TAMPA — The graduates sat in the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall, listening to the sounds of rolling thunder, crying infants and their principal's words bounce off the metal rafters.
They all stood for the Pledge of Allegiance, observed a moment of silence for fallen classmates, and applauded members of the military. But when the 635 students from Alonso High School were asked to cheer for friends and family who helped them reach this milestone, Ariel Zavala instead threw a demure smile over her shoulder to her mother, father, sister and grandmother in the row behind her.
Ariel wasn't sitting with her classmates last week, dressed in a robe and mortarboard, but watched from the stands with her family, patiently waiting to snap a photo of her best friend receiving her diploma. Ariel had earned the right to walk across the stage, but bristled at the notion of participating in the ceremony.
The reasons were many. She came out as a transgender female her sophomore year, and she didn't want to worry about what students would do or say when she walked across the stage.
She also was angry at how some of her classmates had treated her over the years.
"Either way I still get my diploma, but I didn't really see the need to sit with a group of kids that basically put me through hell for the past 13 years," Ariel said. "I thought about it and decided I need to do this for me. I need my happiness, and I don't need to sacrifice that for anyone else."
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There's another reason she refused to participate in her high school graduation: Her name wouldn't be the one printed on her diploma. The diploma and the graduation program identify her as Angel Zavala, the shy, unhappy boy she has worked so hard to shed.
It was another reminder that she has yet to achieve her milestone moment, that her desire to be seen simply as Ariel Monroe Zavala, a poised, 5-foot-9 woman, requires one more step.
• • •
In the two school years she transitioned from male to female, Ariel never shied away from the spotlight like she did at graduation.
She created her high school's first Alonso Pride Alliance, a club where students of all sexual orientations and genders talk about acceptance.
A St. Petersburg-based film crew has filmed her and her family for a Netflix documentary on transgender people, and she allowed the Tampa Tribune to document her transition in a series of stories.
Officials with the Hillsborough County School District included Ariel in workgroups on protecting transgendered students' rights, which eventually led to adding "gender expression" to antibullying and discrimination policies.
The Tampa Bay Rays will recognize her contributions to the LGBT community today. It will be yet another moment in the public eye.
She wants to be a role model for others struggling to find their true identities, but that role comes with anxieties and pressures, and the reminder of how far she has to go. She has become a spokeswoman of sorts, educating those around her on what it means to be transgender. But that's not all she is.
"Being so open with my transition, I felt like more people thought they knew me but they didn't, they only knew of me," Ariel said. "They would come up to me and talk to me like they've known me for years, but they just know my story. It bothered me."
Inside, she says, she's just a woman, and she's eager for the world to see her as only that. In some ways, she has been waiting for more than a decade.
• • •
A family photo portrays Ariel as a 1-year-old boy teetering in the small heels of her older sister, Mariah Zavala. When the two would play house, Ariel always insisted on being the mom. The way she would pose for pictures or run with other boys always seemed different, said her father, Arturo Zavala. He was traveling frequently for work and wondered if he needed to be home more.
"I would say, 'That's not how you stand, that's not how you run,' " Arturo Zavala said. "She was always with her mom and with her older sister — or he was — so I thought he was just mimicking them."
Though her mother, Monica Zavala, knew from a much earlier age, it took her performance in a fifth grade production of Mamma Mia for Arturo to realize instinctively his son was gay. When she was about 12, Ariel came out to her family, first as bisexual and then as gay.
In the sixth grade, Ariel started getting bullied. She was wearing a black hoodie, jean shorts and Converse sneakers. She had a plain black backpack and plain white binders. Still, a group of boys sitting behind her said she was gay for what she was wearing and how she sounded when she talked.
After that, Ariel began to feel isolated and the bullying seemed to increase.
"Every day it was something worse, I'd get a nudge in the hall or get something thrown at me," Ariel said. "It was like every day I found someone new who didn't like me. I didn't know what to do. I'm not doing anything to draw attention to myself and I'm still managing to have problems."
