Jewlyes Gutierrez doesn’t have fond memories of her sophomore year of high school. “It was a bad year,” she said. “I’m glad it’s summer.”
Gutierrez, a transgender girl who recently turned 17, was thrust into the national spotlight in November when she got in a fight with three girls at Hercules High School. The fight was caught on video and uploaded to YouTube, and several news outlets covered the story. The Contra Costa County district attorney charged Gutierrez with misdemeanor battery, but none of the other girls involved in the fight were charged.
Since then, Gutierrez’s fortunes have changed. After a successful social media campaign to raise awareness about her situation, charges against her were dropped. Then she learned that she had been voted the 2014 SF Pride community grand marshal. After winning 54 percent of the votes cast, Gutierrez will be honored on Sunday, when she’ll ride through the parade in a convertible.
“It is so rare that someone is charged with a crime and subsequently something positive comes of it,” said Gutierrez’s lawyer, Kaylie Simon, in an email. “This is truly rare.”
Gutierrez has never been to San Francisco’s LGBT Pride Parade before. “I actually didn’t even know about the grand marshal, and then I was shocked that I got more than 50 percent of the vote,” she said. “That’s crazy.”
In fact, before the school fight and resulting media coverage, Gutierrez and her family didn’t even know how to describe her gender identity. “It flashed on the news that I was transgender,” she recalls. “Until then I didn’t even know what I was.”
At her home in Hercules this week, Gutierrez sat on the sofa wearing the violet dress she bought for the parade and recalled the events of the past year. Prior to the November fight, Gutierrez says she was subjected to regular bullying and sexual harassment by her peers. “What you see in the video is nothing compared to every single day,” she said.
It all came to a head in algebra class, when Gutierrez sat in her assigned seat. The girl seated next to her allegedly told Gutierrez that she didn’t want to sit near her. “She had gum in her mouth. She spit the gum in her hand and threw it in my face.”
Gutierrez said she went to the principal and vice principal about the incident, but she said they weren’t very responsive. The principal has not yet responded to KQED’s request for comment.
In class the next day, Gutierrez said the other girl — the gum thrower — turned to her and threatened her. ” ‘I feel like punching you in the face,’ “Gutierrez recalled her saying, slapping her fist into her open palm. After being taunted a third time, Gutierrez lashed out and clashed with the three girls during lunchtime — the fight that made its way to YouTube.
At that point, Gutierrez and her family decided to use all the media attention to their advantage. Gutierrez’s sister, Valerie Poquiz, started a Change.org petition calling on the district attorney to drop the battery charges. More than 200,000 people signed the petition, and several local groups, including the Transgender Law Center, the Rainbow Community Center and the RYSE Youth Center, rallied around Gutierrez. On May 1, a Contra Costa County judge dropped the charges against her.
In February, Gutierrez and the other students involved in the fight participated in a restorative justice program — the first of its kind in Contra Costa County. During the program, she was able to confront her harassers about their actions. “She learned that she can’t fight everyone,” said Debra Gutierrez.
Hercules High School recently changed its gender policy, requiring school officials to address transgender students according to their chosen gender identity. Still, Gutierrez’s mother describes Hercules High as a “toxic environment,” and she says her daughter wants to transfer to a different school.
Gutierrez said that, throughout the ordeal, she had suicidal thoughts. And while the wounds from the incident are still raw, being recognized during Pride Weekend is something that has helped lift her from the depths. “It lifted her spirit and gave her a purpose to move forward,” said her mother.
And since being named this year’s community grand marshal, she has met transgender celebrities, like the “Orange Is the New Black” star Laverne Cox. “The SF Pride thing opened us to the reality that there are others like me,” Gutierrez said.