Avi Pacheco used to hide his femininity -- but not these days.
"I walk with my head held high and a sway in my hips because I know who I am and I embrace it," he proudly says. "Self-acceptance is my crown and I wear it with pride."
Such confidence wasn't always easy to come by for the 21-year-old gender-fluid Samoan drag queen. Long before he created his drag persona, and before he was selected as a 2019 Human Rights Campaign Youth Ambassador, Pacheco was known by his birth name, Sopi Pouvave, and he lived at home with his single mother and five siblings.
His family was loving, but had little tolerance for those who entertained the slightest questions about gender or sexuality. The young teen's femininity resulted in frequent threats of physical violence and homelessness if he was revealed to be gay. Matters worsened when his mother suffered a stroke. He was only 15 and still in high school, but he cared for her and his siblings as best he could, but she passed before watching her oldest son graduate.
It wasn't long before he was outed to his younger sister by a callous classmate. The future looked bleak for Pacheco until a mandatory school project changed his life.
"When I was a senior in high school, you needed to complete a senior project in order to graduate with honors," Pacheco remembers. "I did my project on the art of drag and self-acceptance."
With the support and encouragement of his teacher, the project put him in contact with the Life Foundation (now known as the Hawaii Health and Harm Reduction Center). And it was here that he met a trans woman and fellow drag queen by the name of Gia Pacheco. The elder Pacheco took the aimless, suicidal, high school senior into her home. It wasn't long before the pair had become a family. Sopi Pouvave became Avi Newlyn Pacheco, and together the pair worked to create his drag persona, Aviana Versace.
Pacheco first shared his experiences publicly in 2018 when he was invited to address students at a Day of Understanding conference at Health Sciences High and Middle College in San Diego. He was shocked to see so many students connect with his story. It revealed to Pacheco that he wasn't alone, that there were others who shared similar experiences and were just as much in need.
"Part of my work is to speak out at schools and events to not only promote self-acceptance and open-mindedness," Pacheco says. "But to ensure the community is aware of these resources if they ever need help."
Avi Pacheco learned that his femininity and sexuality were not something to be hidden but instead embraced. Through his work and activism, he hopes his story inspires other youth in similar straits.