Damien Montoya Gets Real About Being Transgender, Identity and Breaking Stereotypes

EMAGE+Magazine+International+Black+Logo.png

“Everyone has the power and potential to create, define, and express who they truly are. To judge someone is to limit the opportunity of embracing a more meaningful and open life.” -Steven Cuoco



Rising Phoenix

by Damien Montoya


Every time I look up from my path to success, the mountain seems to have grown taller. But I don’t get discouraged; I keep climbing with the same determination that I’ve had since day one, because it’s not about reaching the top, it’s about the journey, and who you help along the way. I’d like to think of my life as a continuous cycle of self-improvement. As soon as I reach one of my goals, I am already looking out for the next one. I hope to never lose that ambition, that drive to succeed. But I wasn’t always like this; hopeful for the future, and optimistic. For my whole life people have been trying to fit me into a box, telling me who I cannot be and what I cannot do. And every single time, I’ve broken the mold, and proved those people wrong.

It started in my childhood when my personality and personal preferences started to emerge. “Girls don’t wear that. Only boys play with those. You need to start acting like a lady.” All things that meant absolutely nothing to me as I was too young to grasp the concept of sex and gender. I expressed to my brother when we were around seven-years-old that I wanted to be a boy. He laughed and mocked me with our cousin. I was extremely hurt, and embarrassed. I would never go on to express those feelings outwardly again. Not until I was 19-years-old and a crossroad lay before me: I could go left, the safe route, and follow the road that was pre-determined for me since I was a kid. Or, I could go right, and risk it all for a chance to live my life as my authentic self.

0i2a1011.JPG

I always knew myself as Damien, even when I was trying so hard to embrace myself as a female. It just never felt right. I would cringe every time someone referred to me as “her” or “she.” I had this image of myself in my head that never seemed to reflect back at me in the mirror. I was depressed, confused, and all of this mixed a convoluted view of what it meant to be “transgender.” I didn’t have Instagram or the internet to show me my potential as a transgender male. I had no role models to look up to or even see that a successful transition was possible. All I would ever hear on the topic was stigma-induced ignorance and discrimination.

I had this presumption that people who transitioned from one gender to the other would always look like they were stuck somewhere in between. I was also completely unaware that hormone-replacement therapy was an option. I thought transitioning just involved very complicated surgeries. These are all ideas that filled my head because that is what society taught me, and I wanted nothing to do with them. I knew about the complications of these surgeries, and I thought “well instead of being some misfit, stuck in between, with junk that doesn’t work, I’ll just make the best with what I got.” So, I tried to for 19 years. I adamantly tried to convince myself that I was in-fact female, and there was nothing I could do about it.

IMG_1453.JPG

Redefining Masculinity

Imagine waking up every day, feeling completely normal. But when you go to the bathroom, you see someone of the opposite gender staring back at you. You almost jump because that is how startling and discomforting it is.

Most people view transitioning as a choice, and maybe pursuing the medical transition aspect is. But trust me when I say that the call to transitioning is far from a choice. It is like a constant feeling that you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Imagine waking up every day, feeling completely normal. But when you go to the bathroom, you see someone of the opposite gender staring back at you. You almost jump because that is how startling and discomforting it is. I am not sure exactly what causes the disconnect between mind and body. All I know is that I am Damien, I am a man, and this is my authentic self. Continuing to live as Demicia would have been the façade.

After convincing my therapist, doctors, friends and family that this is in-fact who I am meant to be, it was time to show the world. Transgender people exist, we are valid, and we are not going anywhere. It took me a long time, almost five years to be exact, to realize how important visibility is. Even as a “passing” transgender male, (that is, people wouldn’t guess from my outward appearance that I am transgender) I was constantly being told that I would never compare to my cisgender counterparts. So much so, that I began to believe it. I thought I would just get by in life, have a normal day job, contribute to society, and live posing as a cisgender male. But life had other plans for me. I was going to have to stop being ashamed of my past and embrace it. How is society going to know what we as trans men are capable of unless we show them? And how are other trans men going to know their true potential if society keeps snubbing out their existence? I knew something had to be done to address these questions.

