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 male and female. He is UNI’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.”
Yaw Kyeremateng was crowned king.
Sanchez said he broke down in tears last 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 UNI’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 came to Iowa after earning an associate degree and taking high school classes at a community college in Texas. In the process, UNI 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.