Edgar Quintero was on the fence about graduation attire, leaning toward a simple black dress that wouldn’t make a big deal of her gender-bending status.
But her godmother thought that was too low-key for an A-student graduating near the top of her high-school class. “She told me ‘You ought to really stand out,” said Edgar, 17.
So Edgar showed up for the ceremony earlier this month in a shimmery red frock with a thigh-high slit. But the dress was more than a fashion statement.
It was the culmination of a brave and often bewildering journey—and a testament to the power of open minds and unconditional love.
Edgar’s journey moved onto an even bigger stage when she joined other high-achieving, college-bound foster youth for a gala celebration at Walt Disney Concert Hall on June 27.
That kind of acclaim would have been hard to imagine eight years ago, when Edgar and two older sisters landed in the Los Angeles County foster care system, after police raided their home and arrested their parents for selling drugs. The children spent weeks shuttling among relatives, until their godmother, Nelida Reynoso, offered to become their foster mom.
Back then Edgar was a little boy who liked playing dress-up with his mother’s silky scarves. “My dad would complain: ‘Tell him to take it off!’ ” Edgar recalled. “My mom would say, ‘Leave him alone. He’s having fun.’ ”
Edgar’s mother died in 2010, while she was in the process of trying to regain custody of her children. That sent Edgar into a tailspin. But his sisters were a comfort and his godmother a steadying influence as Edgar wrestled privately with confusing feelings about gender identity.
“I knew back then that the way I presented myself physically was not the way I wanted to be,” Edgar said. “Even if it looked normal to everyone else, it didn’t feel normal to me.”
By high school Edgar had come out to family and friends as gay. It would take another year to figure out that if a label was required, it might be “transgender” and Edgar’s preferred pronoun would be “she.”
That wasn’t a result of some grand epiphany. It was more like a step toward a destination that Edgar is still mapping out.
“You feel like you know yourself, but sometimes you don’t,” she acknowledged, shrugging broad shoulders and running a manicured hand through her dark mop of curls. “That part of me wanting to transition was always there, but I didn’t know how to address it. I didn’t even know what a ‘trans’ person was.”
She took her cues from a legendary source—drag queen supermodel RuPaul, whose Emmy-winning reality show had kept young Edgar enthralled. The show’s signature line became Edgar’s guiding light: If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you going to love somebody else.
Today Edgar isn’t hung up on nomenclature. “I’m non-binary, non-conforming … I don’t know what to call it. That’s just how it is.”
She wears jeans more than dresses and has no plans to change her name. It doesn’t bother Edgar that her family still calls her “he’.” “They don’t mean any disrespect. That’s just what they’re used to,” she said.
Still, coming out was scary. Edgar worried that friends and family might shun her—until her godmother cleared the air with a promise of unconditional love. “She was the first person who didn’t ask how or why, just accepted it straightaway,” Edgar said.
Support from Edgar’s principal, teachers and classmates at Aspire Ollin University Preparatory Academy helped make her transition drama-free, and even improved her academic performance.
Edgar discovered a talent for writing when a teacher encouraged her to chronicle the experience. She became an activist with Students Against Gender Oppression, with help from a transgender teacher. She worked with principal Jennifer Garcia to make the Huntington Park campus a nurturing place for nonconforming students.
This month, Edgar graduated with a 3.95 GPA and Achievement Awards in English, creative writing and art. She will attend UC Davis this fall, with help from a scholarship provided through the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.
The department hosted the Disney Hall celebration for Edgar and 174 other foster youth who graduated with honors from local high schools and are receiving scholarships for college.
Many endured neglect or abuse and cycled through multiple foster homes, like one young woman headed for UCLA who moved among seven different placements while tending her little brother and surviving on ramen noodles and frozen burritos. She also is graduating with a 3.95 GPA.
“I am really inspired by these students,” said Brandon Nichols, acting director of DCFS. “They are setting high goals for themselves...and are already looking for ways to improve our world through careers in child welfare, immigration, racial discrimination, and LGBTQ equality.”
The odds are stacked against children in foster care. Less than 60% graduate from high school and only a tiny fraction go on to college. The trauma of family disruption and the chaos of frequent moves can make learning hard.
But success stories abound, too, because those challenges can also be a driving force. “I used to be ashamed of all the things I’d gone through,” Edgar said. “But I didn’t let those problems define me. Now I’m kind of proud of all I’ve overcome.”