Photo courtesy of Damien Lopez. Used with permission.
As a child growing up in Newark, N.J., Damien Lopez was known to friends and family by another name … and as another gender. He was a sister (one of seven) and a daughter, roles that, for Lopez, “never resonated.” He remembers the conflicting, confusing emotions from an early age, but feeling those emotions and expressing them were two entirely different propositions.
“Growing up in a Latino household, ‘queer’ things are really taboo,” says the now 24-year-old young man. “They weren’t really talked about, so I didn’t have the right conversations about it.” Those conversations would have to wait until Lopez reached his “can’t-contain-this-any-longer” moment of clarity. Until then, he spent his high school days outwardly accepting the expectations of others while engaged in a lonely, clandestine search for answers. “I was like, makeup all the time, no sports,” he explains. “I was determined to present myself in the way that was expected of me, and it really hurt, because I didn’t feel happy.”
While a sophomore at North 13th Vocational Technical High School in Newark (part of the Essex County Schools of Technology), Lopez began understanding the importance of another search: finding a career path that inspired him. When he enrolled in the school’s culinary arts program, it didn’t take him long to realize that the search was over almost as quickly as it began. What he didn’t know, however, was that his choice of a skilled trade would also lead to an unexpected source of strength that would inevitably help him resolve his gender identity issues.
Two Paths Meet
“I fell in love with the class, with cooking and hospitality,” Lopez remembers. “And I was like, ‘OK, this is something serious.’” Brett Boon, Lopez’s instructor and a SkillsUSA advisor, tried to impress that seriousness on the young student, pushing him to, in Lopez’s words, “get out of my comfort zone and try to be a part of something.” That “something” was SkillsUSA.
“When I first met Damien, he was very quiet and reserved,” Boon recalls. “As he progressed through the program, his personality began to show more. He was always very enthusiastic, willing to try any culinary competition.”
Lopez would take advantage of SkillsUSA’s career competitions throughout high school, culminating in a third-place finish in Culinary Arts at the SkillsUSA New Jersey state championships when he was a senior in 2015. But SkillsUSA wasn’t just about competition for Lopez; it was also about the relationships and confidence-building leadership skills he was developing, skills that helped him earn not only a bronze medal as a senior competitor, but a role as a state officer.
“As an instructor, I could immediately tell that Damien had the qualities to be a SkillsUSA officer,” Boon remembers. “He was amazing, the first Essex County student to hold a state office position.”
“I learned how to talk to people, how to be professional, be more confident,” Lopez enthusiastically recounts. “I was always timid and scared just to read off a piece of paper, and then I remember after a speech being told, ‘You talked to 2,000 people today,’ and I’m like, ‘What?’”
“He started out a shy officer,” says Gail Riccardi, an Essex County web design instructor and another SkillsUSA advisor who worked with Lopez during this time. “But he developed a confidence that stood out.” SkillsUSA New Jersey director Pete Carey agrees, adding, “He was a bright, dedicated state officer and an exceptional local chapter leader.”
As his confidence grew, so did a burgeoning sense of comfort with his new peer group, prompting Lopez to start subtly sharing some of his gender identity struggles. “I was still in that questioning stage,” he remembers, “but I did amplify it verbally with friends and other kids around SkillsUSA, and I didn’t receive any negative feedback. Everyone was very accepting … which is lovely. Everyone was just about making friends and connections, and there was no judgment at all. These kids were so amazing. So accepting.”
Of the many life lessons he learned through SkillsUSA, one in particular would serve Lopez well in the difficult days to come. “SkillsUSA taught me not to be so scared of what could happen,” he says. “It just really brings together where you want to go in life. It gives you a little hope. I love it so much.”
Epiphanies are rare-but-energizing occurrences, those life-altering moments when, as if by a bolt of lightning, we’re struck by a new understanding of something we once wrestled with. Lopez finally summoned such a moment in September of 2019. At the time, he was living at home while enrolled in the Nutrition and Food Sciences program at Montclair (N.J.) State University. Still pushing to fully understand the source of his inner conflict, Lopez stumbled upon a YouTube video of two transgender men claiming they felt like shapeshifters as children, as if they were living in the wrong bodies.
The bolt connected.
“It hit me,” Lopez says. “‘I’m a trans man.’ I went to my sister and started crying and said, ‘I think I’m trans,’ and she said, ‘Cool. I always wanted a brother.’ That’s when my transition started happening. I found my truth and I wasn’t letting go.”
