Salinas High Crowns its first Transgender Prom Queen
Interview by: Roberto M. Robledo
In an interview with The Salinas Californian, the 18-year-old related her story of transition. It is a story of hardship, violence, hatred, love, joy, tears, laughter, pride and acceptance.
•The Salinas Californian: When did you become Angie?
Angie Esteban:“I kind of already knew who I was and who I wanted to be at a young age.”
The fifth child of Margarita Carbajal and Mikaele Esteban was born Andrew Isaiah Esteban on April 13, 1997. The Salinas family moved several times around town. The children were sent to live with local relatives when both parents served stints in prison. But the kids stayed in touch. Even back then it was obvious that Andrew gravitated toward girlie things. Her mother and grandmother tried to steer her back toward the boy side; to no avail.
•TSC: When did they start calling you Angie?
Angie: “Probably my freshman year. Some people called me Angie, and then sophomore year everybody started calling me Angie.”
She describes herself as an average student working toward graduation with plans to attend Hartnell College and study business. Her dream is to become a contestant on “America’s Next Top Model.” Her idol is fashion supermodel and television talk show host Tyra Banks.
Angie began dressing the part of a female in her sophomore year. Before that, she said she would dress as a girl after school and on weekends.
•TSC: Do you feel supported by your family?
Angie: “Kind of, mostly my older sisters. They boost me up. But everybody has their moments.”
Her sister Rita Tavale, 21, is three years Angie’s elder. She said they grew up together until about age seven. At that time, Rita remembers her brother Andrew playing with her Barbie dolls and dressing up in her clothes. Over the years, “I accepted her,” Rita said. “My aunt we lived with accepted her, our brothers and sisters kind of accepted her. We’re girls. We didn’t mind him being one of our sisters.” Mikaele Esteban said in an interview Thursday that his relationship with Angie is still evolving, as is her own transition. He recalls her gradual changes. “At first, it was a little hair dying, little bit of makeup, a wig,” he said. “Now it’s the whole thing.” As a father, Esteban said he struggled with the transition in the early years. He said he was hands off. It ran contrary to his fundamentalist religious beliefs at the time, he said. “I was hoping it was just a stage,” he said, “but it’s something I had to come to accept.” he said. Angie’s acceptance by her older sisters helped Esteban immensely in the process, he said. “They were the ones that helped me the most, I saw them embrace her. I’m proud of them for that.” He said the brothers had a little harder time of it. Eventually, Esteban researched transgender identity and learned that biologically his child’s life is not a choice but may be genetically preordained. “There’s no way it could be a choice,” he said. “She wouldn’t choose [to live under] that stigma.” Today, Angie lives with him. He said he is fully supportive of her, even takes her shopping, though he’s still uneasy about the name. “We gave her her name, Andrew. It’s been kind of hard to call her Angie.” Because Esteban was in and out of her life in the early years, they are working on their relationship. “We’re getting more comfortable with each other. I’m still getting to know my daughter right now. “I’m extremely confident in her,” he said. “I think she’s got some amazing qualities. Coming from her background and all the struggles, I’m really proud of her.” Her mom, Margarita Carbajal, also still struggles with the transition. She still refers to her child as “him.” “I call him Andrew. It’s hard for me because … he’s my son but is sensitive. I’m trying to work with it – that he’s a her. “Andrew was a good kid but always playing with dolls. All of a sudden, like overnight, it changed. I’m more used to it now. I love him; he’s my daughter.”
Even 10 years ago, counseling and therapy resources were scarce for families of transgender individuals. Angie’s family dealt with her changes on their own terms and in a less tolerant social climate at the time. Families of a transgender person have to go through their own transition, said Nickolas McDaniel, a specialist in gender variance. “The family has to go through their own transitions, starting with a grieving process,” said McDaniel. “They have to let go of the hopes and dreams they attached to who they thought this person was … and devise new hopes and dreams for their child.” McDaniel teaches and speaks locally on human sexuality, including transgender issues. McDaniel, 42, is a transgender male with a story of his own. He is a Salinas resident and graduate of North Salinas High School. As a youth, his transition was replete with verbal and physical assaults, depression, self mutilation, thoughts of suicide and rejection.
The estimates vary as to the size of the U.S. transgender population. One in 70,000, according to McDaniel. A 2011 study by the Williams Institute at UCLA puts it at 1-in-700,000. For children and teenagers, TransYouth Family Allies, a national support group for parents, estimates one or two transgenders out of every 500 students or about 150,000 to 300,000 nationally. Coping as a transgender can be traumatic, even lethal, for a teenager, he said. The U.S. suicide rate among transgenders is 41 percent, McDaniel said. And among teenage transgenders it’s even higher. Monterey and Santa Cruz counties are home to a significant transgender population, he said. Also, in Salinas there are monolingual Spanish transgenders, he said. The media buzz created over the coming out of celebrity Jenner is an opportunity to start a conversation about transgender identity. It’s a chance to demystify it, said. McDaniel. A stigma persists: “There are a lot of young people who want to hurt themselves” because they are different and confused about who they are, he said. Putting a face on transgenders is important to connect with them as human beings who deserve our empathy, he said. As for Angie, McDaniel said it’s a courageous thing she did. “I wish I could go and share a hug with her. Transgender people, they don’t get that enough.”
•TSC: How were you treated at school?
Angie: “A lot of people would tease me … and it made me really mean.”
