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Homecoming princesses make history at Maria Carrillo High School in Santa Rosa

Maria Carrillo High School juniors Shealynn Stillman, left and Charley Gittins were named the junior homecoming princesses during halftime of the Maria Carrillo, Santa Rosa High School football game, Friday Oct. 10, 2014 in Santa Rosa (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2014

JAMIE HANSEN AND LORI A. CARTER, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Embracing each other and smiling broadly, Shealynn Stillman and Charley Gittins made history Friday night.

With the announcement of Maria Carrillo High School’s homecoming royalty, the couple — two girls — became the first same-sex couple in the school’s, and maybe the county’s, history to win the honor.

In a twist on the fall tradition, Maria Carrillo students placed two sparkling tiaras, rather than a tiara and a crown, on the heads of its junior homecoming “princesses” during the halftime celebration at Friday night’s football game.

The 16-year-olds have been dating about a year and identify as pansexual, which they say means they consider gender irrelevant to choosing a partner. Having a couple of the same gender on the homecoming court is a first at Maria Carrillo and appears to be a first in the Santa Rosa City Schools district, based on a survey of local high schools.

“It feels amazing,” Stillman said after the royalty was named for all four classes. “I’m speechless.”

Asked if they felt like they just did something important, the girls said almost in unison: “Yes, absolutely.”

They had talked about running for homecoming court over the summer, Gittins said Friday afternoon. She was sitting with Stillman on some shaded steps at Maria Carrillo before heading home to get dressed for the game. “But it was just a dream sort of thing, like ‘I’m going to go to Africa one day.’ ”

Then school started, and when a friend suggested that they run, the dream seemed more like a reality. The pair agreed to run and their friend started spreading the word.

Last week, they learned to their surprise that they’d received a large number of nominations from their fellow students.

“This was a student-driven movement,” said Trevor Brady, leadership teacher at Maria Carrillo. “We had no idea that this would happen or … the level of support that the two would receive. It speaks highly of the student body and their support for equality.”

He said there was never a question between him, the school administration and class officers about whether the pair should be able to run, though their nomination did pose some logistical questions. Typically, students nominate couples, with the male half of the couple running for king and the female running for queen, or princess in the case of the junior class.

So Brady and the junior class president met with the girls to make sure they were comfortable with the nomination and figure out the best way to move forward, including what they would want to be called if they won.

The girls, who beat out two boy-girl junior couples in being selected to the homecoming court, decided they both wanted to be called princesses.

Since their nomination, people they barely knew had been walking up to voice their support or say they voted for the couple, Stillman said.

That happened again Friday night. Two cheerleaders came up to them after the honors were announced.

“It makes me want to cry,” said one girl, who hugged them both. “I’m so proud of you guys.”

Seniors Anthony Giordano and Vanessa Barron, crowned homecoming king and queen, are a couple, too, for five years. They said there was no opposition to the unusual honor among students.

“We talked about it in my speech and debate class,” he said. “We talked about how far our school has come, how our community is so open.”

“They are so beyond in love,” said junior class president Emma Samson of Stillman and Gittins. “They are so sweet with each other.

“It’s great a high school — a place that can be so judgmental — is so open to this.”

The pair said they’re well known on campus as the only openly gay couple. Most days, they spread out a blanket on the grass and have a picnic together, with other people dropping in to join them. In addition, the artsy pair say they don’t belong to just one clique and are friends with a wide variety of students.

Some of their peers told the couple that they were tired of the cliche of an athlete or cheerleader type winning.

“A lot of people tell us it’s amazing because it’s making such a difference,” Stillman said.

The girls said they feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves as a national conversation about gay rights plays out at homecoming games across the country.

Earlier this month, a school denied a lesbian couple in Surprise, Ariz., the opportunity to run at all, citing a school policy that the winning homecoming pair must consist of a male and female.

Gittins said what happened there motivated her to talk to the media about Carrillo’s homecoming game.

“I’m excited about it, just to get people to realize it’s not all bad,” she said. “Some places are more accepting than others.”

Indeed, Gittins’ parents were nervous about how the girls would be perceived.

When the announcement for the “princesses” instead of a prince and princess was made over the loudspeaker, a huge cheer rose up from the crowd.

Stillman and Gittins shared an embrace and seemed to bask in the acceptance.

Gittins thanked her fellow students for the support and said she’d been practicing what to say about her partner if they won: “She’s my princess and now she can be yours.”

Maria Carrillo appears to be part of a wave of schools embracing a range of sexual orientations and identities at homecoming games: In states including Texas and Ohio, students this month elected their openly gay peers to homecoming court. In Oregon, Ashland High School did away with the titles of homecoming king and queen entirely in favor of the gender-neutral term “Grizzly Royalty,” after the school’s mascot.

“It’s definitely something we’re seeing nationally,” said Jill Marcellus, spokeswoman for the San Francisco-based Gay-Straight Alliance Network. However, she said, it’s still far from common, so “it’s great to see it picking up more places.”

You can reach Staff Writer Jamie Hansen at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jamiehansen. You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.