Maka Brown, 18, says she's honored to wear her school's crown
With a sleek seafoam gown borrowed from her mom’s closet, freshly polished nails and an assist from her younger sister in the hair-curling department, Maka Brown was all set for her high school spring prom in Salt Lake City.
But she never dreamed she’d bring home a new accessory that night: a sparkling tiara from her election as prom queen.
For the transgender teen, a senior focusing on dance at the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts, the unexpected honor Saturday was proof that today’s generation “is more accepting of people who are different,” says Brown, 18, the first transgender prom queen to be crowned in the conservative state of Utah.
“The people at my school are so accepting and so supportive – they accept me exactly as I am,” she says. “It’s a scary thing, when you first come out and tell people you’re transgender, but everyone has been great. My friends at school have helped me to live an authentic life, to be who I am.”
Brown didn’t always feel so comfortable in her own skin. After hitting puberty, when she realized her body was changing and she wasn’t comfortable around other boys, “I got super depressed and confused,” she says. “Life was ugly – I knew that I was different and that I didn’t fit in.”
When she was 16, she came across a story about transgender people and realized there was a word for what she’d been feeling. She told her mom what she’d learned, and although Toni Brown, 46, a single mother of two (her other daughter, Isabell, is now 16), was supportive, “I was taken aback and fought it at first,” she confesses. “I thought, ‘She’s such a young age – she’ll grow out of it.’ I sent Maka to a therapist, thinking they could cure her.”
When Toni learned about the high percentage of transgender teens who commit suicide, “it suddenly all clicked for me,” she says. “It hit me that if a child is going through emotional pain, you just need to love them. They need to know they’re getting support from the people they’re closest to.”
Today, Toni, a freelance photographer, calls Maka “the bravest person I know.” “It’s hard enough to be a teenager,” she says, “but she chose to be authentic, rather than hide who she really is. You have to admire that.”
Maka’s father, Gary Brown, 37, a farrier from Draper, Utah, agrees. “Maka’s mom and I divorced when she was young, but I still see Maka often and I’ve always thought she was a sweet soul and very kind to everyone,” he says. “Growing up, I could always tell she was a little different, so I wasn’t really surprised when she told me [she was transgender]. She’s a good kid and I’m proud of her.”
To students at Maka’s high school, her gender doesn’t matter.
“She’s an amazing person I’m so glad this happened for her, because I look up to her so much,” says Kat Jackson, 16, a sophomore. “We’re both dance students and Maka has broken a lot of boundaries in our school. We’re all proud of her.”
“How could we not be accepting?” adds SPA’s vice-principal, Ron Literall. “The students who walk through our doors are a melting pot of personality types, genders, ethnicities, and religious convictions. They are blossoming dancers, actors, musicians and scholars. We value Maka and all of our students for who they are.”
After an hour of primping for the school dance, Brown arrived with her boyfriend, Ross Dittman, 19, and was shocked to find she had been nominated for prom queen.
“That alone was an honor,” she says, “but then to win? I was speechless. I couldn’t believe it when they put that tiara on my head.”
When she graduates in June, Brown, who works at the Utah Flying Trapeze entertainment center, where she is an expert juggler, coach and acrobat, hopes to eventually get a job traveling the world as a circus performer and save money to have sex-reassignment surgery.
“I know it’s an unusual job, but then, I’m an unusual person,” she admits with a laugh. “That’s something to celebrate. I’m so happy with my life now. It’s all going fine.”