Steven Sanchez is the first transgender person to be named homecoming queen at the University of Northern Iowa. / The Des Moines Register
DES MOINES, Iowa -- Steven Sanchez made history Friday when fellow students crowned him homecoming queen of the University of Northern Iowa.
Sanchez, 21, was born male but identifies as both male and female. He is Northern Iowa's first transgender homecoming queen or king.
Sanchez, who as a child endured relentless bullying, said the moment left him speechless. A standing-room-only crowd had packed into a campus auditorium and erupted in applause when his name was read.
"I never would have thought years ago that I'd be standing on a stage, people cheering for me because they voted me homecoming queen," he said. "It was unbelievable."
Sanchez said he broke down in tears this week as he reflected on his life. He endured kicks and punches in middle school for being effeminate. He refused to enroll in high school because he didn't feel anyone would protect him.
There was a time when Sanchez hated himself: He regularly cut his wrists and once overdosed on pills in a suicide attempt, he said. Those memories and emotions overflowed at a vigil Wednesday for those affected by hate crimes and suicide, an event scheduled for Northern Iowa's Coming Out Week.
"It was that moment when I realized I went from being so low that I was literally trying to end my life, to right now I'm so in love with life and I feel like life is so beautiful," Sanchez said.
The previous night, the crowd roared in approval during the Homecoming Royalty Competition as Sanchez performed two songs as pop princess Selena Gomez.
A magnetic personality and a deep reserve of inner strength have propelled Sanchez to where he is today, said David Pope, a friend and president of UNI Proud. The student group advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Sanchez has become a crowd favorite, performing as "Lola" on stage at various events, since arriving two years ago on the Cedar Falls campus, Pope said. He came to Iowa after earning an associate degree and taking high school classes at a community college in Texas.
"He can dance amazingly well in high heels," Pope said.
In the process, Northern Iowa has become a place where Sanchez finally feels at home. His open, welcoming attitude puts others at ease, Pope said.
"Even though Steven has dealt with a lot of bullying and cruelty in his past, he's just unabashedly himself," Pope said. "I think a lot of people on campus are inspired by that."
Ruth Chananie, a professor and adviser for UNI Proud, said she's proud of Sanchez for having the courage to put himself in a public spotlight.
Student leaders and university administrators have backed LGBT students and their allies, she said. However, intolerance has at times left an ugly mark on campus.
Last year, when UNI Proud campaigned for an LGBT center, a poster in a computer lab used slurs in decrying UNI as "becoming a gay school," she said.
"Steven is just trying to be himself - and be herself," Chananie said. "It is a statement to say that every person should be accepted for who they are, and be included regardless of their gender expression, sexual orientation or any other thing."
Krogstad also writes for The Des Moines Register
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