Toronto

Meet RJ Smith, Innisfil's trailblazing transgender prom king

Less than a year after coming out as transgender, RJ Smith was standing on stage in front of his classmates as their prom king. What followed hasn't always been easy.

RJ Smith says he felt increased discrimination after winning the crown

RJ Smith said being voted prom king was a 'surreal' moment. (RJ Smith)

To hear it from RJ Smith, it all started as a bit of a joke.

He was hanging out with a friend last summer in small-town Innisfil, Ont., when the subject turned to the coming school year.

With almost a year to go, the soon-to-be high school seniors were already looking forward to prom, when the friend floated what seemed like a wild idea.

"I think she made the joke, she's like, 'I think you should be prom king,'" Smith recalled on CBC Radio's Metro Morning.

It was still months before Smith would publicly come out as transgender, but his close friends and family already knew. He remembers sitting in the car, laughing it off.

"Yeah. that'd be cool," he remembers saying. "Then we completely forgot about it for months."

Almost a year later, Smith and his friend were filling out their permission forms for Nantyr Shores Secondary School's prom night.

When they reached the bottom of the page, they saw the blank spaces to vote for prom king and queen.

The choice was obvious, and months in the making.

"I wrote my name down, she wrote my name down and we just started telling people," Smith said. Before long, "it started to feel like something that could actually happen."

Smith said he wants to inspire other young transgender people. (RJ Smith.)

Prom night

By prom night, his friends were certain of it. Smith wasn't convinced.

"They were all telling me, 'Oh, they're about to call your name,'" he said. "And I kept shushing them because I didn't want to get my hopes up."

When he finally heard his name, "it was kind of surreal."

At the start of the school year, Smith agonized while writing his coming out post on Facebook.

What would people think? How should he explain what it means to be transgender?

A few months later, he was prom king.

"I think it meant that the people of my town actually saw me as a boy and they were actually accepting me for my gender identity."

'Brought back to earth' after victory

After winning the crown, Smith's fears about coming out started to materialize.

As prom king, he felt the support at his school wane, and the judgment in his small town grew more intense. More than ever before, people started making negative comments, he said.

"So I was on this high and then I was kind of brought back to earth," Smith said of the reaction. "They just didn't see it as real until I won prom king."

It's part of the burden of being a transgender person and breaking boundaries in a small town, he said. With the extra publicity after his prom king win, Smith knows he'll now be the first person many people think of when the word "transgender" comes up.

"I kind of do represent the community a bit, because for a lot of people I'm one of maybe two trans people that they know," he said.

Smith says it'll all be worth it, though, if he can pave a wider path for Innisfil's next transgender teenagers.

"I want them to know that they can achieve whatever and people are going to accept them for who they are, even in this small, little town," he said.

About the Author

Nick Boisvert

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Nick Boisvert is a reporter based in Toronto with an interest in politics, civic issues and the environment. Outside work, Nick enjoys cooking, following the NBA and listing things in threes. You can reach him at nick.boisvert@cbc.ca.

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