Pride Issue 2018 | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly
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Proud to Be Caring
Gay and Hispanic, Lee Castillo reflects on his journey to the ballot box.

By Carolyn Campbell

Lee Castillo always answers his phone by saying, "This is Lee, how can I help you?" Offering to help is a habit developed during his years as a social worker. Being a front-line person and interacting with people has taught him that, "In working or volunteering, one life matters," the Layton native says. "You change the course of somebody's life if they know that somebody actually cares. People need love to thrive. They need to be shown that they are seen as a person."

As a social worker and a Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress from Utah's District 1, Castillo appreciates the need to "strive for others." He says that his understanding of that idea will help in the way he'll shape policies. "I wouldn't sell out to oil or the NRA. When you make a decision for self in the name of greed and take other lives for granted, you have not represented the people you are elected to represent," he says.

After the June 26 primary, he hopes to be the first openly gay Hispanic to have his name on the ballot for a federal office in Utah. If elected, he'd also be the first to serve in Congress. Lee was raised in a Catholic household where he heard, "a lot of negative things about gay people. I internalized those comments and had a lot of self-hate and self-doubt. I wondered if I was OK, and why I would be afflicted with this. I tried to pray the gay away," he remembers. It took him a long time to reconcile being gay with the views of others—men, women and, sometimes, churches. "It took time to see that I could still love and be loved," he says.

Today he feels that, "Churches are not always right. They get the message that God has for his children and preach it incorrectly sometimes. God's love is for everybody. He loves all of his kids."

Castillo's and his parents' opposing views later led to an estrangement from his family. "My dad and I always fought. I don't remember it ever being a positive, healthy relationship. My mom and my little brother were supportive. But I lived in a strict home," he says. He describes his father as an old-fashioned man, "a Mexican guy with all that machismo stuff." Because of the familial conflict, Castillo left home early. "I experienced homelessness. At first, it seemed like everyone turned their backs. I found myself sofa surfing and staying with friends. It was hard—the rejection and not knowing where I was going to go," he says.

For a while, he stayed with his uncle, who is a quadriplegic. One of his friend's parents also let him stay at their home. "If it wasn't for someone else caring and doing, I don't know where I would be," he says. When you feel like nobody cares, God can surprise you with people in your life"

He feels that his own homeless plight led him to reach out. He tries to host two fundraisers a year for Volunteers of America. A recent one raised more than $2,000. He's also collected thousands of dollars toward an overnight homeless shelter. "I think a lot of my own struggles finding acceptance and understanding within my own family have led me to the youth," he says. "I identify with their struggles because I've had so many."

Most surprising—and gratifying—to Castillo was his own father's about-face. "He wasn't the same man that he is today," he says. Recently, Castillo's dad was the third person to donate to his political campaign. "He donated after telling me a few weeks before that I shouldn't run. He had his own beliefs about what it takes to run and I told him I had to listen to what I feel God is asking me to do." Then, when his father donated to the campaign, "It kind of shocked me," Castillo says. "The support is pretty cool and it was a cool transformation to see someone change from mean and cold to open and accepting." Along with his dad, his older brother and sister who weren't very accepting earlier also came around. Castillo was further surprised when his dad hired his friend, a trans woman, to do a job for him, and "he got the pronouns right."

It was through his social-work career that Castillo found healing from his own childhood trauma. "My own struggle helped me when I worked with kids and families. It helped me personalize people," the youngish 40-year-old says. "People would ask why I was working so hard with 'that parent who is really struggling.'" He would respond with "that parent is more than just a case. He is a human being."

Today, Castillo is a clinician for Utah State Hospital, working on their forensic team, laboring directly in the jail to help inmates who have been found incompetent to stand trial. "When their mental illness goes unchecked, they end up in jail, and they await court dates," Castillo says. "Instead of doing this post-treatment in the jail, we could be doing prevention and allowing people to have health care and mental-health services that are accessible and affordable." The move, he says, is multi-pronged. "It would improve not only the criminal justice system, it would also unclog the system in different ways and give them their lives back."

Understanding the importance of caring and providing hope, Castillo has adopted a teenage boy and fosters another. He's proud to provide constancy in their lives, to let them know that they matter and deserve love. "They have this little man cave downstairs," he says. "After a year, they realized I'm not going anywhere."

He chose to run for office after hearing the rhetoric "coming out of our president's mouth. We are becoming disconnected from the rest of the world. He has personally attacked Hispanics, trans, Muslims and women. They are all community members. I felt a prompting that I should do something about it. In the name of love and in the name of God, I wanted to let little Hispanic kids know that they can achieve their dreams."

Through it all, Castillo notes, acceptance has been a common thread. "I spent a lot of time being unhappy and I won't do that anymore," he says. "I accept myself for all of my flaws, everything I've ever been through and overcome. I love myself—even the extra weight."

Of his recent victory in acquiring 53 percent of the vote at the Democratic nominating convention, Castillo says, "People assume that a gay Hispanic guy who has never run for office wouldn't be much of a challenge. But I've surprised a lot of people. You never underestimate the little guy that is acting in love."

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Carolyn Campbell

Carolyn Campbell

Bio:
Campbell has been writing for City Weekly since the 1980s. Her insightful pieces have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists chapters in Utah and Colorado.
Enrique Limón

Enrique Limón

Bio:
Editor at Salt Lake City Weekly. Lover of sour candies.

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