In middle school, Selena Milian endured years of teasing and bullying, too shy to speak, gradually growing her nails and hair until finding, at age 14, that she was transgender.
Her father, at first, called it a phase. The taunting at high school persisted, to the point that Selena plotted a route between classes that avoided the worst offenders. Even as she dressed as a woman, some teachers in school continued to call her “Billy.”
But Selena stuck up for herself. Her father accepted the change, and her friends had her back. Then two weeks ago, her classmates at Overhills High School in southern Harnett County honored Selena with a sash and tiara – the first transgender homecoming queen, as far as anyone can tell, in North Carolina.
“Knowing that people support you is amazing,” said Selena, 18. “It’s just dressing up, being fabulous. Just like I am, but like Cinderella.”
She won this title in a military community, living so close to Fort Bragg that C-130s pass directly over the mobile home park where her family lives. Every member of the legislature from Harnett County voted in favor in House Bill 2, the North Carolina law that, among other things, mandates that at public facilities people must use the bathroom that matches the gender on their birth certificate.
In 2014, 17-year-old Blake Brockington found national attention as the state’s first transgender homecoming king as a senior at East Mecklenburg High in Charlotte. Known as a girl until his sophomore year, he told the Charlotte Observer, “My family feels like this is a decision I made. They think, ‘You’re already black, why would you want to draw more attention to yourself?’ But it’s not a decision. It is who I am. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.’’
I had to go with the flow. Doesn’t bother me a bit no more. ... I love her. She’s the only daughter I’ve got. When she wanted to be queen, I said, ‘Wow.’
David Coffee, father of Selena Milian
Last year, he died after being struck by several cars on Interstate 485 – an apparent suicide.
Selena, who is Native American, said her hometown can be unwelcoming, but at the same time she navigates her school with enough friendship that she won the homecoming princess title last year. She performs with the school’s dance troupe, which she credits with boosting her confidence.
“I’m a more happy person,” she said. “More outgoing.”
Still, she posts videos online offering advice on how to overcome bullies: plot a strategic route through the halls, walk with friends and make certain spots your territory, act as though you don’t know the people calling out rude names. “Like I’m Beyonce or Kim Kardashian walking through that school,” she said.
On YouTube, Selena tells the story of her coming out, starting with her life as Billy Coffee in the sixth grade: “I got called gay,” she said, “so I’m going to be gay. ... I still didn’t know myself.” In the seventh grade, she grew her hair longer and trimmed her eyebrows. “But I still dressed like a boy. Still feminine. Still, ‘Hey, queen!’ But um, yeah, I was really shy, like I couldn’t talk to no one.”
Not long before high school, she called an LGBT helpline and learned more about being transgender. She told her parents, and her father admitted the news threw him at first.
“She started dressing like a woman,” said David Coffee, 62. “I had to go with the flow. Doesn’t bother me a bit no more. ... Look at her. She’s a beautiful lady. I love her. She’s the only daughter I’ve got. When she wanted to be queen, I said, ‘Wow.’ ”
“They were accepting about it, so that’s what matters,” said Selena, who is an only child. “He wanted that American football player or basketball player in high school and stuff. But he got a model, honey. I wear heels and I slay.”
On homecoming night, which had a theme from the Broadway show “Grease,” she wore a red gown with a diamond pattern across the front. When she finishes school, Selena wants to get into modeling or cosmetology, or maybe radio broadcasting. But on her night, after years of confusion and grief, she got to be fabulous.