Published April 22, 2007
FRESNO, Calif. – When school officials announce the name of the Fresno High School prom king on Saturday, Cinthia Covarrubias will be wearing a tuxedo just like the six boys vying for the honor.
Administrators agreed to reverse a district protocol this week that limited males to compete for the title after Covarrubias was nominated by her classmates.
"I would never have run for anything if I had to wear a dress," said Covarrubias, who considers herself transgender, an umbrella term that covers all people whose outward appearance and internal identity don't match their gender at birth.
Gay youth advocates called it a landmark victory for campus gender expression and said they believe it's the first time in the U.S. that an openly transgender student has run for prom royalty.
"We are growing as a society to accept much more diversity in gender expression, and that's a positive thing," said Carolyn Laub, director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network.
Covarrubias, who wears black-and-white Vans, baggy shorts and close-cropped brown hair, sometimes identifies herself as Tony. Her date, a close female friend, plans to wear a black dress and red corsage to the prom at an outdoor reception hall surrounded by man-made waterfalls.
On Wednesday, officials at the school of 2,700 students shifted course, saying the district's lawyers had recommended adding Covarrubias' name to the ballot to comply with a 2000 state law protecting students' ability to express their gender identity on campus.
"We always want to do the right thing by our students," Vice Principal Sheila Uriarte said. "This is why we came to this decision."
Leanne Reyes, 16, said Covarrubias had her vote.
"It's not like the stereotype where the king has to be a jock and he's there with the cheerleaders anymore," said Reyes, a senior. "We live in a generation now where dudes are chicks and chicks are dudes."
Still, some students criticized the decision to put Covarrubias on the ballot.
"I like lesbians, but they shouldn't be allowed to run for king," said senior Erich Logan, 18, as he stood outside the stately high school building.
A native of Jalisco, Mexico, Covarrubias said she has bucked rigid expectations of how a girl in her culture should behave. Explaining the meaning of terms like "queer" and "transgender" to her parents and eight siblings has at times been painful, she said.
"My freshman year I just started feeling different," she said. "When I decided to change to be like this, all of a sudden I said, 'Wow, I feel OK. I feel like finally I'm being me."'
She has no current plans, however, to permanently alter her gender through hormones or surgery.
Tiffani Sanchez, a science teacher who advises the school's Gay-Straight Alliance, said the decision would foster understanding of the broad spectrum of gender identities.
"Cinthia is still really learning who she is," she said. "We want her to know that there's a safe space for her here and we support her."
Covarrubias is giddily looking forward to the prom, but acknowledged being a little nervous.
"I'm happy I actually made a difference about changing the law and the policy so you can run for your choice," Covarrubias said.