Omar Lopez’s journey from sailor to activist began in a military kitchen. His long-time passion for food was a labor of love that came naturally to the California-born and Arizona-raised sailor. His passion and conviction for activism is another story, born out of his military discharge under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy (DADT) that has sparked debate since its inception in 1993.
This son of migrant farm workers joined the military in San Diego, six months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He’d been working in hospitality but with the economic downturn that followed the attacks, joining the Navy just made sense. After completing boot camp and preparing for his role as a culinary specialist in San Antonio, Lopez was offered a job with a program where new enlistees attain skills in environments outside standard military training and return to the Navy, ready to apply the knowledge. For Lopez, this meant completing an intense, four-month program at the renowned Culinary Institute Of America in Hyde Park, New york.
His military assignment began in earnest in 2002 and the focus of operations on his ship was submarine hunting, checking for pirates and search-and-rescue missions. Stationed in Norfolk, VA, he served on the U.S.S. Carr, a frigate that carried up to 200 sailors. The war in Iraq started the next year, and Lopez found himself stationed in the Persian Gulf for five months. Lopez never really hid his sexuality; along with a group of fellow gay sailors, he would socialize on board the ship and at Norfolk’s numerous gay bars. One night in July of 2006, he met his boyfriend, Jack Wagner, who he credited with helping spark his activism. “I told him once that I wouldn’t marry him until it was legal in Texas. I didn’t want to go to another state to get married and then come back here and have it not be recognized,” Wagner said, noting that he and Lopez recently broke up but still remain good friends. “I had no idea he’s held onto that for so long until recently. Omar has taken his activism to another level.”
As someone who has been cooking and baking for the last 13 years, attending Johnson and Wales for culinary arts in 1999 was a natural fit. “It’s my life and it’s what motivates me,” he said. After a two-year stint in Miami that helped bring him further out of the closet, Lopez moved to Austin three years ago and has not looked back.
“Omar was different than any other guy I met while in the navy,” said Wagner. “He was intelligent, funny, outgoing, and knew where he wanted to go in life.”
Laura McFerrin, director of the forthcoming documentary March On–which tells five different stories of people who were moved to take time off work, raise money and travel to our nation’s capital for the National Equality March on October 11, 2009–was recruiting potential participants through Facebook and that’s how she connected with Lopez. After filling out the requisite paperwork and receiving a flip-cam from McFerrin, Lopez and Wagner joined a group of folks from UT who were organizing to get people there. Their fundraising, ultimately quite successful, included an event at rusty Spurs and raised quite a lot of money. The movie will have its premier at the Austin Gay & Lesbian international Film Festival.
Lopez served in the Navy a total of four years; his second and final deployment was on a West African foreign relations tour that took him to ten different countries, such as Morocco, Monrovia and Ghana. By the accounts of his colleagues, he was a hard-working sailor. “Lopez cares about people and doing what is right,” wrote Jerry Babb, who served with Lopez for almost two years. “He recognizes the dignity inherent in each individual.” after his second deployment, Lopez was caught when someone he’d told reported him. “It’s kinda obvious when you’re with people and you don’t talk about girls or go to the strip joints,” said Lopez.
Lopez was discharged on November 31, 2006 for “homosexual admission.” His discharge was honorable due to his accomplishments as a good sailor; onboard the ship, oversaw a team of 20 people in the kitchen and the preparation and serving of 750 meals per day. Recommendations to admiral’s quarters and people referring him to the White house.
His perspective fired up after the march, he finished the movie and decided to finish his studies in hospitality and culinary arts at Austin community college’s Eastview campus. Although Equality Now, the college’s LGBT rights organization, has been around for two or three years, its membership fluctuates because of the transience of the student body. For scholarships, there’s money available for LGBT youth and Lopez wants to spread the word, while building bridges from gay straight alliances and organizations like Out Youth to college students.
“One of the things I learned at Out Youth is that kids are not just the future, they’re the present–right now,” Lopez said. “If you have an African-American cultural center, why not an LGBT center?”
Working with Equality Now has challenged Lopez to connect with the younger, instant gratification generation, but he is nothing if not determined. “Educating the youth is not a gay issue, it’s a civil rights issue,” Lopez said.