Just like the song says, students with Enochs High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance never thought they’d be “Royals.”
But as positive political and popular opinion about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community continues to swell, students at the north Modesto school instead made area history. Despite the dour lyrical predictions of international singing sensation Lorde in her hit “Royals,” they were crowned as what may be the city’s first openly gay and transgender students in the homecoming royal court.
In October, senior Nathan Hailey, who is gay, was elected homecoming king. Earlier this month, sophomore Issac Salazar, who is transgender, was voted homecoming princess. Both students said their inclusion in one of the most iconic high school traditions speaks volumes.
“If they can vote for me as princess, anyone can do it,” said 15-year-old Salazar, who identifies and dresses as a female. “Everyone has a chance.”
Salazar has been out as transgender since the seventh grade, though she said she knew long before. While Salazar uses female pronouns to describe herself, she has not yet changed her name from Issac. Most people in the trans community eventually rename themselves to reflect their gender identity.
Since 2008, the GSA club has been at Enochs High to provide a place for LGBT students and their allies to come together and support one another. The other six Modesto public high schools also have GSA clubs on campus, though some are more active than others.
But the Enochs club has done particularly well with its peers, if the selection of its members for homecoming is any indication. While students are nominated via their clubs or activities, the entire student body then casts ballots, with the three highest vote-getters of each grade level making the royal court. The top are crowned as king and queen for seniors and prince and princess for the other classes.
The club has had three other members voted into the homecoming court recently. Earlier this month, senior Noah Sklar was the runner-up for spring homecoming king and Rebecca Gonzalez was runner-up for freshman spring homecoming princess. In October, Careliseo Blair-Arana was voted sophomore fall prince.
Five years ago the It Gets Better Project was launched to fight LGBT youth suicides and bullying, and the students in the Enochs GSA said things largely are better for them at the school today. Most said they haven’t experienced much or any outward or direct harassment from other students about their sexual orientations or gender identities.
“I think the general opinion is evolving as a whole not just here, but everywhere,” said 18-year-old Hailey, who isn’t officially in the GSA but has participated in various club activities. “I think it’s less socially acceptable to be homophobic now. If you are, you’ll definitely get crap from a lot of people around you.”
Even just three years ago, Hailey said his boyfriend – who has since graduated from Enochs – told him that he felt uncomfortable coming out at the school and that the environment was less open and accepting.
Indeed, Ed Plata, who with his wife, Elizabeth, runs The Place as a community support group for LGBT youth, said attitudes in the area and the nation are changing rapidly. This is particularly evident in the younger generation.
“The change is in the kids, it’s not the adults by any means. The adults have the same attitudes and same issues. It’s the kids who don’t have the same attitudes and issues the adults do anymore,” Plata said. “Having these students (on the homecoming court) is a good thing. It’s a sign of the times and the fact that things are changing.”
That’s not to say all discrimination or bullying has ended. What before might have been open hostility or violence is now often less overt in the hallways. The students said some discrimination comes online, where people are emboldened by the anonymity of the Internet. Still, subtle issues arise on campus, as well. Students have complained to teachers or administrators about Salazar using the girls’ bathroom. And Blair-Arana, who is gay, said he has been picked on by other students, particularly while in the locker room.
Both students spent last school year changing for gym class in the nurse’s office.
California is one of the more progressive states for transgender rights, especially for trans youth. In January 2014, a law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown went into effect that ensured trans students full access to all school activities, sports teams, programs and facilities that match their gender identity.
Across the country, 37 states including California allow same-sex couples to legally marry. The issue of marriage equality is expected to be decided definitively this summer, when the Supreme Court rules on cases that could make it the law of the land.
Enochs High Principal Deborah Rowe said she had received no calls or complaints from students or community members since Hailey’s and Salazar’s coronations. The school has 2,400 students and about 56 clubs on campus, ranging from GSA to math and Christian clubs.
“We’ve worked a lot on culture here, pushing for a strong culture of respect as a school,” Rowe said. “I want to provide the best support that we can for these kids. We want to protect everyone’s space.”
Still, education on various LGBT issues is an ongoing process for students and Enochs GSA adviser Debbie Adair. The English teacher, who previously led GSAs at Davis and Johansen high schools, said some explanation of the new law allowing trans students to participate in events or use facilities based on their gender identity had to be done when Salazar was elected to the homecoming court the first time last year as a freshman. And then there were the more pointed questions, such as the one Adair said she answered in the stands once Salazar was crowned princess.
“At the homecoming game someone asked how could it be, because didn’t the prince and princess have to be male and female? And I said, ‘Issac is a female,’” Adair said.
The public learning process has been expedited recently by the emergence of high-profile transgender celebrities and trans characters in pop culture. On the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black,” trans actress Laverne Cox plays a trans inmate in a women’s prison, and on the Amazon show “Transparent,” actor Jeffrey Tambor of “Arrested Development” portrays a trans woman who has recently come out to her family and adult children. Transgender rights activist Janet Mock has a weekly culture show on MSNBC called “So Popular!”
Salazar, who grew up in Modesto, said most of her friends knew her through elementary and middle school and thought of her as a girl throughout. Most in her family are also accepting, including Salazar’s mother and aunt, who accompanied her to homecoming and were by her side when she was crowned.
“It meant a lot to me being transgender (to be homecoming princess). It’s such a personal thing. Some days I worry, ‘Do I look feminine enough today?’ Being princess, it’s like, maybe people accept me for who I am,” Salazar said. “When people think of trans, they think of a man in a dress. But it’s so much more than that.”
Like Salazar, Hailey said being named king was a validation of sorts.
“It’s special to be seen as the person that for your peers deserves this honor,” said Hailey, who has been nominated to the court since he was a sophomore. “It made me feel really good and good about myself. It felt so great to get that feedback from the student body.”
To further raise awareness about the club and issues facing LGBT youth, the Enochs GSA is holding its second annual Everything cOUT!ure fashion show Saturday. Last year, about 20 students participated in the event; this year more than double that amount are expected to take part, with members of other area GSAs and The Place joining in. After the event, which is meant to let the students express their individuality, there will be a question-and-answer session with participants and community members.
The event will begin at 6 p.m. in the Enochs High multipurpose room, and admission is free and open to the public.
Students in the GSA also feel optimistic about continuing their streak of homecoming wins. But sorry – no tigers on a gold leash yet like the Lorde song suggests for the Enochs royalty. While one of the school colors is gold, its mascot is an eagle.