how far I've come. And I've come so very, very far."
On being a role-model: "I wouldn't say that I'm a role model. I'm human, a college student, and I'm not perfect. But, I do hope that I can be an inspiration to people. Whether or not people like me as a person, whether or not people agree with who I am or what I'm doing, I hope everyone can look at me and my story and find something that inspires them in a positive way because, at the end of the day, my story is about overcoming obstacles and we've all been there."
On being a high school dropout: "Dropping out of high school has always been one of my hang-ups. I honestly think it was better for my well-being that I didn't go to school because I probably would have been bullied even more, but I always have the thought of 'What if I had gone? What did I miss out on?' Honestly, I think I was a little bit behind my peers socially and emotionally because I lacked that experience of interacting with people my own age. So I kind of made up for that here at college. I had my awkward phase that most people usually go through in high school. But I got over it."
LGBT @ UNI: Sanchez is the director of media relations for UNI Proud, the school's main LGBT student group, which hosts weekly meetings to educate the community about LGBT issues, as well as just provide a safe space for people to be social with other accepting people.
Going forward: "I am trying to start a blog/e-zine for LGBT youth. Something that I've learned from this experience is that sharing stories can be such a powerful way to inspire people, and I want to give other LGBT youth the opportunity to share their stories. The blog is called LGBTeen ( www.lgbteen.org ) and I'm hoping to launch it before the end of the year. If anyone wants to be a staff member or just submit an article, they can email me at email@example.com ."