One can’t mistake Technology High for a sports powerhouse. The small school nestled into a corner of the Sonoma State campus is known more for robotics than aquatics. But the situation was even worse than Mary Aguilar had feared when the senior finally relented and joined the girls’ basketball team last fall.
“Maybe one girl had played for a year,” Aguilar said during a recent lunch break at Tech. “Every other girl had never played in their lives. It was all learning the fundamentals. It was really weird. They’d be like, ‘OK, let’s learn how to tie shoes.’”
Tech coach Tony Corey didn’t turn anyone away from the team. The result was predictable. Early on, girls would run with the ball, forgetting they had to dribble, or occasionally toss it into the wrong basket. Few of the Titans could make a layup. Teammates would sometimes flinch and turn away when Aguilar threw them a pass. Tech didn’t even have height. At 5 feet, 5 inches, Aguilar was the second-tallest player on the team.
Corey did his best to teach skills and create a fun environment, and Aguilar made a sincere effort to involve her teammates. But the Titans’ games frequently came down to a simple directive: Give the ball to Mary. She became the best little player on the worst little team in the Redwood Empire.
‘Like a player plus a coach’
Given an eternal green light, Aguilar’s numbers were superb. She was among the NCL II scoring leaders at 15.3 points per game, more than half of her team’s total. She didn’t rack up big totals against lesser opponents, either. Aguilar had 14 points against a dominant St. Vincent team, and 19 twice against second-place Roseland Prep.
She played rec-league basketball with many future St. Vincent and Rancho Cotate players, and is confident she could excel against them on an even playing field. Some might dismiss her stats as the product of Tech’s lack of scoring options, but Aguilar believes the reverse is true.
“I feel like if I was maybe on a better team, I would have been able to make 10 times more the baskets, (rather) than going with a team that couldn’t get the ball down the court,” she said.
As it was, Aguilar sat out several games with a concussion, but otherwise played virtually every minute of every game for the Titans. It was a heavy load to bear.
“I was shocked. I thought a kid that talented would quit,” Corey said. “She didn’t quit. She was like a player plus a coach.”
The Titans went 1-13 in league play, but they improved noticeably along the way. Sophomore Katie Stagnoli emerged as a solid inside counterpart to Aguilar’s perimeter game, and senior Marisol Aldana, a novice coming in, developed into a good rebounder. Still, opponents knew that if they could stop Aguilar, they could smother Tech High.
A proud, confident lesbian
If the Titans needed someone who could bear up under that spotlight, they found the right girl. Mary Aguilar feels like she has stood out for most of her life.
Aguilar is a lesbian — her preferred term — and is in no way shy about her identity. By eighth grade she was cutting her hair short and dressing like the boys in her middle school. It was an unburdening for Aguilar, who had known for years that she wasn’t like other girls.
“It started in kindergarten,” she said. “It was really weird, because I felt like, ‘Is there something wrong with my brain? Am I crazy?’ I didn’t even know what gay meant until about third grade. So I didn’t open my mouth about it. Then my sister was like, ‘Oh, I’m gay. … I’m telling you I like girls.’ I’m like, ‘That’s a thing?’”
Aguilar, in fact, has two gay older siblings, a sister and a brother, as well as a straight sister.
“My mom was like, ‘What the hell? What is this?’ She wants to write a book, actually,” Mary said.
Support at home and school
The Aguilars were familiar enough with gender and sexuality issues that Mary never had to announce to them that she’s gay.
“I grew up in San Francisco, so I’m really used to everything,” said her father, Frank Aguilar, a musician. “I thank God for where I grew up. Same with my wife. … We sat down with our kids in the beginning, because we didn’t want any problems with it. We had a nice talk, and we told them whatever makes you happy is fine. We’re behind you 100 percent.”
Mary said her mother, Marilyn, had a religious background and was a little slower to come around when the first Aguilar sibling came out, but eventually was at ease with the notion. Minor differences still arise. Marilyn wasn’t thrilled about Mary wearing a tuxedo when she took her girlfriend to senior prom.
“I just felt more comfortable in the suit,” Aguilar said. “If I wore a dress, I don’t think I’d fill it out too well.”
Even that exchange was a sign of change. Mary’s oldest sister, Jeanette, was closeted in high school.
“It took longer,” said Jeanette Aguilar, who is 32 and works in film and television. “I was probably a sophomore in college when I came out. Mary gets to go to prom with who she wants to. I had to go with someone else.”