Life has a funny way of connecting the dots in a way that you really don’t realize until you are looking back, reflecting on the opportunities and decisions that have gotten you where you are today. Upon graduating UMass Amherst with my bachelor’s degree in animal science, I had a really hard time finding a job in my field. I sank into another deep depression, feeling like I had wasted so much money on a degree that I couldn’t use. One fateful day while working at a call center that I hated, I got the call from my current employer offering me an entry level position in animal care. I knew I was over qualified, but I didn’t care. I was confident that once I got my foot in the door, my ambition would take me where I needed to be.

IMG_5982.JPG

Fast-forward two and a half years, and I am already a supervisor with the company, doubling my salary in that time and solidifying my career in the field. I was afraid that being openly trans at work would affect my promotability, so I only told a few people I was comfortable with. But once I secured my position as a supervisor, I came out to my entire department of 70 people, and since then, I am lucky to say that things have not even skipped a beat. I still have the same respect and acceptance from my coworkers because they know me as a hard-worker, not just a trans guy who works there. Had I not gotten this job, I would not have the time nor the finances to pursue my other passions. I would also never have met the coworker who trained and convinced me to enter my first bodybuilding competition, another aspect of my life that I never thought to pursue due to societal standards.

Bodybuilding is a hypermasculine sport, and very intimidating to someone who is transitioning. But it has been the single most effective tool in combating my gender dysphoria. No matter how much facial hair I grew, or how deep my voice got, I still hated my feminine figure. Even though I had top surgery, I still had an “pear” shape that did not appear masculine to me at all. I was constantly comparing my body to cisgender males. But after a year of intense training and dieting, I hit the stage for my first ever bodybuilding competition. Just getting on that stage wearing nothing but trunks, in front of hundreds of people was an extremely rewarding accomplishment for me. Being transgender, I never thought that I would develop the musculature, nor the confidence to be able to compete. Now, it is something I aspire to do at least once a year. I say it’s time to carve out space for trans men in bodybuilding. But it doesn’t stop there.

Getting in such great shape lead me into my next opportunity: modeling. Again, this is something that was never even on my radar because of how seemingly out of my reach it was. I never found myself to be attractive, and my insecurities never allowed me to be confident in myself. But right before my second bodybuilding competition, I decided to step in front of a professional camera for the first time. The edits that I received back were phenomenal and I quickly took to social media to share them. From these images alone, I received quite a few inquiries from other photographers just from Instagram. I have now been freelance modeling for two years and I absolutely love it. It allows me to express my creative side and show off a body that I used to hate, and now love. Through modeling, I was scouted by MarcoMarco Underwear to walk the runway during NYFW 2018. That was the peak of my modeling career thus far, walking with other people of trans experience in front of thousands of people in Manhattan. Since then, I have done a few other runway shows, and its become one of my favorite forms of expression. Trans men seem to be overlooked in this industry as well, and I am hoping to change that.

I never aspired to be a transgender icon, just a good role model if anything. I don’t want to be placed on a pedestal or idolized. I am just a man trying to be my best, authentic self. I am a son, a brother, a friend, a college graduate, a supervisor, a model, a bodybuilder, a writer, and so many other things, who just happens to be transgender. I decided to take all these accolades and make them very public along with transition, and that is the only difference between me and any cisgender male. This was a choice I made because I wanted to own my identity and stop living in fear, wondering who knew about my past, or would soon find out. But also, because I wanted to be the guy that I needed when I was growing up; someone to look up to and see that being a successful transgender male is possible. And not just successful in one area either, I wanted to show that we can be multi-faceted, and triumph in industries that have typically been exclusive of transgender persons.

IMG_6123.JPG

I couldn’t have been any of these things if I had never found myself first, and that is why people find my story is so inspiring. I had to conquer the war waging in my head before I could even think of accomplishing anything else. And even then, I had a plethora of people to convince that this wasn’t just a phase that I was going to talk myself out of. I had to fight against this societal ideology that transitioning would ruin my chances of living a meaningful life. In-fact, transitioning has given my life purpose in ways that I never could have imagined. It has given me a unique perspective on life and allowed me to use that perspective to help others.

Even though I consider my transition successful thus far, I know that my transition will never be complete, and that’s okay. I hope to never become stagnant, and that I keep on this path of self-discovery and improvement. Growth and learning are integral to self-awareness and should never stop being pursued. My life is nothing like I imagined it would be, but in the best way possible. If my story can help just one other person, I know that I am on the right path, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

Steven Cuoco