Alex Reyes loves theater and home economics, haunted Annabelle dolls and Dungeons & Dragons. But as a kid, there was one thing he loved most — and a fail-safe way to ensure his good behavior.
“Taking away his cell phone or taking away his games, that wouldn’t do anything to him,” recalls Alex’s mother, Linda Alvarez. “But take away his book, that just ruined his whole day.”
In middle school, a coming-of-age novel by El Paso author Benjamin Alire Sáenz became “a major part in me figuring out who I was,” says Alex, a senior at Canutillo High School. “Aristotle and Dante Discover 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 readily tell you: Alex uses he/they pronouns and identifies as panromantic and genderqueer, but reserves the right to change his mind. It’s this self-confidence that has earned Alex a new distinction 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 important contributions to the region’s LGBTQ+ community.
“I’m just like, ‘I exist.’ And however I feel on a certain day, I’m going to exist that way,” he said. “It’s OK not to have a neat little box.”
In middle school, those words were much harder to say. Alex expected to stay silent for years. “I was like, ‘I’ll just wait until I graduate and I leave, and then I’ll say it. It’s just a few more years.’”
Alvarez, meanwhile, was watching her child, and worried.
“My worry wasn’t that this was the way that 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 OK to be different,” he said, and then one day, his mother asked. “She just kind of knew,” Alex recalls. “I started crying and she just held me.”
Fighting for books, for others
By junior year of high school, Alex’s days of silence were behind him. With the return of in-person classes after nearly two years of virtual schooling, he had big ambitions. With the help of his theater teacher, he founded a Gender & Sexualities Alliance. The GSA planned a week to educate students and teachers about gender pronouns.
“We wanted to create that 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 those plans came to fruition.
Last fall, Alex learned that a school library book was stirring up controversy among some parents, who saw the book as a form of pornography — a claim echoed by Republican lawmakers like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. It was a graphic novel and memoir called “Gender Queer” that Alex had never heard of. He read the book. “Having that representation was amazing,” he said.
But it was also hard.
Reading about author Maia Kobabe’s experiences with discrimination and name-calling brought Alex back to times in middle and elementary school when he was bullied, too. “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 to ban the book. Suddenly, Alex found himself fighting to keep another book from being taken away.
At first, Alex was supposed to serve as a student representative on the book review committee. But if the committee determined that the book was child pornography, as the parents who opposed it claimed, then the presence of a minor like Alex on the committee could pose a problem.
“We were silenced,” he wrote in an issue of #Pride365 Magazine, which is released 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 it down a little … every time we had an idea, it was like no, the parents are going to get mad, just stop for a little bit. And then a little bit turned into — they just didn’t let us do it at all.”
Ultimately, 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 be on the committee, but Alvarez said she would have to read the book herself first and form her own opinion. “It wasn’t a bad book at all,” she said. If anything, she felt awful for the author’s pain.
“You read it as a mother, and you understand, ‘this baby was feeling like this for so long…’ That kind of breaks my heart,” she said.
“And I wanted to be a part of it. Because he couldn’t. And I wanted to definitely not only speak for me, but also speak for (Alex) because he wasn’t able to do it.”
Alex, meanwhile, began to advocate behind the scenes.
With his friends and other members of the GSA, Alex studied “Gender Queer,” annotating its pages and drafting notes for Alvarez to bring to the committee — a way of making sure that students’ voices were heard, albeit indirectly.
In early December, the committee voted 8-1 to keep the LGBTQ+-themed book in Canutillo’s library.
Making a difference
Now, Alex’s behind-the-scenes advocacy has brought him center stage to this year’s Pride Parade. This is the first year that El Paso Sun City Pride, the non-profit that hosts El Paso’s PrideFest and Pride Parade, has had a Youth Grand Marshal.
The group’s elected board members choose Grand Marshals based on “the efforts and contributions made by them to our community,” said Regina Mendoza, EPSCP’s co-director of Community Outreach. EPSCP accepted nominations for Youth Grand Marshals from GSAs throughout the El Paso region.
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’ll stand alongside community leaders he’s looked up to all his life — among them, Adri Perez, an ACLU policy advocate for trans youth, and Sáenz, author of the LGBTQ+ novel whose book played such a pivotal role in Alex’s identity formation. Both Perez and Sáenz are grand marshals for the parade.
“I have tried so hard since middle school and high school,” Alex said. “All this struggle…it brought me to them.”
Alvarez will be on the sidelines, cheering Alex along with the rest of his family.
“For him to go from not saying anything to anybody and hiding and being scared, to saying something and being in the parade — that’s definitely a change of 100%,” she said. “And I’m just so proud. I can’t wait for that moment.”