Alex Reyes enjoys theater and home economics, Annabelle’s Haunted Dolls and Dungeons & Dragons. But as a child, there was one thing he loved the most – and a sure way to ensure his good behavior.
“Taking away his cell phone or taking away his games wouldn’t do anything to him,” remembers Alex’s mother, Linda Alvarez. “But take his book, it just ruined his whole day.”
In middle school, a coming-of-age novel by El Paso author Benjamin Alire Sáenz became “a major part of my discovery of who I was,” says Canutillo High School senior Alex. . “Aristotle and Dante Uncover the Secrets of the Universe,” which explores gender, race and sexuality, was a revelation for Alex at a time when he was questioning his own sexual and gender identity.
Now the 17-year-old will gladly tell you: Alex uses his pronouns and identifies as panromantic and genderqueer, but reserves the right to change his mind. It’s that self-confidence that earned Alex another accolade at this year’s El Paso Sun City Pride Parade. He will become El Paso’s first-ever Youth Grand Marshal, an honor given to those who have made significant contributions to the region’s LGBTQ+ community.
“I’m just like, ‘I exist.’ And no matter how I feel some day, I’m going to exist that way,” he said. “It’s okay not to have a neat little box.”
In middle school, those words were much harder to say. Alex expected to be silent for years. “I was like, ‘I’ll just wait until I graduate and I’ll leave, and then I’ll say it. It’s just a few more years.
Alvarez, meanwhile, was watching her child and worrying.
“My concern wasn’t that that was how he was,” she said. “My worry was that he didn’t trust me enough to tell me.”
But “Aristotle and Dante” helped Alex realize “it’s good to be different,” he said, and then one day his mother asked. “She just kind of knew,” Alex recalled. “I started crying and she just held me.”
Fight for books, for others
As a freshman in high school, Alex’s days of silence were behind him. With the return of face-to-face classes after nearly two years of virtual schooling, he had big ambitions. With the help of his theater teacher, he founded an Alliance Genre & Sexualités. The GSA has planned a week to educate students and teachers about gender pronouns.
“We wanted to create this safe place to ask questions and learn without feeling scared or embarrassed,” he said.
And the group’s plans for the year involved books: Alex dreamed of reading LGBTQ+-friendly children’s books to elementary school students.
None of these plans materialized.
Last fall, Alex learned that a book from the school library was causing controversy among some parents, who viewed the book as a form of pornography — a claim echoed by Republican lawmakers like Texas Governor Greg Abbott. It was a graphic novel and memoir called “Gender Queer” that Alex had never heard of. He read the book. “To have this performance was amazing,” he said.
But it was also hard.
Reading about author Maia Kobabe’s experiences with discrimination and name-calling took Alex back to when he was also bullied in middle school and elementary school. “Gender Queer”, he thought, was “really important”.
Then, a parent issued a formal challenge to the illustrated memoir, asking the district to permanently remove it from Canutillo’s library — triggering the formation of a review committee that would decide whether or not to ban the book. Suddenly, Alex found himself fighting to prevent another book from being taken from him.
At first, Alex was supposed to serve as the student representative on the book review committee. But if the committee determined that the book was child pornography, as the parents who objected to it claimed, then the presence of a minor like Alex on the committee could be a problem.
“We have been silenced,” he wrote in an issue of Magazine #Pride365published by El Paso Sun City Pride.
“They wouldn’t get mad at us for saying anything about it,” he added in an interview with El Paso Matters. “But they just kind of shut down for a bit…every time we had an idea it was like no, parents are going to get mad, shut down for a bit. And then a little turned into – they just wouldn’t let us do it at all.
In the end, the committee had no student representatives: it included educators, librarians and parents. Alex asked his mother, Linda Alvarez, to be one of those parents.
She agreed to serve on the committee, but Alvarez said she would first have to read the book herself and form her own opinion. “It wasn’t a bad book at all,” she said. If anything, she felt horrible for the author’s pain.
“You read it as a mother, and you understand, ‘this baby felt like this for so long…’ It breaks my heart,” she said.
“And I wanted to be part of it. Because he couldn’t. And I certainly wanted to not only speak for myself, but also speak for (Alex) because he wasn’t able to do that.
Alex, meanwhile, started pleading behind the scenes.
Along with his friends and other GSA members, Alex studied “Gender Queer,” annotating its pages and writing notes for Alvarez to bring to the committee — a way to ensure the student voice was heard, though. only indirectly.
In early December, the committee voted 8 to 1 to keep the LGBTQ+-themed book in Canutillo’s library.
Make the difference
Now, Alex’s backstage advocacy has brought him to center stage at this year’s Pride Parade. This is the first year that El Paso Sun City Pride, the nonprofit organization that hosts El Paso’s PrideFest and Pride Parade, has had a Youth Grand Marshal.
Elected members of the group’s board of directors select grand marshals based on “the efforts and contributions they’ve made to our community,” said Regina Mendoza, EPSCP co-director, Community Outreach. The EPSCP has accepted nominations for young Grand Marshals from GSAs throughout the El Paso area.
Alex is one of five Grand Marshals (six if you count the parade’s mascot, Tony the Tiger) who will lead the parade on Saturday, June 25. He will stand alongside the community leaders he has admired all his life – among them Adri Perez, an ACLU policy advocate for trans youth, and Sáenz, author of the LGBTQ+ novel whose book played a such a central role in shaping Alex’s identity. Both Perez and Sáenz are grand marshals for the parade.
“I’ve tried so hard since middle school and high school,” Alex said. “All that wrestling…it got me to them.”
Alvarez will be on the sidelines, cheering on Alex along with the rest of his family.
“For him to go from not telling anyone, hiding and being scared, to saying something and being in the parade – that’s definitely a 100% change,” she said. “And I’m so proud. I can’t wait for this moment.