When he was 12, Ray Ortiz packed a blue duffel bag and prepared to leave home forever.
“There’s just no way in hell that I’m going to live a life that I’m not happy with,” Ortiz remembers thinking.
“At the time I didn’t know what transgender was,” Ortiz says in this week’s StoryCorps. Kids at school called him “Gay Ray,” so he assumed that he was gay.
He wrote his mom a letter saying “not only was I gay, but that I wanted to be a girl.”
She was supportive and gradually Ray transitioned to living life as a female, going by the name Reyna and using female pronouns. “I just made a mental decision like: I’m going to do what I want. And I don’t care what anybody else has to say.”
Ortiz has three brothers, one older and two younger. And they provided a lot of support when it came time for her to attend Morton East High School in Cicero.
Other students were “horrendous,” Reyna said. She told her older brother and she says he went to her high school, into her classroom and confronted her bully. She says kids never bothered her again.
Ortiz became friends with the most beautiful girls in school. “And they were willing to fight and slap somebody if they disrespected me,” she said. “But eventually people just got used to me. By my junior year, I can honestly say, I ruled that school.”
Emmanuel Garcia was a sophomore at Morton East when Ortiz was a senior. Garcia was struggling to come to terms with his identity as a gay Latino man. “Seeing someone who was so open and out with their gender identity, it was intimidating,” Garcia said in an interview recently. “She carried herself so fearlessly.”
During Reyna’s senior year, she was nominated for Prom Queen. She went without a date, and sat by herself when the court was announced.
Then, they announced the winner: “’And the winner of Prom Queen of 1998 - Ray Ortiz.’ And I just remember everybody coming to the stage. When I turned around it was just flashing lights and paparazzi. Pictures everywhere and people applauding.“
“We always hear that the Latino community is full of machismo and we never hear about a community embracing their own,” Garcia said. “To have this person kind of pioneer sexuality and gender identity in 1998 was unheard of.”