According to Angie, through elementary school there was always teasing and taunting of Andrew both at home and at school. However, it intensified when she entered middle school. Like any kid who is different, Angie was forced to defend herself. “I used to fight a lot and get suspended from school. I would get bullied but I would bully back. If you started with me, I would finish it. I know how to defend myself.” … All my family is … really tough,” she said, including the women. “There was always been problems at home, and that probably affected me at school too,” She said.
•TSC: What about now at high school?
Angie: “It has gotten better. This year they turned out to be more open minded. I know a lot of people that are genuine. Some I know don’t like me but they’re doing it [tolerance] because some of their group leaders support me.”
Angie spent her junior year at Mount Toro High, an alternative education program. She had fallen behind in credits, was a truant and basically turned off by school. “I was headed toward a bad route. When I finally realized it, I knew I had to get on it.” She couldn’t put her finger on exactly why but she said she felt lost at the time. “I wasn’t thinking about the long run. I was kind of living in the moment.” But the moment didn’t include school work.
She spread her wings socially at Mount Toro. “At first, it was kind of weird. But I made a lot of friends,” she said. One of them was another transgender student. “I became her friend … to protect her from verbal attacks. One day I told her to come sit with me because she was sitting by herself. She got to know everybody with me. She’s actually funny. She would have us laughing forever. They’re still in touch,” Angie said.
Angie reached a turning point at Mount Toro. “I ended up squashing the beefs that I had with people as I started changing my mindset to positive. I didn’t like the way they were staring at me at lunchtime so I went up to them and told them, ‘I don’t have a problem with you.’ I put all my feelings on the table. They were relieved that I felt that way. So we both learned a lot and ended up becoming friends.”
Angie said it was a teacher who helped her find a better path. “Ms. (Tina) Forster was teaching math. She’s honestly one of the best. When I met Ms. Forster, she was kind of like scolding us to get it together because this was our last shot. Something clicked.” Forster recalls Esteban as outgoing — and more. “Someone in Angie’s situation may see herself as a victim. I admire that she did not. She chose to continue to try; not whine. Perseverance — that is Angie.”
Still behind in credits after her junior year, Angie wanted to get back in at Salinas High. She met with the principal and counselors who initially said no but Angie persisted and was allowed to return. Her goal is to march in the graduation procession later this month. Her school counselor declined to be interviewed for this story.
Meanwhile, Pratt said Angie “is fully transitioned this year; she was struggling in the beginning. It’s always a struggle, but by the time she was fully transitioned she was excellent, positive, comfortable. “I don’t think it’s been an easy ride for her.” Though Angie endured some harassment, Pratt said she has maintained a positive attitude. “I give her props for that. It was worse earlier and it’s gotten better.”
However, there is still a long way to go.
A commentary in the New York Times observes that: “Being transgender today remains unreasonably and unnecessarily hard. But it is far from hopeless. More Americans who have wrestled with gender identity are transitioning openly, propelling a civil rights movement that has struggled even as gays and lesbians have reached irreversible momentum in their fight for equality. Those coming out now are doing so with trepidation, realizing that while pockets of tolerance are expanding, discriminatory policies and hostile, uninformed attitudes remain widespread.”
Yet while the U.S. Department of Justice has broadened its definition of sex discrimination under the Civil Rights Act to include transgender status, the U.S. military still prohibits enlistment of openly transgender people. Those now serving are subject to immediate discharge.
•TSC: Do you date?
Angie: Not really.
Carbajal worries about her child.
“I told her I want nothing bad to happen to you. Lots of people don’t agree with your lifestyle…I told him to not be leading the guys on. A lot of them might confuse you. Be honest, don’t be taking advantage. Even though you have feelings like a women, you’re still a man. You could be assaulted or worse … because of a misunderstanding. I don’t want them to hurt you in any way. Let them respect you for who your are and that’s it.”
Neither Angie nor her family sought any professional counseling, she said. That may change as she moves into adulthood, she said. She wants to continue the transition, physically and psychologically, she said. And she may find a more tolerant climate down the road. Though little research exists on gender identity and youth, anecdotal evidence from counselors, therapists, mental health, social workers and educators suggests that transgender youth cope and thrive when they are supported and accepted by family, friends, coworkers and classmates.
Angie’s parents are testimonials to that.
Carbajal: “All I can say is you’ve got to be there by their side and appreciate them as who they are and understand that’s who they are and pray your child has a good life and they’re happy.”
Esteban: “It’s important for us to allow them the time and space to see who they are. Give them the freedom to make that choice on their own and to love them regardless of the choices they make in life. That’s paramount. By choice, I mean the choice to either abide by society’s norms or be themselves. They need to real to themselves.”
Knowingly or otherwise, Salinas High’s crowning of Angie Esteban as prom queen has struck a blow for tolerance of those young people struggling with transgender identity. Teacher Pratt, who has taught at Salinas High for the past 28 years, said Angie is not the only transgender student on campus or in the district. Pratt and other teachers have broached the topic in an effort to shed much needed light on the issue. They invite speakers like McDaniel to their classes to inform about transgender, gay, lesbian and bisexual identities. “It’s great that they are coming out more and more,” Pratt said. “Salinas High is a tolerant (school) community. I’m proud of our students and the forward thinking on their part.”
•TSC: At this point, can your life be considered normal?
Angie: “I guess. If you’ve got friends, teachers, and you’re about to graduate, how much more normal can a teenager be?”
•TSC: What’s important for people to understand about Angie?
Angie: “I see what I want in the future and I’m going to get there with or without anybody’s help. I’m independent. I love company but, at the end of the day, I am the only one who’s going to be with me forever.”
Original interview appeared in The Salinas Californian magazine