CEDAR FALLS | Steven Sanchez's life has been a whirlwind since becoming the first transgender student to win the University of Northern Iowa’s Homecoming queen competition on Oct. 11.
Every day the senior communications major sees his name and story across news outlets like the New York Times, the Huffington Post and the Daily Mail, and he's received positive comments from friends and classmates.
However, he receives feedback of a different kind when he gets on his computer and looks at comments people have made about his victory.
There, he is subjected to insults while being called a freak, pervert or an “it.”
“What a freak,” posted one person on the Des Moines Register’s web site. “Its time for these freaks to go back to the carnivals. The problem is that he is abnormal, and if this was Russia, he would be put down.”
“It kind of scares me, not necessarily because I think these people will do anything, but it's a reminder that there are people out there who believe these things,” Sanchez said. “Once I get out in the real world and try to integrate with society, will these people come out and try to hurt me?”
Negative comments about Sanchez's gender identity are nothing new to him. While growing up in San Antonio, Sanchez said, he was met with a barrage of hateful insults criticizing his effeminate behavior. He said he was bullied so often he dropped out of high school and dealt with depression and suicidal thoughts.
Though the insults online don't affect Sanchez as much as they used to, they still remind him of his struggles growing up, he said.
On sites like Yahoo! News, Sanchez has seen comments like, “Another sign of an America in decline. Next year the winner will have a beard and need a jockstrap.” And, “I wish I did not live long enough to see our great country get to the point where something like this is celebrated.”
“It's sort of discouraging because no matter how old we get, you think people grow out of their bullying phase, but it just shows some people out there are really mean and just want to see you be hurt and just want to keep you down,” Sanchez said.
Online, people have questioned his identification; Sanchez is "gender queer," and identifies as both male and female. A blog, “Gender Identity Watch,” criticized him for his identity and posted Facebook pictures of him on its website dressed in both a masculine and feminine manner and calling Sanchez a “gay male” -- a misidentification, he said.
“I don't think targeting people or misgendering people helps anybody,” Sanchez said. “It's just kind of creepy and a reminder how much access people have online. And it's creepy because they actually took the time to go and look online.”
When Sanchez was younger, he said, he did not have a support group to help him deal with hurtful comments. At UNI, however, he's found his place at UNI Proud.
“These comments don't affect me so much today, because I know there's people out there in the world that understand these issues and it's a matter of finding them,” Sanchez said. “Sometimes it's really hard when you don't know those people, and it's really hard to find those people sometimes, but it is possible and when you find it, it is so amazing.”
Sanchez said he wants people to express their opinions, but in a constructive manner.
“It's one of those things that blows my mind that people don't take more of an effort to educate themselves,” Sanchez said. “They're all just personally attacking me and expressing disgust for me rather than trying to understand the issues. I'm fine with disagreements and with people having conversations, but explain your side of the story. Don't just say, ‘you're wrong.’”
Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, based in Iowa City, is a nonprofit, online news website dedicated to collaborating with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative work.
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UNI student faces abuse
online over gender identity