While Lopez laughs now at the simple, pure and immediate acceptance reflected by his sister’s comment, the process to come was far from easy. At times, in fact, it’s been excruciating. “My sister was the only one who knew,” he explains. “I’m doing things under the radar. I started testosterone treatment, and I was doing shots at my friend’s house or had to wait until the middle of the night. I was living a double life. I had to be presented as female in this household, and when I’m outside, that’s when I can feel like me and tell everyone this is me, and it was a lie, and it was kind of overwhelming.”
It was a deception that could not continue, especially during the closed-quarters living conditions of a global pandemic. Eventually, Lopez revealed his revelation to his parents. “My mom didn’t take it well,” he admits, the current challenges of that relationship still apparent in his tone. “I’m fortunate that my father has accepted me 100-percent. What he told me stuck with me, so I tell people.” Lopez looks away as he prepares to recite the words that have obviously comforted him during many dark moments. “He said, ‘There have been people like you before you were born, and there will be people like you after you die. So you owe it to yourself to love yourself unconditionally and to live your life for you, to your happiness and your standards.’”
A Prince is Born
As much as Lopez wished his “coming out” story could’ve been tied up in a happy-ending epilogue worthy of a children’s book, he realized that his tale – like everyone’s – is an ongoing work in progress. That didn’t stop him, however, from writing that happy ending in a book of his own.
The idea came to Lopez after watching a TikTok video touting authorship of children’s books as a potential money-making venture during the downtime of the ongoing pandemic. Lopez was intrigued by the challenge, but the reward he was after was something far more important than money. “If I was going to do this, it had to be something that meant a lot to me and something that helps other people like me,” he says. Within a few months, “I Am a Prince” — written by Lopez and illustrated by Mutiara Arum — was born.
In the book, a young prince (who, coincidentally, loves culinary arts) struggles to tell his parents that he does not, in fact, view himself as the princess they consider him to be. “At first it was hard,” the book reads, “At first it was tough. The King and Queen told the prince, ‘We love you for you, and you are always enough.’ “
“I wanted to bring gender diversity and inclusion into children’s books,” Lopez says, “as well as representation for trans youth that are looking for their stories. It’s not too invasive. It just introduces the topic and says it’s OK to feel different in your body, it’s OK to question how you feel, to tell your parents, to be confident in who you are and love yourself enough to take that step and understand that, ‘This is me and who I am.’”
“No reason to be scared,” the book continues, “You know your feelings better. We love you so much, and we are in this together.”
The book, available online, has been generating the kind of positive feedback that confirms Lopez’s intuition in writing a story for a marginalized audience. “Mothers reach out to me and say, ‘My son or daughter is trans, and they read your book to me, and we cried, because my child looked up at me and said this was exactly how they felt.’ I’m like sobbing as I’m reading these comments.”
New Trails to Blaze
Lopez has left few stones unturned since his 2019 epiphany, from changing his name (it’s the name his father would’ve given a son) to enduring “top surgery” (“Feels good to get that off my chest,” Lopez jokes) to transitioning in the middle of school and work. (“Co-workers were yelling at me, saying, ‘You’re not a boy, you’re a woman,’” he recalls.) While it’s hardly been a storybook journey, there’s at least one thing the prince from the book and the real-life Damien have in common: a life-affirming sense of peace and pride.
“My outside feels like my inside,” Lopez says matter-of-factly. “It’s just a beautiful, heartfelt moment when I look in the mirror and remind myself how far I’ve come, not just with my transitioning, but all aspects of my life.”
Riccardi is equally impressed. “What I see is a confident young man who is comfortable in his own skin, still giving back, still trying to make things better for those who may follow in his footsteps,” she says. “As a teacher and advisor, this is exactly what we wish for our members and officers.”
“In SkillsUSA, we often use the word ‘champion’ to describe all of our members,” adds state director Carey. “But at a much deeper level, Damien is an unparalleled champion and trailblazer. His book will no doubt contribute to a greater understanding and tolerance of diversity.”
Today, Lopez is attending Brookdale College, enrolled in their Alternate Route program for career and technical education. He hopes to become a culinary teacher (he’s just earned his credentials) and a SkillsUSA advisor, too.
“Oh, heck, yeah, I’d love to be a SkillsUSA advisor,” he exclaims. “To see that growth in myself, it would feel amazing to see that in other students. With SkillsUSA, it was really the opportunity and the mindset of going after something that you loved. I love cooking, and I love being a part of culinary. It really pushed me to identify how I was limiting myself, and I feel that goes into all aspects of growing up. Are you going to make this anxiety or ‘bad talk’ stop you from doing something that ultimately could be something amazing? It’s good to love yourself. It feels great to live. It’s not even ‘surviving’ anymore. I’m not hiding myself. It feels great to live.”