COLUMBIA — Josie Herrera is heavily involved at MU: leading an Alternative Spring Break trip, serving on two Tap Day societies and participating in a sorority. When Herrera decided to apply for Homecoming royalty, getting involved became more complicated.
As a student who identifies as gender queer — as neither man nor woman but encompassing parts of both — Herrera was stuck with choosing between running for king or queen.
"I got there, and it was two different sheets, men and women," Herrera, a journalism student from Miami, said. "So I signed up anyway under the men's category."
From there, Herrera was chosen as a Top 30 candidate out of 124 applicants. That's as far as Herrera thought it would go; Top 30 was the goal.
Then the Mizzou Alumni Association called, saying Herrera, who used to go by Laura, made the Top 10.
"It was just really startling, and it was really intense," Herrera, 21, said. "I didn't really know how to react at first, and I feel like I didn't feel a lot for a few days because I was just in shock from it all happening. And everyone was super excited and pumped for me, like congratulating me, and I was just like, 'I don't even know what's going on. This is just happening right now.'"
Herrera, who is sponsored by the MU Women's Center, is in the company of Zach Beattie, Nick Droege, Paul Ehlinger and Alex Finck as a king candidate. Homecoming queen candidates are Lexie Cartee, Theresa Mullineaux, Rachel Newman, Meredith Norfleet and Paige Tenkhoff. The king and queen will be crowned during the Oct. 26 Homecoming football game against South Carolina.
"I’m really excited to represent myself, as just a person, but at the same time I’m very multidimensional," Herrera said. "I’m really excited to represent a lot of communities I’m a part of ... I’m first-generation American Latino, I’m a part of the queer community, I’m a foreign language speaker — I’m not actually a native English speaker either (Herrera learned to speak English at age 4) — and I’m really excited to represent those communities."
As far as Herrera and the Mizzou Alumni Association know, Herrera is MU's first transgender Homecoming candidate. Transgender includes people who identify as gender queer.
Todd McCubbin, executive director for the Mizzou Alumni Association, said the rules regarding Homecoming Court eligibility were unclear when it came to transgender issues. For Herrera, he and Aly Friend, who coordinates student programs for the association, had to interpret the situation.
"I think the biggest thing for us, too, along with the identification issue with Josie, was the alumni association and Homecoming want to be as inclusive as possible for the campus community and everything that we represent," McCubbin said. "That was certainly at the forefront of our mind when we were discussing the situation."
After asking advice from alumni and others, McCubbin said they decided "it was best to let a student compete in the category that they identified with most" and that it was "a very comfortable decision to reach."
Herrera said it was "almost too easy" to apply as a king candidate. Although Herrera considered running for Homecoming queen if that was the only option, they are grateful it didn't come to that. Herrera prefers "they" as a pronoun because of its gender neutrality.
"I kind of made the decision that I probably still would have (run as a queen candidate)," Herrera said. "And I wouldn't have felt very, or as much comfortable doing it, but I figured I might as well ask. I don't identify fully as both, but I feel a lot more comfortable in a setting where I can dress masculinely and not be the sore thumb out."
Herrera hopes running for Homecoming king ignites a conversation on campus about transgender issues. Since the Top 10 candidates were announced, Herrera has been fielding a lot of questions.
"I've had a really great time in the past few days hearing everyone's really hilarious theories about my gender identity and sexual orientation and things like that," Herrera said. "I find it entertaining, so I'm like, 'Oh, that's not totally right, but that's really funny.' ... I'm finally at the point where I'm like, OK, we should probably start talking about it because theories are hilarious, but they're also not true."
Herrera has been out as queer in terms of sexual orientation for some time but started identifying as gender queer at the start of the year. Queer is an umbrella term for orientations other than straight.
"Around January, I started what I called a 'gender identity crisis,'" Herrera said. "Where I was just like, everything started feeling really strange and started having to explore myself a lot — even though I didn't have a lot of time to do a lot of thinking — and then feeling really strange about my body and about my identity and how that all fit in together."
Spending the summer at an internship in Boston and around new people, Herrera had more time to explore their identity.
"It's still something I'm in the process of doing, which makes it also weird to do this very public process of doing Homecoming, but I think it will be beneficial," Herrera said.
Herrera is aware of some negative reactions to running for Homecoming king, but most reactions have been positive and supportive. For instance, Herrera had to explain the situation to executive board members of Sigma Sigma Sigma sorority, of which Herrera is a member, so that the board could answer questions from members. At a chapter meeting, it was clear the executive board members "weren't going to deal with people having a vocal negative opinion," Herrera said.
"Some of my friends were like, 'Is that really their place to ask?' and I'm like, 'Yeah, I'm a member of their community,'" Herrera said. "They should know what's going on. So I was happy to do that, even though it made me super nervous and anxious."
Herrera has no doubts some people will be surprised or angry about the candidacy.
"But I haven't had to experience that personally yet. ... I feel really comforted in knowing that so many student leaders ... as well as the university itself, like the alumni center, is being like, 'This is OK. We want this person to represent the university,'" Herrera said.
By representing MU as a Homecoming candidate, Herrera hopes to educate the community about gender and the boundaries it can create as well as challenge those boundaries.
"What I'm trying to explain to people sometimes is, does gender even — I mean, it's important to people on a personal level — but societally, does it really matter? Why is that such a big deal? Why does it have to be such a mess to work through?" Herrera said. "Why do we even have what some people would consider really outdated views of, 'it has to be a king and a queen'? And they have to be 'this,' or they have to be 'that?'
"I'm excited to kind of mess with that, and be like, 'Well, I don't really identify as either. I just picked a box, essentially.' In order to even participate, I had to pick a box. There's no middle space, and I think that's kind of silly."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.