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Indybay FeatureRelated Categories: Central Valley | LGBTI / Queer
Johnny Vera, at 6-foot-4 in heels, towers over enthusiastic supporters as he sports the tiara representing his selection as queen for Roosevelt High's prom Saturday.
Roosevelt prom queen a transgender pioneer.
By Diana Marcum / The Fresno Bee
The silver tiara matched his silver stilettos when Johnny Vera was named prom queen Saturday night at Roosevelt High School.
He's the first transgender prom queen in Fresno -- and possibly anywhere.
Vera's win probably didn't surprise anyone who had seen the prom queen candidates' speeches Friday in the quad during lunch. Vera, effeminate and towering in heels, had wrapped his manicured nails around the microphone.
"For me, it's about more than a crown. It's about saying to people, 'Come out and be who you want to be,' " Vera said. A crowded, urban high school scene paused to listen. "You have to say, 'I am who I am, and I'm proud of who I am. My spirit will never be down on the floor.' "
The students cheered and whistled. The girls on Vera's cheerleading squad got teary-eyed. A boy wearing a pin supporting another queen candidate started the chant: "Johnny! Johnny! Johnny!"
On Saturday night when his name was announced, Vera wept like a newly crowned Miss America to thunderous applause in a downtown Radisson Hotel ballroom. The same chant started: "Johnny! Johnny! Johnny!"
Vera's crowning comes less than a month after Cinthia Covarrubias made national news by running for prom king at Fresno High School.
Covarrubias didn't win but said at the time of her candidacy that she hoped to break the ice for other students who are transgender, a term for people whose gender identity or expression differs from the sex they born with.
Vera didn't know Covarrubias. But he was inspired.
"Things are the way things are until someone changes it," Vera said. "I started seeing that someone has to be first."
Take away the fact that Vera has his face regularly waxed to remove stubble, and he is in many ways a typical prom queen: good grades, a cheerleader and popular.
Vera prefers the pronoun "she," but most people at Roosevelt High refer to Vera as "he." Vera isn't too hung up on pronouns.
"You have to let the little stuff sweat right off," Vera said.
At football games when he's on the cheerleading squad, the crowd regularly chants, "Johnny, Johnny, Johnny."
"No other student is getting their name chanted," said Lupe Sosa, a career counselor at Roosevelt.
What happened to the age-old story of someone different not fitting in during high school? Sosa said Vera's strength of character compels people to accept him.
"This person is amazing. He lights up everybody around him," Sosa said. "He always has a genuine compliment for everyone. Especially the shy kids. But he never sugarcoats anything. Johnny carries himself with a lot of dignity. And Johnny is so darn assertive. No one messes with Johnny."
When Sosa recounts conversations she's had with Vera, she adopts his persona, adding a head toss and shoulder shrug to her words. The week before the prom, she saw "a student jealous of Johnny" tearing down one of his posters.
"I said, 'Oh, Johnny, how does that make you feel?' He laughed. He said," -- and she snaps her fingers, re-creating Vera's delivery -- " 'Oh Mrs. Sosa. I am not going to trip over that. They're tearing down a poster, not my spirit.' "
Sosa advised Vera to think hard before running.
"I couldn't say it's a perfect world, people are always kind. I told him, 'Be ready for consequences,' " she said.
But Sosa has been surprised at how little controversy there has been. She was in the stands at homecoming when students were shouting Vera's name. She watched confused parents ask their children who Johnny was. That wasn't the homecoming queen's name.
"The kids pointed to Johnny down on the field in his cheerleading outfit. The parents looked so surprised. I just had to laugh," Sosa said. "It's really a different world."
The administration of Roosevelt High School had no problems with Vera running for prom queen.
"It's not our job to judge. We don't allow discrimination in any form here," said Vice Principal Ovidio Martinez.
He figured Vera had a good chance: "He's well-known. He stands out. He's 6-foot-4 in heels."
Assistant Principal John Leal had expected Vera to grab the crown. "Word up from the kids is he's a 5-to-1 favorite," he said before prom.
Leal describes himself as a "traditional Mexican macho."
"But I like Johnny," he said. "He's a good guy. Everybody loves Johnny. He stands his ground. I remember the winter formal -- he was dressed in a beautiful dress by the way -- no one batted an eye." At the spring homecoming, Vera was named Mr. Roughrider.
"It was an honor, but I don't like being called mister," Vera said.
Some students at the prom did think twice about voting for a transgender prom queen.
"I think it could be cool if Johnny won, but I was worried about the school's reputation," said Angel Bustamante, 17, a senior. "Then again, it doesn't matter what other people think. That's the message he's trying to get across."
His date, Lily Vasquez, gave him a playful slap.
"You didn't vote for Johnny?" she said.
Even one of the other prom queen candidates didn't understand why there would be a fuss over Johnny winning.
"I think a guy should be a king and a queen should be a girl, because I'm old-fashioned," Erica Cossio said before the vote. "But I don't think it's going to be surprising if he wins. It's not like some huge deal."
Before coming to Roosevelt, where he's preparing for a career as a fashion designer, Vera said he didn't have a place he felt safe. Even when he presented himself as male with short hair and more masculine clothing, he was sometimes singled out.
"Even as a more guyish Johnny, I was real soft, real gentle," he said.
In Santa Ana, where he lived until he was in high school, he said he made sure never to go anywhere alone, because he was worried about being beaten up.
Vera said his source of strength was his mother, Maria, who died of complications from lupus when he was 14.
"She was a woman who liked to dress herself up. She was very excitable, all smiles, like me," he said. "And she knew how to manage things. When my dad came home, the house was clean, the meal was cooked and we were all dressed."
Vera's sister, Elizabeth, 21, said her mother never made an issue of Johnny's differences.
"Just because he was different than every other little boy, she never put it out there as a problem," she said. "It was 'we love each other,' and that was it."
When his mother was sick, she talked to him about self-respect.
"She taught me to be strong and never be ashamed of myself," Vera said. "Never see yourself as less, she said. She told me, 'You know, to really be a lady you have to know how to walk into a room.' "
Elizabeth Vera said she's proud of having a brother who is a prom queen.
"He's standing up and saying it's OK to be different," she said. "There's so many ignorant people out there. I've seen them look at my brother like he's some kind of disease. I've seen the reactions.
"I've always felt like, you don't like it, that's fine, but don't disrespect my brother," she said. "Now he's going to make people talk. He's going to open a lot of eyes. Just to show that kind of courage shows who my brother is."
In the dark days after Vera's mother died and his family moved to Fresno, he would walk to school every day repeating to himself mantras of inspiration from sources ranging from Mohandas Gandhi to classroom posters:
"Be the change you want to see in the world -- believe in yourself -- if you can dream it you can become it."
"There were all those statistics about transgender kids committing suicide. People would look at me and say I was going to do drugs or be a prostitute. And I would just tell myself, I'm not going to let anyone but me tell me what I'm going to be."
On Saturday night, he was prom queen.
The reporter can be reached at dmarcum [at] fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6375.
Vera and his best friend Mickey Gonzalez pose for their official prom photo. Supporters say Vera's personality was crucial in his crowning achievement.
Annette Jacinto, 17, shows her support for Johnny Vera during a Fresno rally featuring prom-court candidates' speeches Friday. All photos by Mark Crosse / The Fresno Bee