Dan Grayson Cordero is the Rick Grimes of Southwestern College, leading his ragtag team of queer survivors to a sanctuary of safety, hope and liberation. His weapons are intelligence, talent and courage—sprinkled with moments of doubt. He is a classic Joseph Campbell hero who transcended his ordinary life to face down danger and serve his people.
Cordero, the insightful and articulate president of the SAGA Club (Sexuality And Gender Acceptance) is lobbying college administrators to create a safe space for SWC’s queer community. He is getting stiff pushback, he said, but he can push back, too.
Cordero transcends his 4’-11” height and double-digit weight. He has the strength of a Jaguar offensive lineman. Anibal Alcaraz said he is fortunate to be a friend.
“When I meet people like Dan, it reminds me that there’s a great change in people happening right now,” he said. “It’s going in a direction that’s more empathetic, more understanding. The world could use more of that mentality.”
As a transgender man, Cordero had his own rocky journey to self-acceptance before he could be a beacon for others. Emotional claustrophobia was a constant in his adolescence, he said. He felt something was not right.
Society, friends and family saw a girl when they looked at him, and so did the mirror. His heart said otherwise. In middle school he decided to become the man trapped in his body.
As he transitioned from female to male, he found solace in comic books. Dick Grayson, formerly known as Batman’s sidekick Robin, The Boy Wonder, was undergoing his own transition into Nightwing.
Cordero saw himself in Grayson.
Nightwing is a man with integrity who was, nevertheless, afraid of losing everything. Grayson was iconic for his role as Batman’s sidekick and considered Bruce Wayne family. Wayne did not approve of Grayson’s transition to Nightwing and he severed ties when Grayson left to become leader of The Teen Titans.
Cordero could relate. Grayson’s narrative of transition into Nightwing mirrored Cordero’s transition.
“Ultimately, when I look at Dick Grayson, I see myself,” said Cordero. “I see the 4’11” Latino transman who just hopes and dreams that one day his art can affect someone else in the positive way that Dick Grayson affected him.”
When it came time to legally change his name, Cordero adopted Grayson as his middle name. He introduced himself as Dan years before the legal change. Money was a barrier. On Transgender Remembrance Day, members of SAGA presented to Cordero the money they had fund raised for him to legally change his name. Trump’s election was the catalyst, he said.
“I think after the elections last year, changing my name was something I felt like I really needed to do for my own safety,” he said.
Cordero said he was fortunate to have supportive friends and parents. His father and mother welcomed the closeted teen into the open.
Bruce Wayne was the only family Dick had, but Cordero had more support. Coming out is not a narrative that typically ends well for transpeople, he said. Cordero’s parents handled his transition better than Bruce Wayne handled Grayson’s. Cordero affectionately calls his dad Mufasa, the Lion King.
“I’ve been really fortunate to have a good relationship with my dad throughout the course of my life,” he said. “My transition didn’t negatively impact it at all. Both of my parents were of the mindset that ‘we’re going to do whatever it takes to make you happy.’ That’s a privilege that so many transpeople don’t have.”
Art also helped him through his transition.
Drawing became cathartic. Cordero became a star artist at the Southwestern College Sun student newspaper as an illustrator and editorial cartoonist. He won state and national awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, San Diego Press Club and other professional organizations. He served as a cartoonist at The Sun for four years, until he discovered SAGA, formerly the Gay Straight Alliance.
Dr. Max Branscomb, the faculty advisor of The Sun, said he tried to convince Cordero to serve as Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper or run for ASO president because he is very intelligent and a natural leader. Cordero declined the offers to remain with SAGA because he felt the club’s work on campus has just begun.
“I stayed at the paper for so long because I had found a place that worked as a community and a family,” he said. “Then when I came across GSA, it was even stronger as far as passions go. The activism completely drew me in.”
Friends crowned him the King of the Gays, but Cordero blushes at the homage and said he is a service leader who models respect and acceptance. When Cordero first decided to go to a GSA meeting, it was a tiny club of four people, including the advisor and himself. It had the potential to be great, he said, but lacked vision. Cordero changed that.
SAGA advisor Shannon Pagano, a psychology instructor, said Cordero transformed the club into something unique and powerful. Under Cordero’s leadership, SAGA was named the 2017 SWC Diversity Award recipient. Cordero was also honored individually for his outstanding leadership. He is also a Student of Distinction Award recipient.
“It just became this phenomenon,” Pagano said. “He singlehandedly made SAGA what it is.”
SAGA became a safe space for members of the queer community to have the full college experience. It grew from club of four to a family of activists. Cordero’s leadership role solidified after the election of Trump and a conservative backlash against the LGBTQ community reared its head.
SAGA Treasurer Oliver Byrd said Trump was a turning point for Cordero.
“That’s when his passion for the community really showed up,” said Byrd. “He was always an activist, but now it’s more charged—because it has to be.”
SAGA took its first real step into the broader campus spotlight with the decision to host “Gayties,” a 1980s-themed gay prom. Byrd said it was a statement to tell the college that the queer community was present and out in the open.
Every hero has a battle to overcome. Gayties was Cordero’s as the event seemed snakebit from the start.
The venue was locked, though it had been reserved months in advance. There was no electricity in the building, which almost proved catastrophic considering they were to have a photo booth and a DJ throughout the night. Cordero handled it as he handles all stressful situations— he rolled his eyes and then he jumped into action. Volunteers tore down the entire set up they had just finished with less than three hours to spare and moved it outside into the cafeteria patio. Pagano said Cordero was running around like a chicken with his head cut off well into the event— but prom happened.
Gayties was a highlight of the SAGA year, but Cordero said he wants the club to be remembered for its advocacy for a Southwestern College LGBT Center. SAGA members said they feel supported by some people on campus, but some top-level administrators may need more convincing. Cordero said he will not let resistance deter him.
Pagano said students of SAGA rely on Cordero.
“When you’re young and LGBT, it’s like a ship at sea in the fog,” she said. “You know you’re going forward because the ship keeps moving you, but you don’t know where it’s leading you. You don’t have direction because you can’t even see the stars that guide you. Yet out of the fog comes that beam from the lighthouse. Just like those sailors who cling to the beam of that lighthouse, SAGA members have clung to Dan for their salvation. SAGA members have clung to Dan to learn how to be gay and have it be okay.”
Cordero identifies with the hero Grayson, but also the conflicted Beast from Disney’s “Beauty and The Beast.” Part of him relates to the flawed and insecure prince, afraid that no one will learn to love the beast within. Pagano said Cordero is sorting through his own bursts of heroism and bouts of anxiety.
“We can look at Rick Grimes and Dick Grayson and they’re both true to him,” she said. “But the one we need to look at is The Beast. People have to help him learn that many people have already learned to love the beast. And there will be more.”