Dani Castro

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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.”

Judge Shawna Schwarz

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In the fourth of a series, read about Santa Clara County’s first out lesbian judge, Judge Shawna Schwarz.

Although Judge Shawna Schwarz made history as the first out lesbian judge in Santa Clara County in 2006, her LGBTQ+ identity has been fairly irrelevant in her legal career. “The bench has been very welcoming,” she said. The only time her identity really comes into play is when people confuse her for fellow judges Julie Emede and Jacqueline Arroyo (both lesbians), even though the three look nothing alike.

“For example, once Judge Emede got a thank-you note from one of our colleagues for something that I did,” Schwarz stated. The three laugh about the mixups and tease their colleagues rather than take offense.

Not long after coming out at age 27, Schwarz met her partner of 31 years, Sandy Berry, who works in commercial real estate. As was the case with some same-sex couples, the two got married at the last hours of November 4, 2008, the day Proposition 8 passed and restricted marriage to opposite-sex couples. Worried the window to get married would close, earlier in the day they had arranged to have a judge friend officiate their wedding that evening. As they and their friends stood in front of the television to watch the election results, which included the victory of Barack Obama, they said their “I do’s.” Later, the brides took over a neighbor’s election party to celebrate their union.

Learning about Judge Schwarz’s childhood, one would think she was always on a path to working with children. Born in Cleveland, Ohio to a military family, Schwarz was the second of four daughters. Her two younger sisters were originally her cousins but were adopted into the family after her mother’s twin sister lost her life to domestic violence. In the eighth grade, Schwarz wrote that she wanted to be either a pediatrician, basketball player, or child psychologist.

When the Stanford graduate got to law school at Santa Clara University, she discovered her real calling through the process of elimination. “I took a property class and I thought, nope, that’s not for me. I took a contracts class and I thought, well, I’m not going be doing that. Then I took Children and the Law and I thought, oh my gosh, I could totally do this. This is what lights my fire; this is what I want to do.”

The instructor for the law class ran the Legal Advocates for Children and Youth (LACY) program, where Schwarz subsequently landed an internship and later a job upon graduation. She spent seven years as the directing attorney at LACY before applying to be a commissioner for the superior court in juvenile dependency in December 2001. The county superior court appoints a small number of commissioners, who have all the same responsibilities and authority of a judge except for the title.

After four years, the presiding judge of the dependency court, Len Edwards, encouraged her to apply for a judgeship, which she did. Subsequently, then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed her in May 2006. “My nephews always wanted to know, did I actually meet the Terminator?” she laughed. “I did not. He had his appointment secretary take care of that sort of thing.”

In Schwarz’s daily work as a juvenile dependency court judge, she interacts with LGBTQ+ youth in the foster care system. (In California, juveniles go through a dependency court separate from the adult court.) She has observed that sexual orientation isn’t the big deal it used to be; now, gender identity is front and center. “I’ve seen a real increase in the number of our transgender youth. Before every hearing, I will make sure to ask the lawyer which pronouns to use. The lawyers will let me know, and I will make a note so that I can be correct with the kid. If I make a mistake, I apologize.”

Schwarz has seen how fluid young people are these days. “They’re not going to be offended if I say to a boy, do you have a boyfriend? Or ask a girl if she has a girlfriend. I’ve seen a real increase in the number of our transgender youth. I don’t know if that’s because there are more of them or because they’re more comfortable identifying that way.”

Family rejection is one of the main factors leading to homelessness for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth, but in Santa Clara County, that isn’t the primary reason LGBTQ+ youth end up in foster care. Schwarz believes more often than not, parents lose custody due to substance abuse, mental illness, or domestic violence.

As far as Schwarz knows, once in a foster placement, queer youth rarely encounter a lack of acceptance. “To be fair, it’s entirely possible that some foster placements fail because of homophobia or transphobia. I may not know. I only know what’s in the court report in front of me.”

Schwarz feels immensely privileged to be able to work in dependency court, even though the system is often maligned. “We take kids away, we terminate parental rights, and that doesn’t make us very popular, but the people who work in this system, they really want to help families and kids. The attorneys who work here aren’t making a lot of money; they’re doing it because it’s a calling and they’re passionate about it.”

