Nov. 6, 2013 at 6:14 PM ET
When Greta Melendez was crowned homecoming queen last weekend, it was a moment she never imagined would happen.
The 17-year-old, a senior at Calabasas High School in southern California, came out as gay in ninth grade and was relentlessly bullied.
Melendez told TODAY.com that coming out cost her friends. Classrooms would fall silent when she walked through the door. Her peers made hand gestures, took pictures and even poured water on her.
“At the time,” she said, “I thought there was something wrong with me to be getting hate from people I didn’t know.”
But attitudes have changed since then. A few weeks ago, Melendez and her girlfriend, Lily Cohen, were nominated as a same-sex couple for homecoming — a first in the school’s history, according to assistant principal Lauren Young.
Young said that shifting opinions about homosexuality at the high school reflected a nationwide trend of greater acceptance. The school, which does not tolerate bullying, has also tried to educate students. Just two weeks ago, it held classroom conversations about harassment. A video shown in advance of the small-group discussions featured Melendez talking briefly about her own experience.
The crowning of Melendez and Cohen was a proud moment for the school, Young said: “I think it shows our level of unity and diversity.”
Just last month, C.C. Winn High School made history as the first high school in Texas to name two homecoming queens instead of a king and queen. In that instance, one homecoming queen identified herself as a lesbian and the other described herself as straight, but they pursued the titles together as allies in an effort to support gay rights.
In Melendez and Cohen’s case, they were stunned when they learned about their nomination while taking an honors physiology class together. They were even more shocked when they got crowned as royalty during halftime at last Friday’s homecoming football game.
“It was honestly one of the most amazing moments of our life,” said Melendez, “just to see the crowd stand and applaud for two people who love each other.”
As the girls’ victory went viral and became nationwide news, they noticed some criticism, but Melendez said that her difficult experience in ninth grade made it easier to look past the hurtful comments.
“For me, I’ve been dealing with that kind of thing since I came out as a freshman,” she said. “I don’t usually let that type of hate bother me. I actually use it to fuel me so that I can help other people.”
As president of her school’s Gay and Straight Alliance Club and vice president of the peer support group, Melendez said she worries about teens who are bullied but haven’t yet found self-acceptance.
Her father, John Melendez, said he is “so proud” of the role model his daughter has become, and of her homecoming queen title. “Now kids will see this, and it’s going to make it easier,” he said. “They’ll feel equally accepted.”
For Greta Melendez, the unexpected win has given her new hope that acceptance of someone else’s differences is more possible than she imagined.
“Actually seeing your school, which has made you feel bad about this, seeing them do a 180 turnaround and change their minds,” she said, “that was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.”