When Zachary Patton was a little boy growing up poor in Kittanning, his mother occasionally drove him and his three siblings into Oakland, where he'd gaze in wonder at the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning, "and she'd say, 'Maybe you'll go there someday,' although she really was joking."
Today, the 21-year-old Mr. Patton is a senior at Pitt, an experience that, he says, changed his life -- introducing him to a diverse, tolerant academic community and a supportive fraternity, Sigma Chi, all of which gave him the courage to come out as gay last year.
Now, Mr. Patton has embarked on a campaign to run as Pitt's first openly gay Homecoming King, an election that takes place over 24 hours on Friday. It's all part of the riotous revered tradition of homecoming, when America's colleges, universities and high schools welcome alumni, play football, march in parades, hold seminars with star professors, drink, tailgate and celebrate school spirit.
There are about a half dozen students running for Homecoming King at Pitt this year, and most of the candidates in any year emphasize their loyalty to the school, to the sports teams, their attendance at games, their volunteer work.
Mr. Patton's message is somewhat different.
"My Pitt experience has changed my life," he said. "I grew up in Kittanning. My mom was single and on welfare. I was on the football team, but I was closeted and confused. Here, I felt accepted."
With the help of a counselor, he made the decision to reveal his sexual orientation -- something that was completely accepted by members of his fraternity Sigma Chi, "a real brotherhood," he said.
In fact, Sigma Chi's president, Andrew Hansen, was the first to suggest that Mr. Patton run for Homecoming King. As president of the school's Fraternity Council, Mr. Patton, who is majoring in philosophy and communications, hopes his candidacy will also send a message that fraternities are inclusive places -- "not the stereotype out of 'Animal House,' " he said.
At a fraternity recruiting event Tuesday night at the William Pitt Union, he was talking up "what Greeks do and what we are all about -- community service, philanthropy, brotherhood, sisterhood, networking, leadership, academic excellence and fun programming, too."
One of his friends, Brittany Reyes, 20, another senior, has been helping Mr. Patton get endorsements from campus organizations, including Strong Women, Strong Girls, a national nonprofit whose members mentor girls from third to fifth grade.
"We like his candidacy because we see it as a promotion of gender equality," she said. "The story behind his running is very different from a lot of others I've heard."
Mr. Patton is not the only gay, lesbian or transgender person who is seeking to participate in a homecoming celebration. At Richland High School in Johnstown, senior Kasey Caron has petitioned the school board to allow him to run for homecoming king. He identifies as male, even though his driver's license lists him as female. The board hasn't taken action on his request.
And at Penn State, this year's homecoming grand marshal will be basketball star John Amaechi, who in 2007 came out as gay, the first former NBA player to do so.
At Pitt, the votes will be counted at noon Friday electronically through the school's Web portal, and the top five king and top five queen vote getters will be selected to the Homecoming Court, which will be announced at a laser show at 9 p.m. that evening. The top vote getters will be King and Queen.
Whether he wins or loses, Mr. Patton feels he's come a long way since high school, "where I was a troublemaker. I played football, sure, but I gave my teachers a lot of backtalk."
And when his friends made slurs, "like 'that's so gay,' I didn't blink. I probably used that line, sadly. ... What I've learned since coming here, though, is that you are at your best being yourself."
Mackenzie Carpenter: email@example.com; 412-263-1949. On Twitter @mackenziePG.