In Santa Clara County, providing foster homes for young people is especially challenging. Housing prices often keep local foster youth from remaining in stable placements with access to top-tier county services. “We don’t have enough foster homes or we have situations where we have relatives who would like to take the kids in, but they don’t have room in their houses.”

For those compelled to step up, Schwarz recommends working with Child Advocates of Silicon Valley, which is run by her queer colleague Fred Ferrer. “If you can’t be a foster parent, be a court-appointed special advocate. You’ve heard the expression: Not everybody can be a foster parent, but everybody can help a foster child. It is so true.”

Schwarz believes that some people who work in the field of juvenile dependency have a family situation that led them there. She confided that she has a relative with a mental health issue, and feels she has a deeper understanding of mental health issues from having soembody who’s been impacted by that. “When I’m in court talking to kids whose parents have mental health issues, I feel like I can connect with them and understand some of what they’ve been going through,” she said.

Schwarz feels fortunate to work in Santa Clara County. She does a lot of teaching throughout the state and often hears from other judges how awesome the court is here. She gives much credit to Judge Edwards, who was a leader in the field of dependency law. She also feels lucky to have worked with Judge Katherine Lucero, who recently was appointed by Governor Newsom to be Director of Youth and Community Restoration at the California Health and Human Services Agency.

At the end of talking about her work in the courtroom, Schwarz wanted to be sure to add that the Social Service Agency in Santa Clara County is one of the best in the state. “We have better services here than most other counties,” she said. “Although we are far from perfect, our Department is always striving to do a better job. But even with good services, it’s better for the kids long term if we can keep them at home or keep them with their relatives.”

Judge Randy Rice

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A reflection by Ann Ravel,

I first met Randy Rice when I was a sophomore at Willow Glen High School and he was a junior. We met because he was friends with my brother, Paul, who was in the same class as Randy.

Soon Randy was a staple at our house. My parents loved him, as did I, and he became a member of the family and was always there for bridge with my parents and brother, dinners, and parties.  Randy was a brilliant student, and also the warmest, most charming, thoughtful and considerate person I had ever met.  Throughout his life he was kind and humble, which made him a very well respected jurist.

When in high school, Randy served for two years on the school Judicial Council, and was elected as the Supreme Court Justice of the Judicial Council.  This foreshadowed his future. 

After high school, Randy graduated from UC Santa Cruz, and then attended the Episcopal Divinity School of the Pacific. He was ordained as a priest in 1973, served as a curate of the Calvary Church in Santa Cruz, was Vicar of Christ Church in San Francisco, Canon of Trinity Cathedral, San Jose, and Chancellor of the Diocese of El Camino Real.

Randy would go on to  graduate from UC Hastings College of the Law.  After graduating from law school, he became a partner at Pillsbury, Madison and Sutro in San Francisco, and was a founding partner at Genesis Law Group in 1996, which in 1998 merged with Skjerven Merrill Law firm.

In 1999 Governor Wilson appointed him as Judge of the Superior Court in Santa Clara County.  He had all the qualities needed in a judge: he was empathetic, fair, a judicious analyst of the law, and he believed that his calling was to serve the people of this County.

Randy was the first only “out” LGBTQ Judge in the County. When he was able to do so, he married his partner and husband Nikolaus Merrell. 

Unfortunately, Randy suffered a fall while trimming a tree at his home in 2004. The fall resulted in a severe head injury, which was really debilitating.  But true to Randy’s commitment to public service, he remained on the bench until January of 2008, when he retired on disability.  He and his husband moved to Costa Rica.  He died there in September, 2019, from complications from his fall. He is survived by sons, daughters, and grandchildren. 

Though he had a limited time on the bench, Randy was an outstanding Judge due to his compassion for people, his selflessness, and his legal acumen. Randy was an exceptional and unusual person, and unique in many ways on the bench in Santa Clara County.

Fred Ferrer

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Fred Ferrer – former CEO of The Health Trust and now CEO of Child Advocates of Silicon Valley – talks about how he dealt with homophobia with his family, Santa Clara University and his career.

Frederick Ferrer grew up in Marin County, just twenty minutes outside of San Francisco, but to him the gay world felt “millions of miles away.” He knew he was gay as early as kindergarten, but it was the era of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t even think about it.’

