Call him Zach … Belleville transgender athlete a trailblazer for others

Zach Perez just knew from an early age that he just wasn’t right with the gender he was born with.

“I was probably about six or seven,” said Perez, a Belleville High School junior who runs track and plays softball. “I just wasn’t comfortable with girly things and girly clothes. I didn’t like the way I felt. I’d cry when they put me in something girly. I’d always want to go to the boys’ section in clothing stores.”

His mother, Fatima, also noticed the difference in his child who was born a girl.

“I would have to say that he always preferred comfortable clothes,” Fatima Perez said. “He just felt uncomfortable in dresses and shoes. I understood because I’d rather wear be in sneakers and shorts all the time.”

Zach Perez (born Madison Perez, but he calls that his “dead name”) said that he lived an uncertain lifestyle for the first 16 years of his life. In his heart, mind and soul, he was certain that he was meant to be a boy.

“Everyone who knows me knows that I always wanted to be a boy,” Zach Perez said.

Fatima Perez didn’t think there was anything wrong with the way her child dressed and acted.

But last December, on New Year’s Eve, Zach Perez made a power point presentation to his parents. In the presentation, Zach had strategically did all the necessary research to explain his situation to his parents. He wanted to become a transgender person, wanted to be recognized as a male instead of what he was born as.

“I spent a lot of time doing the research to fit my needs gender-wise,” Zach said. “I sat them down and explained everything to them in detail. I told them that I wanted to be Zach. I wanted to improve that part of my life.”

“He explained everything,” Fatima Perez said. “The presentation was thorough.”

Zach said that when he was in middle school, he had to deal with a lot of tragedy. He lost an aunt, a close cousin and then his grandmother.

“My mental health was bad,” Zach said. “I was going through a tough time. I talked to a therapist about my gender and she helped me to get more and more comfortable with it.”

So then there was the dramatic presentation to ring in 2021.

“I was a little worried about my parents’ reaction,” Zach said. “It’s not something you normally talk to your parents about. I just wanted to start the new year as the person I want to be. So I decided to come out then.”

Needless to say, the presentation caught Hector and Fatima a little off guard. Hector Perez is of Portuguese descent, while Fatima’s family originated in Puerto Rico.

“I think Mom was a little more open minded,” Zach Perez said. “They’re beginning to feel more comfortable with it.”

“I have to say we were a little shocked,” Fatima Perez said. “It was definitely unexpected. He was very thorough. He definitely researched it. But I just told him that we would be supportive every way we could be. As parents, we all want to be there for our children. It’s definitely not easy, but we’re going with it and be there for him.”

The pronoun use has been difficult, having to get used to saying “him” and “he” instead of “her” and “she.”

“It’s gotten a lot better with that,” Zach says.

Fatima Perez knew that her child was not the kind of person to treat it as a passing phase.

“He has always been the type of child who thinks things out,” Fatima Perez said. “We knew how he wanted to be. We knew how he wanted to proceed and we will support him in any way he wants to proceed.”

It certainly takes a ton of courage to come out in high school and admit a gender change. A closed-minded community might not know how to handle the situation.

“But Belleville is very acceptive,” Zach said. “There’s no need to be transphobic. There are other trans people here. No one seems to be mean about it at all.”

Perez said that he spoke to school counselors about the gender change.

“I told them about coming out and using the name I preferred,” Zach said.

He selected the name from the television show on the Disney Channel, “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.”

“I just liked that name from the show,” he said.

Eventually, he will change his name legally to Zachary when he turns 18 next year, but for now, he’s Zach.

Zach Perez admitted that it hasn’t been easy telling everyone that he is transgender. But he felt the time was right to consent to this interview.

“We have a Diversity Club in school,” Zach said. “We also have a LGBTQ Club as well. Belleville is very accepting to it. I know there are other people in the school that are similar to me.”

And Zach loves being an athlete. He was the captain of the cross country team in the fall. He participates in track and field and martial arts.

But softball creates somewhat of an issue. He’s now a male playing in a female-oriented sport. However, Perez is just an outfielder on the junior varsity team.

“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” Perez said. “I’m not going Division I or anything. I’ve never played baseball in my life. I just love being with my friends and sticking with the sport that I’ve played my whole life. I’m working on getting stronger and getting more muscle to be the best player I can be. I like to run. It’s my favorite thing to do.”

Belleville head softball coach Chris Cantarella has no problem at all with Zach being a part of his program.

“I have no issues at all,” Cantarella said. “Everyone is super acceptive and supportive of each other. Zach has truly thought about this and he knows that this is who he is. It takes a huge amount of guts to make a mature decision like this. It’s been a very pleasant experience.”

Senior Joanne Calvacca, a teammate of Zach’s in both softball and cross country, considers Zach to be a “team leader.”

“He’s here and he’s here to play,” Calvacca said. “When he came out as Zach, I honestly thought it was great. It says a lot about our team and our community. There are a lot of people who don’t come out and keep it hidden. Zach has a lot of courage. He’s brave to do what he’s done. I’m very proud of him and happy for him. I’m so happy he decided to come out. I think it’s going to help awareness. A lot of people don’t know what it’s like to live their lives that way. It never should matter what his gender is. He’s a person first. It certainly says a lot about him.”

Zach knows that the road ahead will not be an easy one. For example, if he explores having costly transsexual reassignment surgery, he will have to undergo a series of hormone injections, but that cannot take place until after he’s turned 18.

“I haven’t even gone to a doctor yet,” Perez said. “That’s something I’ll have to talk to my parents about. I’ll need some time to bring about that change. Any surgery is way down the line. I know it’s very expensive. Whether how far I’ll take it remains to be seen.”

Perez knows he’s subjecting himself to public scorn and criticism.

“People will say, ‘Why would you admit to it?’” Perez said. “I feel bad for people who just don’t understand. I know it’s a very sensitive issue. I don’t see the problem. It makes no sense to me that people will look at me differently. I’m just me.”

Perez knows that he’s being extremely courageous and brave coming out in public like this.

“I know that some may say that he was very brave for what he’s done,” Perez said. “Maybe if I’m showing people that I’m not afraid and can inform others about the topic, then that’s great.”

Fatima Perez, for one, is extremely proud of her son.

“He’s very courageous,” Fatima said. “I don’t know if he gets that from me. But to come out and tell his story, maybe some other children or even adults will do the same. He’s just a very bright kid with great grades. He’s very well rounded. He does every sport he wants. He makes us proud.”

Zach Perez admits he will now forever stand out in a crowd.

“I know I’ll never be completely normal,” Zach says with a smile. “I feel it should be normalized, not shunned. I wish it wasn’t that way. I just play high school softball for a small school. I just hope people are more accepting sports-wise and not make it an issue.”

Brave people like Zach Perez are making transgenderism less of an issue every day.

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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”