Mel Gonzales, a Filipino American, was 17 years old when he came out to his classmates as a transgender man. Then he asked them to vote for him for homecoming king, because he wanted to give the trans community a reason to celebrate.
“The only things I saw in the news were negative things—hate crimes, anti-trans bathroom bills—and it was really upsetting to see that,” he says. “I wanted the homecoming king race to be used for better purposes, rather than as a popularity contest.”
Gonzales didn’t expect to be nominated, much less to win. Even so, on September 12, 2014, he entered Edward Mercer Stadium as a student at Stephen F. Austin High School and went home as Texas’ first trans homecoming king. His story went viral, being picked up by local and national publications such as the Houston Chronicle, Refinery29, and LGBTQ Nation.
“I just hoped that if people saw me trying to live my authentic life, it might inspire them to look at their own opinions on transgender people, what it means to be trans, and the queer community in general,” Gonzales explains.
A lot has happened since that fateful day when he became his high school’s homecoming king. Gonzales graduated from the University of Houston with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology. He is seeking a doctoral degree in physical therapy at the University of Texas Medical Branch, and he’s getting top surgery.
Gonzales was born in Houston but grew up in suburban Sugar Land, surrounded by a diverse array of cultures. He was heavily involved at school and joined his high school’s marching band as a percussionist, playing the marimba for three years. He even helped form his high school’s first Gay-Straight Alliance.
But his childhood wasn’t without conflict, as he struggled with his identity. He first came out to his parents as a lesbian. Even then, he wasn’t sure. It was only after he watched a trans man’s transition journey on YouTube at age 13 that he realized who he was.
When he finally came out to his parents as a trans man, they didn’t fully understand. “They weren’t aware of what it means to be trans,” Gonzales says. “The terminology didn’t resonate with them—generally, and culturally. Every time I tried to explain, it fell flat.”
But his parents became supportive over time. A year into Gonzales’s transition, he overheard his mom say to a family friend on the phone, “If I’m having such a difficult time coping with this change, I can only imagine what he’s going through.”
His parents have come a long way since then. Although it took them years to get his pronouns right, they now proudly refer to him as their son and are helping him pay for his top surgery. They also plan on taking care of him after his operation.
“My whole family has been so loving and generous. They’ve been nothing but gracious to me,” he says.
His family has also supported his dream of becoming a physical therapist. He’s always wanted to go into health care, especially after he saw how his grandma benefited from physical therapy as part of her dementia care. Physical therapy allowed her to walk, dress, eat, and even use the bathroom on her own.
“What I realized about physical therapy is it doesn’t matter if they’re going downhill. What matters is that you give the patient dignity and honor the best that you can, even though they know how the end will be,” he emphasizes.
Gonzales is currently a full-time lead rehabilitation therapy technician at a rehab hospital in Katy. He wants to use his experiences as a trans person to help make his patients feel more secure and comfortable. He hopes to educate others on what it means to be trans and to work with trans patients. Ultimately, he wants to be a resource to the trans community.
“Physical therapy and rehabilitation are very vulnerable places. You’re very hands-on with your patients. If I can be a therapist who offers services where queer people feel safe to be themselves, I’ll feel like my job is done,” Gonzales says.
Although he doesn’t see himself as athletic, Gonzales loves being outdoors and lifting weights. He’s an Aquarian who loves spending time with his family, his boyfriend of three years, and playing video games.
By sharing all of these experiences and plans, Gonzales hopes to normalize the trans experience for others. “I like to be known for my work ethic, the decisions I choose to make every day, and then as transgender. I’m just another person. It’s important to me to be myself.”
Gonzales also wants to inspire people to help those in need, especially members of the LGBTQ community from multiple marginalized groups.
“Resources matter, so reach out,” he concludes. “If you know someone is struggling, give them a hand!”
Follow Mel Gonzales on Instagram @melohelohel.
This article appears in the May 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.