Although Ferrer was unable to fully be himself growing up, he felt surrounded by love. “I learned to love from my family, from my church and from my government, but I also learned how to hate from those three places as well. I experienced this notion that it wasn’t even okay to think you were going to be gay.”

In 1976, Ferrer left his Catholic Mexican family home life for a Catholic institution to pursue an undergraduate degree at Santa Clara University. He partied hard and studied harder to fit in, but noticed other queer men were missing from the social gatherings he frequented. They spent their days off making secret trips to San Francisco; their classmates oblivious as to what they were doing. Ferrer remained in the closet.

He went on to grad school at San Jose State to study to be a therapist. There, he worked with students who were coming out. But Ferrer felt emotionally unequipped to guide others on the journey he himself had not yet taken, and ultimately switched career paths. “I didn’t stay as a therapist because there was just too much internal pain, and I really wasn’t going to be a good therapist to somebody else if I couldn’t deal with this stuff myself.”

Instead, he entered the nonprofit world and began working with low-income Latino families in the early childhood care system, drawing on his education in child development.  Though he was still not out at the time, colleagues often assumed Ferrer was gay, but he did not confirm it. Still, the support from those around him, which included out gay executives, made him feel welcome in the valley as an advocate and leader who served on nonprofit boards. 

While he was growing more comfortable with this identity in his professional life, it wasn’t until tragedy struck in his early thirties that Ferrer began to reckon with his struggle to come out to his family. When his mother died of cancer at age 54, he knew it was time to come out, and he entered therapy to help him do so. “It really helped me come to grips with who I was, what I wanted to do, and what I was doing that wasn’t helpful to my personal and spiritual growth as a gay man.” 

Ferrer’s father’s reaction to his being gay was as he always expected: He immediately began seeing his son through the lens of demonizing stereotypes.  With his family situation rocky, Ferrer missed a few years of family events and tried to make up for lost time by socializing in the bars of San Francisco and San Jose. “It was like I was celebrating my twenties all over again.”

Coming out in the nineties brought its own challenge. Ferrer lost many high school and college friends to HIV. “I was going through all kinds of turmoil with dealing with the death of my mom, the aftermath of dealing with my father, and then dealing with this incredibly sad pain of losing high school and college gay friends to HIV and not having anyone to share that with.”

Despite that trauma and isolation, after he came out, he began advocating for LGBTQ-inclusion in early childhood settings. He taught a curriculum called: Makng Room in the Circle to help involve LGBTQ+ parents.  Ferrer pushed on with his LGBTQ advocacy. As vice chair of the Santa Clara County United Way board in 1992, he led efforts to defund the Boy Scouts because the local chapter would not sign a non-discrimination policy that included sexual orientation. This debate led to conducting a needs assessment of the LGBTQ community and the ultimate funding of programs like the Billy DeFrank Center.

His work with the United Way showed him the power of putting money where your mouth is and walking the talk when it comes to fighting discrimination.

When Ferrer entered his new role of CEO of The Health Trust 1987, he was upfront about being gay from the start.  He ensured HIV services were a top priority, and transformed and expanded the programs based on the best practices and highest standards of care. He upgraded the food baskets that HIV-positive clients were given, allowing them to choose products themselves from stores like they would if they ahopped at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. “I was able to have Michelin star chefs come in and do cooking projects with us. It was great.”  Later he would co-chair a county-wide LGBTQ+ Health Assessment that would also lead to funding LGBTQ programs. 

Ferrer’s identity remains deeply intertwined with his work in the nonprofit sector, being it was the first safe community he found after experiencing a homophobic culture in college.

In 1995, Santa Clara University graduates wanted to form an LGBTQ alumni group, but the school prohibited it, thinking it would somehow be approving of homosexuality. It brought back memories of the pit Ferrer had in his stomach during his four years of undergraduate enrollment. “It brought back all of the homophobia that existed when I was a student and why it wouldn’t have made sense for me to come out. It also inspired me to make a difference and to work in the world of nonprofits.”

In 2014, then president Father Michael Engh invited Ferrer to chair a Presidential Blue Ribbon Task force on Diversity and Inclusion at the school.  “To have a gay latino man come back as the chair of the presidential commission, I think it showed how far the university has come.”

