March for transgender youths draws allies in Bloomfield

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BLOOMFIELD, NJ — On Saturday, Oct. 22, several hundred people marched for the rights of transgender youths. The route of the procession was from Bloomfield High School to Five Points and, via Franklin Street, back to the Bloomfield Public Library. The event was held to recognize township resident Damien Lopez, a 12-year-old transgender boy who ended his own life on March 5, 2021.

The marchers included Bloomfield Mayor Michael Venezia; Bloomfield Council members Wartyna Davis, Rich Rockwell and Ted Gamble; Bloomfield Board of Education Vice President Shane Berger; and BOE member Ben Morse. The Bloomfield Police Department closed several blocks of Bloomfield Avenue to traffic to facilitate the march.

At the library, speakers were introduced by Mary Valentine, of Bloomfield Pride, an LGBTQ advocacy group. First to speak was Holly Belli, the BPL director, who thanked everyone for celebrating Damien’s life. She said libraries provide the last free and open spaces in America.

“It shouldn’t be that way,” she continued. “Libraries are being attacked for having books relating real black, gay and Jewish experiences.”

Belli said that if Damien had experienced, at school, the freedom found in libraries, he would still be alive. 

Next to speak, Davis identified herself as “a queer person from Montgomery, Ala.,” and said she and Rockwell take pride in being openly gay. She then read “Mother to Son,” a poem by Langston Hughes, which begins: “Well, son, I’ll tell you: / Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair. / It’s had tacks in it, / And splinters, / And boards torn up, / And places with no carpet on the floor— / Bare.”

The mother advises her son not to sit just because stairs are difficult to climb, stating that she has not and will not stop climbing. 

“Life is not an easy journey,” Davis said. “Even when we’re tired, we can’t sit down — not for Damien or for others.” 

A young man, also named Damien Lopez, spoke.

“I didn’t come out to my mom,” he said. “She found out and burned my bright flags in front of my face. It hurts; it still hurts. We’re always trying to find unconditional love. But if a person doesn’t find that, what does it say?”

Another young transgender person, whose name was given as “Reed,” spoke.

“I face the same harassment as Damien did, from peers, in person and online,” Reed said. “I was told I was over-sensitive and acting out. Adults treated me as if I was the problem. We need for people to believe our stories. We need adults in positions of power to do better.”

Jamie Vicaro, the mother of 12-year-old Damien, was the last to speak.

“It’s been quite a journey,” she began. “You couldn’t have told me I’d be saying goodbye to my child 12 years after giving him birth.”

Vicaro said her son wore his heart on his sleeve, but the world was cruel to him.

“He knew from an early age he was transgender,” she said. “He was accepted in our home for what he was, and he was my best friend. There’s no other words to describe it.”

Her son, Vicaro said, fought a battle inside himself and, in the last year of his life, visited seven children’s psychiatric hospitals.

“They misgendered him,” she continued. “We need to validate our children for who they are.”

Vicaro related several instances of questionable treatment from professionals that her son endured. One occurred two weeks before he died. She said he was in a children’s group therapy session and was asked to write down what he disliked about himself. He did, but when the therapist asked him to read it aloud, Vicaro said, because her son was with strangers, he did not want to reveal what he had written. The therapist then snatched the paper from Damien, who snatched it back. The therapist, according to Vicaro, admonished her son for being uncooperative. In relating this, Vicaro expressed anger and disbelief. She also had asked a hospital to place him in a residential program because he needed 24-hour surveillance, because he was cutting himself. She was assured by the hospital that her son did not require this. But soon afterward, he was found unresponsive by her husband, in their bedroom. 

“During the last two weeks of his life, he endured so much,” Vicaro said. “I have no idea who I am anymore. He tried his hardest at everything he did, and he was not weak.”

During the event, Venezia told this newspaper that Bloomfield was a welcoming community and that its leaders will continue the work to make the town a safe place for all. 

“But if any organization feels we are not doing enough,” he said, “we’ll sit down and work with them.”

Photos by Daniel Jackovino