Mary comes across as confident and outgoing, and doesn’t have many complaints about how others have treated her. She felt a lot of eyes upon her when she started high school at Rancho Cotate — she switched to Tech for academic reasons as a sophomore — but put the whispered questions to rest when she sang at a school rally.
“I said, ‘My name is Mary Aguilar — Mary.’ Like I said it really loud,” she recalled. “After I played and performed for them, that’s when everybody knew, ‘OK, she’s a lesbian. Don’t say (stuff).’ And then everyone was like standing up for me if anyone said anything rude.”
Aguilar, whose graduation was Friday, said she felt even more comfortable at Tech, where gay and straight kids hang out together. It pleases Tech High principal Robert Haley to hear that, but it doesn’t surprise him.
“This is a unique environment because it’s high school on a college campus,” Haley said. “Most students here, it’s a college preparatory high school, so they’re here by choice and motivated to be here. It’s a diverse student body. So to be honest, Mary doesn’t stand out at all. It’s a pretty welcoming environment.”
From tolerance to affirmation
And yet Aguilar has been forced to deal with the awkwardness, or even outright hostility, that some people still feel around LGBT people, especially LGBT kids who don’t look like everyone else.
“When I played soccer they’d be like, ‘Is this a coed team?’” Aguilar said. “I’d get that all the time. … Or I’d go to like Roseland Prep, and a lot of Hispanics there would be like, ‘Why is there a boy on that team?’ And they would just look at me and give me the meanest looks. I would be uncomfortable. I wouldn’t really know what to say.”
Away from the athletic field, Aguilar has endured plenty of glares and snide comments when using public restrooms — a major flashpoint for gender-nonconforming people and the subject of numerous pushes for trans-related legislation. She always uses the ladies’ room because, as she said, “The boys’ smells worse.”
Claudia Haskel, a Sebastopol-based Marriage and Family Therapist with a specialty in LGBT-affirmative counseling, does not know Mary Aguilar. But she cautions against assuming that every gay or transgender teen is welcomed with open arms these days. She stresses that each situation is different.
“What makes a really nurturing environment is going beyond tolerance and acceptance, and into affirmation,” Haskel said. “If someone expresses being different, and meets with oppressiveness around that difference — whether it’s being gay or transgender or whatever — it’s assumed ‘tolerance’ will be a nurturing place, but it isn’t always. They can just go to a place where they’re erasing who they are to blend in, not affirming who they are.”
Haskel points out that despite societal changes like widening acceptance of gay marriage, LGBT teens have higher rates of suicide and homelessness.
At home on field and court
The athletic field hasn’t always been seen as the most inclusive area of society, but Aguilar has been able to connect through sports for much of her life. She played a lot of rec basketball in elementary school and middle school, and as a freshman at Rancho she played hoops (including some varsity) and golf and ran track. The web site athletic.net lists Aguilar as having the school’s sixth-fastest time in the 1,600 meters, 6:28.14, in records that go back at least to 2007.
Disappointed in the level of competition when she got to Tech, Aguilar declined to play basketball for two years, though she was a goalkeeper on the Titans girls’ soccer team that made the North Coast Section playoffs in 2012.
As a Tech sophomore, Aguilar frequently worked out with the boys’ basketball team, and credits coach Scott McKeon for improving her shooting. The next year, she says, McKeon invited her to play for the boys’ team here, but then-principal Bruce Mims nixed the idea.
“It was my kind of competitive level playing with the guys, because they’re rough,” Aguilar said. “I like to get in there. I play kind of like a guy would.”
And she wants to keep playing. Aguilar will attempt to walk on the Cal State Fullerton women’s basketball team.
She has other reasons for choosing Fullerton. Her girlfriend, a Tech graduate, lives in Southern California and attends the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. Aguilar also is drawn to Los Angeles because it’s the heart of the music industry. She’s a precocious singer-songwriter in the indy-alternative vein and plans to study audio technology at Fullerton.
“I was just joking with my mom,” Jeanette Aguilar said. “I don’t know how Mary has thousands and thousands of followers on Facebook. I don’t know how she has a fan page visited by random people. People seem to gravitate to her a lot.”
And then there’s this: Cal State Fullerton is 7 miles away from Disneyland, Mary Aguilar’s favorite place. She claims to have visited the park 38 times just this year. Her favorite character is Robin Hood.
Aguilar has been forced to do a lot of soul-searching in her 18 years, but sometimes a girl just wants to have a little fun.