In 2010, the university established the Rainbow Resource Center. Ferrer now serves as a mentor at the Rainbow Center, working with young gay undergrads who share similar backgrounds. “I see the power of mentorship and the power of having the university recognizing you, and giving you a place to fit in and find like-minded people so that you can continue to develop in ways that may not be normative but in ways that you become more authentic.”

Today, in his role as CEO of Child Advocates of Silicon Valley, Ferrer advocates for the LGBTQ+ children in the foster care system, who make up a disproportionate part of the population. He is grateful for the opportunities he has had to work with children, given that one of the biggest arguments against gay marriage concerned children and their development.

Over his lifetime, Ferrer has seen Santa Clara University grow from a place where he had to remain closeted to an institution that seeks out his queer leadership. In 2014, Ferrer was granted an honorary degree from Santa Clara University for Public Service, the first gay man to ever receive this prestigous award.  He saw HIV begin as a death sentence that ostracized the gay community further, and later become a chronic health condition that has lost much of the heavy stigma it used to carry.

“I keep thinking what are the ways that we, as a community, can come together to end the kind of discrimination, homophobia, and now transphobia that exists and then work to change it. I know we will have a better community when those things no longer exist it.”

Judge Jessica Delgado

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In the third of a series, read about Santa Clara County’s newest LGBTQ member of the bench, Judge Jessica Delgado.

One of six LGBTQ+ judges in Santa Clara County, Jessica Delgado draws from her experience of being on her own at a young age and her intersectional identity as a queer Latina to handle cases with a nuanced and empathetic perspective.

Outed in high school in central Texas in the mid-eighties and rendered homeless, Delgado said she came into her queerness the only way that existed back then: through bars and soccer teams. In 1991, she and her girlfriend at the time decided they wanted to move to a place where they could be safe and out. They chose Santa Cruz.

With the encouragement of teacher and mentor Sam Marian, Delgado eventually went to Berkeley to study law after completing her bachelor’s degree through Cabrillo College and UC Santa Cruz.
Although Delgado swore she would never be in criminal defense, she became a public defender in Monterey County. In 2001, she joined Santa Clara County, where she worked as a deputy public defender for twenty years.

Former Santa Clara County Public Defender and now State Appellate Court Justice Mary Greenwood had told her that it is always important to re-examine your career, so in 2019 she thought it was time to think about a new thing. “I was deeply invested in public service, so being a judge seemed like another way in which I could continue to serve the community,” Delgado said.

As fate would have it, it was Governor Gavin Newsom who appointed her a judge in April 2021. Though they have never met, Delgado and Newsom have a connection that made his appointment of her that much more meaningful. When Newsom was mayor of San Francisco, he defiantly allowed gay marriages on February 12, 2004. It happened to be a court holiday, so she and her partner, along with other lesbian couples, rushed around and drove up to San Francisco to get married.

“Newsom’s action had a tremendous impact on us personally,” she said, “because we felt a sense of hope that our family finally might be recognized.”

Delgado’s marriage, along with all the others, was ruled invalid by the California Supreme Court, but Newsom’s bold move had given her hope. She and Diana, a public defender, have remained domestic partners and have a 16-year-old son.

Delgado felt it was very rewarding to have Newsom evaluate her as a judicial candidate. “To be fully out from the very beginning of the application process all the way through the interview—I felt like a whole person in the process,” she said. “I felt like all of the parts of me and all of the work that I had done over the years was all valued in a way I don’t think any official process had ever felt before. It was special for me to have someone appoint me who had given my family dignity.”
In her work as an out Latina judge, Delgado witnesses the impact of representation on a daily basis. “Just my being up there and who I am means something to the people who are in front of me. I see it all of the time. I see it in the Latinx community when I pronounce someone’s name correctly.”

Despite the neutrality required of judges, joining the bench has been an extremely personal process for Delgado.

“It’s a sacred relationship you have with the public. You should really be asked challenging questions about who you are and who you will be in that position. It’s like an autopsy of the soul, while you’re still awake and alive.”
The experiences of her youth-built resilience and a strong work ethic, and at the same time, gave her high expectations for herself and everyone around her. Delgado has had to learn to manage those expectations when sentencing young people in her courtroom.