She was introverted, and less talkative. She stopped smiling for pictures and became suicidal. Even her relationship with Mariah, whom she calls her best friend, became suspect in Ariel's mind.
"I just felt like everyone was against me, including my family," Ariel said. "It wasn't until recently our relationship started getting close again."
At graduation, Ariel's family dutifully took videos and pictures. Her mother brought her cap and gown, just in case she changed her mind, but didn't press the subject when she got a firm "no."
As the crowd applauded for the graduating class, Mariah put her hands on Ariel's shoulders, lightly jostling her as she gave her a heartfelt "congratulations."
The sisters and their mother are planning to get matching tattoos of a gynandromorph (half male, half female) butterfly. With her father, Ariel hopes to get matching yin and yang tattoos.
And when she turns 18 on June 26, Ariel can proceed with her gender reassignment surgery and pursue her true ambition.
• • •
The breakthrough came when she and her mother visited John Casablancas modeling agency her sophomore year of high school. An agent said Ariel could take classes dressed as a woman if she preferred. The suggestion came as a shock to Ariel's mother, but not to Ariel.
That night, Ariel left her a note explaining that she was transgender.
Ariel put the modeling on hold, instead focusing all of her energy on her transition. She told her mom that she would only start modeling when she could check the "female" box on her application.
Ariel has taken hormones and had cosmetic surgery on her nose, chin and Adam's apple. She regularly augments her slender frame with form-fitting, "edgy yet feminine" clothes and sky-high heels. She wears her jet black hair in a bob that skims her shoulders and turns her chestnut brown eyes a piercing blue with colored contacts.
She's always loved makeup for the way it can "change your face without surgery," and learned how to contour and highlight from YouTube tutorials and watching drag queens at Hamburger Mary's restaurant.
Ariel went to her prom in a floor-length skirt, mesh top and silky curled hair extensions, showing her true self to her classmates for the first time, she said. Her date, Diego Lopez, 19, said nearly every conversation or dance was cut short by classmates wanting to compliment her. She looked beautiful and, more importantly she said, she felt beautiful and accepted.
Still, she struggles with self-confidence.
"The root of her anxiety, deep down, is the fear of judgement and disapproval — that's what it's been and what it's always been," Lopez said. "I think she's afraid no one is going to love her in the way she wants them to, and I personally don't understand why she would feel that way."
Sometimes, the blows that shatter her self-esteem come unexpectedly.
After a story was published in the Tampa Tribune last spring, Ariel overheard someone refer to her as "that transgender girl" at the mall. Around the same time, while hanging out with a friend's family, a toddler asked why Ariel "doesn't sound like a she."
"I'm like, okay, now I have to fix that, and if I can't fix that training-wise I have to look into a surgery," Ariel said.
She uses a cellphone app called Eva MTF to try to get her vocal range an octave higher. The trick is to sound natural, not nasally or like you're trying, she said. Her voice has gotten higher, but there are still days where Ariel notices the vibrations of her baritone.
She puts her hope in her pending gender reassignment surgery.
"I feel like after I have the surgery, I'll finally be at peace with myself," Ariel said.
The only thing that scares her is the recovery. She could be on bed rest for up to a month. Even after, it will take a while for her to get back to walking normally.
"Who's going to come visit me? Who am I going to see? Whenever I go into surgery, that's what I think of," Ariel said. "Who are my true friends? Who's really going to come and visit me and take care of me?"
When she's alone with her thoughts in her bedroom, it's those moments that cause Ariel to face the specters that haunted her childhood — self-doubt, anxiety and depression.
But when the waiting is over, she'll finally be a woman. She'll walk back into a modeling agency, not as a man, or a man in women's clothing, but as a woman. No one will think she stands funny or her voice seems strange. No one will applaud her for how different she is, but simply for who she is.
Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected]