Long before he cried into his rainbow comforter at 16 and told his mom he was a lesbian, C Balta knew he was different.
He would never wear dresses, one time refusing so adamantly that his exhausted mother had to call in to work.
C was Catherine back then. That was before the short dark hair and swooped bangs, before the gauged ears, before the arm tattoos of the rainbow flag and the pink triangle – the queer community’s symbol in Nazi Germany, before the surgical removal of his breasts.
It was before the senior marketing major felt comfortable with his body and himself.
Balta, now 28, identifies as transgender and more specifically, gender queer. Two years ago, he started going by both male and female pronouns. Recently, he has asked people to start using “he” and “him” more often than “her” and “hers.”
“At this point in our society and culture, it’s just easier for others if I’m one or the other,” Balta said.
Balta moved to Lincoln from Los Angeles when he was 9 years old, after his parents divorced. It was a typical new-kid-in-town story, he said. The school was full of pre-formed cliques of light-skinned, blond girls. Balta’s dark Armenian features and unique sense of style didn’t blend in.
“The looks I got,” Balta said, flipping his bangs over his eye, “I was an alien from outer space to them.”
And there were the questions and the sneers.
“Why are you in the girl’s bathroom, you fag?”
It was in the halls of Lincoln High School where Balta finally felt comfortable being himself. Diversity was more of the norm in a school where 45 percent of the students are non-white. Balta got involved in the LGBTQ group there and surrounded himself with accepting people.
“I built this bubble of support, this circle of like-minded people,” he said. “And that was my savior.”
After his 2003 high school graduation, Balta went to UNL for two years. It was another adjustment walking around campus, wondering what the students around him were thinking, wondering if they watched to see what bathroom he walked into.
After two years of gender studies courses and working with the on-campus women’s center, Balta left school. For six years, he focused on his band, Once a Pawn, and performed as C Styles at drag shows in Lincoln and Omaha on the weekends.
Then in 2011, Balta came back to school to study marketing. In his absence, a growing understanding of LGBTQ individuals had spread through the college-aged generation. People still wonder, but Balta is open to any questions and any opportunity to educate.
“We are kind people in Nebraska,” he said. “Most people have gotten to the point where they are like, ‘This is the state of the Good Life. Let’s not worry about who you go to bed with.’”
UNL isn’t necessarily the most progressive place, Balta said. But for a red state of farmers in the middle of the country, Balta said he’s proud that messages of equality and acceptance cut through any stereotypes.
“It doesn’t always take a picketing sign to make a difference,” he said. “Just being yourself and not hiding who you are is activism. It’s about staying true to yourself.”
Balta knows people have questions for him. There are still many who appraise the bright colored clothes, the mismatched shoes, the low voice that rises in pitch right before a chuckle and don’t know what to think. He? She? Which bathroom?
But none of that matters, Balta said. “We are all in the process of figuring out how we can be happy,” he said. “In that way, I’m no different than anybody. Why else are we here other than to be happy?”