“I remember what it was like to be that age and be completely on your own, and there’s a way in which bringing that perspective and that empathy is very powerful from now sitting in this position of deciding what is your sentence going to be, what discretion might I exercise? How can I include this context?”
Delgado brings that same understanding when it comes to racial equity and LGBTQ issues in the system, but she wasn’t always out at work. During her first ten years as a public defender, she worried her identity might harm a client’s case.

Although it has been over a decade since then, the landscape is still far from ideal. “It’s still a very heteronormative criminal justice system and justice system at large.”
Delgado also said she sees students of color struggle with the same challenges she faced as a law student almost thirty years ago.

Delgado works to foster inclusivity by using her intersectional identity to bridge worlds. “I like to bring a little queerness to the table when I’m in the Latinx world. And I like to bring a little bit of a discussion of race and equity when I’m in the LGBTQ world. I try to remind both of those groups that trans women of color should be our priority. They are the most vulnerable in our community and I believe that to be true in Santa Clara County as well.”

In the courtroom, Delgado announces her pronouns and uses gender-neutral phrasing in standard scripts. Outside of court, she has a special focus on mentoring transgender applicants. Currently, there is only one trans judge on the bench in California, and Delgado wants that to change.

“I have my own work to do around being affirming to my trans brothers and sisters. We have to have the capacity to have empathy and compassion for people who are different to be a good ally.”

Judge Julie Emede

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In the second of a series, read about Julie Emede, an openly lesbian judge who has served on the bench since February 2010. 

Even when members of the LGBTQ community feel comfortable in their own identity, fears can still seep in about being accepted and respected in daily life. 

Stemming in part from her experiences finding acceptance as an out lesbian from Michigan to California, Emede prides herself on trying to have a greater understanding of people’s circumstances when they become before a judge.

“I think coming to court for anybody is scary, but I think it’s additionally scary if you feel like you’re different and have something else that you have to think or worry about than anybody else,” Emede says. “It’s really important to me as a judge that when people come into my courtroom, they feel like they can say whatever they need to say about their circumstances and not be afraid that they’re going to tell me something that will cause me to treat them with any less respect or any less dignity and they’re entitled to it in my courtroom. I work really hard at that.”

Emede had a “classic Midwest life,” growing up in a medium-sized town in Michigan. But after graduating from Michigan State in 1984, she began coming out and questioning whether the Midwest would be a place she could find happiness and acceptance. 

“So, I moved to California,” Emede says. “I definitely believe that the way my life is now and the things I’ve been able to do professionally, I could not have done if I’d stayed in Michigan.”

That’s when she acquired a job at Hewlett Packard in Palo Alto, where she worked for seven years in a range of positions, eventually managing the production scheduling for product lines from Malaysia and Singapore. Eventually, she took a voluntary severance from HP, which ended up paying for the first year of law school at UC Hastings College of the Law, commuting from San Jose to San Francisco. 

Despite worries her sexuality would impact her success in the profession—particularly in passing the “moral application” required of all law students—Emede graduated and passed the bar in 1995. She worked for nearly two years in a “boutique” civil law firm in Tiburon, before ultimately ending up at a San Jose firm, where she eventually became a partner.

She says she was drawn to family law because she wanted to do a practice in an area that dealt with people with their real everyday lives, and was able to get her start from connections she made playing softball, of all things. 

The idea of a judgeship had never really crossed Emede’s mind, since only a few lesbians had ever donned those robes when she started off as a lawyer. But by the late 2000s, she started giving real consideration to the idea of becoming a judge, from not only coworkers but also fellow LGBTQ lawyers who successfully were appointed. Despite being a Democrat when then-Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was in office, Emede submitted her application in early 2008 and was appointed to the bench by the end of 2009.

However, the application for judgeship brought back the same anxieties and questions she felt when applying for the bar: would being a lesbian threaten her chances at this career?

“It’s sort of a black box, it’s very behind the scenes,” Emede says. “But I knew I did really want to do something different that I felt was more public service.”

