This Small Town's High School Just Took a Huge Leap For Equality

Many wouldn't consider high school a place of tolerance, but James C. Enochs High School in Modesto, Calif., is definitely moving in that direction. Last fall, gay senior Nathan Hailey was elected Homecoming king, and just last month, trans sophomore Isaac Salazar, who identifies as female, earned the title of Homecoming Princess. These are exciting steps toward progress for the community of Modesto, which has typically been considered a more conservative. The former farming area is in the Golden State's Central Valley. While it's the 16th largest city in California, the town website boasts its "small town charm."

As to be expected, Salazar and Hailey continue to bask in the glory of winning and celebrate the social meaning behind the Homecoming results. 

“If they can vote for me as princess, anyone can do it,” Salazar said in an interview with the Modesto Bee. “Everyone has a chance.” 

Salazar went on that landing the accolade gives her reassurance that others understand her identity.

"Some days I worry, 'Do I look feminine enough today?' Being a princess, it's like, maybe people accept me for who I am."

While Enochs High School could still work to be even more open-minded about certain lifestyles, Hailey pointed out that bigoted views are unwelcome in most places. "I think the general opinion is evolving as a whole not just here, but everywhere," Hailey told the Modesto Bee. "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."

Hailey's thoughts are in line with data on United States tolerance of gays and lesbians. Findings from a 2013 Gallup poll suggest a significant increase in acceptance since the early 2000s, with 59 percent of Americans showing support for these groups. Though transgender people still face a lot of discrimination, a 2011 study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) showed a spike in support for the safety and rights of trans people. The PRRI's research also found that 93 percent of Catholics showed support for transgender people. A 2013 poll from the National Journal concluded that 66 percent of Americans said they'd back legislation to protect transgender people from discrimination in the workplace. Of the findings, support was highest among people in the 18-29 age range. With that in mind, it makes sense that young people today are comfortable enough to vote for trans students in their Homecoming court.

Other trans Homecoming winners

Enochs High is one of many high schools to elect transgender students as Homecoming royalty. Last year, the gay commentary website, Advocate, posted a detailed roundup of 11 transgender Homecoming kings and queens, some of whom were from traditionally conservative cities such as Colorado Springs and states such as Georgia and Texas.

"[I'm] humbled and honored and shocked," Texas trans teenager Mel Gonzalez, who became Homecoming king at Stephen F. Austin High School last year, said in an interview for a documentary. "I was treated like any other male candidate and experienced no backlash."

Gonzalez had also posted a powerful message on Facebook about the progressive reasons why he'd hoped to snag Homecoming king,

"I never wanted to make [king] as a popularity contest. Rather, I wanted to prove that an openly transgender male could make court. I don't just want to be your homecoming king — I want to be your female-to-male homecoming king."

These wins are inspiring, but not all trans students have succeeded in getting proper Homecoming representation. Several years ago, North Dallas High School student Andy Moreno was declined a bid to run for queen as the principal reportedly said "males can run for king, not queen."

This upset Moreno, who thought the decision should really be left up to her classmates. "I just want a fair chance and to let the students decide, not the principal," Moreno told the Dallas News. "The students treat me like any other girl. Why can't the administration?

As prom season nears, hopefully more schools will go by way of Enochs High in Modesto and let students choose who belongs in the Homecoming Court. For a high school rite of passage typically viewed as popularity-driven and trivial, the increasing election of trans and gay teens is positively changing the way we look at the traditional competition.