Dani Castro, MA, MFT started doing drag in San Jose and throughout the greater Bay Area at the age of thirteen with her father’s support. He snuck her into bars, where she realized she could “not only perform and empower herself” but also feel seen and accepted for the first time. “I wanted everyone to have that experience, but everyone around me was dropping dead from AIDS complications.”
Dani’s own father is an AIDS survivor. She poured every tip she made from her local performances into saving his life and the lives of others around her. She later joined the Imperial Royal Lion Monarchy and was Lady in Waiting for the Absolute Empress Patrice 23 and Absolute Emperor 23 Eddie Tavares of The Court of Glitz and Glamor.
As a trans adolescent, drag was all Dani had because the word “transgender” did not exist at the time. She had to turn to medical journals to try to piece together what she was experiencing. When Dani called the Billy DeFrank Center for help, they told her they didn’t have any resources for “transsexuals” but would write down her information. When activist Miss Major Griffin-Gracy came to speak at the Center, the staff passed Dani’s number onto her. Dani received a life-changing call from Miss Major when she was sixteen. Miss Major told her, “Honey, you’re not alone,” and recommended a book called My Story, a memoir by trailblazing trans model Caroline Cossey.
At the time, the psychology field recommended that transgender women like Dani live as cisgender women and “erase their pasts.”
“We burned pictures of us as children and we had ceremonies where we would do the strangest things in the name of transitioning.”
Dani’s own therapist walked her through a metaphorical “burial” for her penis. “It was so demeaning,” Dani recalled. “Honestly the system hasn’t progressed much, and we are still forced to jump through hoops to prove our identities to medical professionals. In my opinion that’s transphobia that’s infiltrated the medical industrial complex.”
“It was very complicated to make my way into blossoming into being myself. The struggle to exist was and still is very real.”
Dani, like many trans people in Santa Clara County, survived by engaging in the community whether or not she felt welcome. She volunteered on top of working full-time and set up the now-defunct TransPowerment program, primarily for transgender women of color and their partners. The 2002 murder of trans teen Gwen Araujo in Newark, California served as a wakeup call for much of her activism. Araujo was brutally killed at age 17 after men she had been intimate with discovered she was transgender. In one trial, a defendant used the “trans panic defense,” which was later banned along with other panic defenses in California courts in 2014. Dani recounted to her father David Castro Sr. as she watched the news horrified, “That could have and should have been me so many times. I have to do something to stop people from murdering and hurting us.”
Dani credits her work and survival to her “transcestors,” including the women of the Stonewall and Compton Cafeteria riots, and the Bay Area women she calls her “‘moms” like JoAnne Keatley originally a social worker for the Health Trust and Absolute Sovereign Dowager Empress Tiffany Woods of the TransVision healthcare clinic in Fremont. Of Woods, Dani said, “She looked out for me when the drag queens didn’t accept me.” Her father’s unconditional love and support were paramount as she navigated a transphobic world that didn’t want her alive – much less, empowered.
Dani noted that the DeFrank center didn’t recognize Transgender Day of Remembrance as part of their regular programming and her friend Shelly Prevost paid out of her own pocket to host the event. “It wouldn’t exist without her, but they made us pay in our own center!” The center later gave in to demands following a protest outside the DeFrank center lead by Dani. From that point forward the DeFrank center commemorates and honors all the lives lost to transphobic hate on November 20th as was intended by its founder Gwen Smith.
Today, Dani feels progress for transgender visibility, rights, and resources in Santa Clara County are not proportionate to the amount of advocacy trans people have initiated including the amount of trauma they have survived. “We laid the path for all of the queer community with literally our lives, blood, sweat, and tears, not just us, and for us to be at the bottom of the barrel today…we deserve far better.”
Most recently, Dani has been conducting a transgender needs assessment for the Office of LGBTQ+ Affairs. Through her surveys, she discovered many trans people are leaving Santa Clara County to get services in San Francisco, Fremont, and other parts of Alameda County because of the lack of resources and the transphobia experienced within existing organizations. There is currently only one clinic serving the trans population in Santa Clara County. “It’s a shame. We can and should do better here!”
Her hope is that the local LGBTQ+ youth will continue to recognize the work of their trans ancestors like Felicia Flames Elizondo, Therese Wannocott, Noriel Tejero, Claudia Medina, Jennifer Rodriguez and countless others to continue working for trans equality and parity here in Santa Clara County.
“I want transgender, nonbinary, intersex, and gender-expansive youth to know we are gifted, we are powerful, and we are here in this universe to spread love and understanding because we literally exist on a different level of consciousness from other people. We exist beyond the gender binary. That’s a gift that comes with a great responsibility, and all you have to do is live your life authentically.”
She hopes her pioneering legacy will help the Santa Clara County LGBTQ+ community move forward, together.
“Don’t ever, ever forget Dani Castro was here and Like Grandma Major said, ‘I’m still fucking here’. Even when I am gone, I’ll be here and you have my power and spirit to use in the work that you do.”