Emede and her partner, Marci Garcia, have been together for 31 years. After registering as domestic partners in 2001, they married in October 2008—hoping to tie the knot before the Prop 8 election would possibly take that right away. The couple were involved in different aspects of the LGBTQ community; she was on a clogging team that performed at Pride and was elected co-president of the political organization Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee, or BAYMEC, while her wife was a contestant in gay rodeos. 

“If I hadn’t been involved with BAYMEC, I’m not sure I would’ve had the courage to seek appointment,” Emede says. “I recognize that I’ve benefited from all the hard work and groundbreaking that happened long before I was here. Without having people like Ken Yeager and Wiggy Sivertsen’s influence, I just don’t think that my path would be the same.”

However, Emede had to tone down that open involvement in LGBTQ community politics and events once she was appointed to the bench. While it was a sacrifice she had to make, she says it was worth it to be able to make a different kind of impact.

“Judges all understand that when we take our oath that we can’t be involved politically in the same way that we were before,” Emede says, even though she does still openly mention her wife in various settings, like at Bar Association meetings and when teaching lawyers and judges.

“I do look forward to someday being able to participate in a way again, but it’s been very different inside the system—working on cases one at a time as opposed to trying to work on broader change.”

Emede prides herself on her work as a judge, from broadening recognition of people’s pronouns in courtrooms and managing cases of name and gender changes on her court calendar. 

“I think it’s important that there are people on our bench that reflect what people in our community look like, and I feel like it mattered for there to be an open lesbian on the bench,” Emede says. “I don’t think we’re probably out in the world enough for people to see that it does matter that we have judges on our bench that are LGBTQ. I think that that is a really powerful thing for the community to know.”

Judge Charles Adams

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Not much is known about the six LGBTQ+ judges that serve on the bench in Santa Clara County. In the first of a series, read about Charles Adams, an openly gay male judge who has served since 2018.

Judges often lead lives of privacy, as they strive to unbiasedly guide others through the legal system’s stresses and hardships.

For Judge Charles Adams, who serves in Santa Clara County’s family courts, being “out” as a gay man at work means frequently setting that element of his personal life aside.

The 43-year-old is by no means the first LGBTQ judge in California; Judge Stephen Lachs hold that title, appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 1979.

More than 40 years after that historic ‘first,” Charles proudly serves as one of 73 LGBTQ judges in California in 2021, after he was appointed in 2018—also by Gov. Brown, during his second term.

After growing up as the son of two teachers in Antioch, a relatively small town in the East Bay, Charles went to college at the University of California, Davis, followed by law school at Pepperdine down in Los Angeles, where he started working in civil litigation and family law.

Charles stumbled into a job as a research attorney for the Superior Court in Santa Clara County in 2006, combining his desire to focus on finding solutions with a homecoming back to the Bay Area.

One of Charles’ career highlights began in 2011, when he began working as a permanent staff member under Judge Edward Davila in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, prior to his own 2018 judicial appointment.

Charles says he thrives serving on the bench, as his role in the justice system revolves around being careful, caring and wanting to do the right thing to help people.

After alternating between family and criminal court, Charles became a supervising judge for family court, overseeing cases involving issues like domestic violence, restraining orders, probate and guardianship.

Notably, Charles was not previously openly “out” at work before becoming a judge. That changed in a simple yet meaningful moment: deciding to check a box identifying him as a part of the LGBTQ community on the application to become a judge.

“It’s not a required question, but for me it was going to be sort of the first public acknowledgement of being gay or LGBTQ,” Charles says, adding that he only recently began feeling comfortable and safe bringing his partner of 12 years to work events. “From then, it never came up.”

That may be, in part, because there is often little crossover between the bench and LGBTQ politics, unlike many politicians and other public figures, who often share their personal lives to connect with other residents and build community.

Charles says that judges often live lives outside of the public eye in order to avoid any potential impacts to their perception of impartiality, especially within family courts. While anyone serving on the bench has their own attributes and feelings—consciously or unconsciously—he rejects any idea that personal characteristics should be reason for disqualification, regardless of whether judges are Latino, female or LGBTQ.

“When you’re sitting on the bench, who you are is important, but it’s not necessarily relevant,” Charles says. “Personally, I think it’s smart to not put too much out there so that people don’t have preconceived ideas of how you’re going to be, how you’re going to rule and what your perspective is going to be.”

Fortunately, he has yet to run into any problems.

“Going into every case, I only see what the issues are, what the law says, what the facts are as I find them and I make a decision based on that,” Charles continued, adding the he and his colleagues take the issue seriously. “I think just understanding how people, feelings, and families work translates beyond not being a parent, myself.”

Charles has years of practice, first seeking out privacy of his personal life beginning in law school—an often competitive environment where it’s natural to be careful about what others know and slowly learn who to trust.

“It’s not something I wanted people to really know about or have a reason to think differently of me, just because of that,” he explains. “It really wasn’t until I moved back to the Bay Area that I was a little more willing to have that part of my life shared.”

That’s one reason Charles hopes that the fact that he’s gay provides another example for future lawyers and aspiring judges to know it’s possible to be successful, despite any personal background that is different from the “norm.”

“I remember being a law student and there weren’t really any role models that I knew for what I wanted to be—to see that someone could be successful,” Charles says. “What I hope is that people in the same position I was in can see me doing the things I am, now saying they could do it, too.”

Santa Clara County LGBTQ+ Equality Leaders in Conversation

office lgbtq affairs video

Supervisor Ken Yeager interviews Maribel Martinez, Director of the Office of LGBTQ Affairs, and David Campos, Deputy County Executive, about the county’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs and Division of Equity and Social Justice.

Gender Health Center

gender health center opening group trans pride

While activists and politicians continue to advocate for transgender rights across the country, people who are transgender, non-binary and gender diverse in the South Bay never have had specialized access to healthcare for years.

Santa Clara County established the Gender Health Center in November 2018—the first of its kind in the nation. The need for the health center came after then-President of the Board of Supervisors Ken Yeager called for a health assessment of the LGBTQ+ community in his January 2013 State of the County address. Not surprising, the report found that 28% of transgender, gender non-binary, and gender expansive people had experienced healthcare discrimination, while 38% were unable to access medical care at all.

Part of the second largest county-owned health and hospital system in the state of California, it was the first all-ages clinic dedicated to LGBTQ-centered medical, mental and emotional health care, including social work. By having the ability to partner with institutions across the county system, more comprehensive care can be readily provided for needs like transitioning, which often requires physical, mental and emotional support.

This unique opportunity within a public health system is why Jules Chyten-Brennan, the center’s medical director, moved from New York City to guide the center’s work two years ago. They said concerns ranging from hormones and loneliness to unsupportive families and unstable employment environments are more easily addressed when hosting services under one roof.

“The center is not just giving people hormones and doing those things which are essential,” they said, “It’s really seeing someone as a whole person, and being able to reach across those different departments to treat someone like a whole person.”

The need for the Gender Health Center was clear.

When Sera Fernando, a senior management analyst in the county’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, first came out as transgender, she had to travel to Santa Cruz or San Francisco monthly to find resources like a therapist and treatment.

When options finally became accessible in San Jose, she said those resources allowed her to live more authentically and create community in the place she was born and raised.

The specified care expanded beyond the Gender Health Center. Since LGBTQ folks comprise nearly one-third of homeless youth and young adults under the age of 25 and 10% of homeless adults, a separate, federally funded Gender Clinic within the Valley Homeless Healthcare Program was also started to offer a one-stop approach where people can access a primary care doctor, mental health support and housing assessments.

Being the first in the nation doesn’t mean the work stops to address gaps still present in healthcare. While 2019 solidified work in areas like primary care and surgery options, Jules said they staff will start offering services like speech therapy and electrolysis in the coming months, as well as partnering with community support groups.

“I think (those additions are) rare to have in a clinic in general, and will be such a huge door opened for a lot of our community,” they said. “We know so much of our health is not what happens in the clinic, but it’s community connection, finding those other supports that bring joy to our lives.”

Gender Health Center Website

 

Trans Pride Flag

trans day of visibility flag raising

On the 6th annual International Transgender Day of Visibility on March 22, 2016, the county raised the Transgender Pride Flag at the County Government Center, making it the first county in the nation to do so. Afterwards, it was decided to fly it under the rainbow flag everyday as well. Read more about Pride flags in Santa Clara County