In Gloria’s Words

This morning the Philadelphia community gathered to say goodbye to Gloria Casarez, Director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs. Gloria passed away on Sunday after a long battle with cancer at 42 years old. Hundreds of Gloria’s family members and friends filled the Arch Street United Methodist Church for her funeral service. Powerful remarks were given by Mayor Michael Nutter, her cousin Bernadette Jervis, and close friends Casey Cook, Elizabeth Larin, and Louie A. Ortiz. Citations celebrating her lifelong commitment to community organizing against poverty, HIV/AIDS, and bigotry, were presented from the Philadelphia City Council and Philadelphia Mayor.

The service celebrated Gloria’s focus on the imperative of social justice work. Elizabeth Larin repeated a line from Gloria on strategic planning in campaigns – that “you get what your organize to take.” To highlight one theme – many of the messages shared specifically related to respecting and supporting youth leadership. Gloria had arranged for those attending her funeral to sing “Ella’s Song,” by Sweet Honey in the Rock – a moving song I listen to often. This song is dedicated to Ella Baker, who was a revolutionary civil rights organizer who worked with young people to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In it, we sang along with the words:

“To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail, and if I can but shed some light as they carry us through the gale – The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on is when the reins are in the hands of the young, who dare to run against the storm.”

Gloria had shared similar words with me over the years in our formation of PSEC – which was created as the statewide community movement by and for LGBTQ youth activists. Gloria believed in bringing all voices to the table – especially in organizing with a base of people who are the most disenfranchised or impacted by an issue. Our activism work has been deeply influenced by Gloria and we look forward to following, as best we can, in her footsteps.

PSEC presented Gloria with the Keystone Award at the 2014 Pennsylvania Youth Action Conference in February. This honor is given annually to a public official who has worked intently to advance the welfare of LGBTQ youth in Pennsylvania communities.

Moments before the award presentation, we were informed that Jaci Adams, a longtime leader in the Philadelphia trans* community, had passed away from her own long battle with cancer. Gloria and Jaci were close. In beginning the event, I talked before the banquet attendees about Jaci’s impact on the city.

Another PSEC leader saw her tearful over Jaci and gave her a hug, saying, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Gloria responded in sharing that “it’s not my loss, it’s a loss for the community.”

With Gloria’s passing, I mourn together with my community on the passing of one of our greatest leaders. We also must celebrate her legacy by pressing on toward justice – with the passion, strategy, selflessness, integrity, and power that Gloria demonstrated is possible.

Rest in power, Gloria.

Here are her transcribed remarks from the 2014 Keystone Banquet:

“Good evening everyone,

I am recovering from laryngitis right now so my voice sounds a little funny.

I was going to make my partner, the love of my life, read my prepared remarks, and I would just stand here and nod, but I did not get to prepare any remarks, because we got the news about Jaci.

It’s truly devastating. Jaci was a personal friend, professional advisor, and this loss leaves a big void. I think Jason spoke to that well, and I think that this truly, truly is a big loss for our community.

So as I was sitting here I jotted a couple things down, but I really want to dedicate tonight to honor to Jaci. Jaci was someone who, in an official capacity, as an official representative of the city of Philadelphia, worked on policy issues.

She was one of the people who we tapped when we were looking to make policy changes. She was also one of those people who knocked on our door who said “you need to make this policy change.” She had a direct hand in the shelter policy change that was made several years back, and more recently in behavioral health and intellectual disability policy change.

She was one of the people who called for the Morris Home, which is a transitional housing program, the first of its kind in the country. She was a leader in HIV and AIDS; she worked in the HIV/AIDS field for many years, and also in trans* health issues as you heard.

She literally helped train thousands of police officers in the city around how to interact with members of our community. I did those trainings with her, and she was never one to mince words. She told them how they needed to hear it.

She wasn’t exactly professional in these professional trainings, but it’s what those police officers needed to hear if they were ever going to interact with real people in real situations.

Jaci was somebody who did all of this really on her own time, and she was somebody who wasn’t thanked enough. So I want to extend very humbly today my appreciation to her and really to say thank you, Jaci, for everything you have done. She really helped make Philadelphia the great place that it is today.

I want to remind us all where we are. According to the Human Rights Campaign, Philadelphia is the greatest place to be LGBT. We are the number one ranked city in America in the most recent municipal equality index, which is an index, a ranking really, of nearly 300 cities on law and policy. So it’s not like a lot of these other rankings that are like, it’s the best yogurt in the world. It really, literally looks at all our laws and policies, what we are doing, and what we say we believe; and Philadelphia is number one.

We share that with Seattle, but, we’re number one.

I want also to say that I think this is the greatest time to be doing this work. All of you who are doing this work are participating in what I think is the greatest time to be doing this very important LGBT social justice work.

I came to doing community work through what I think was probably one of the hardest times, in HIV and AIDS, when women’s reproductive health issues were going on at the same time, and it’s really awesome to be doing this work at a time that is just so full of potential. So I want to encourage you to continue to fight, continue to push, and continue to help make your communities, as best as they can be. Even with these designations and the positive things we are doing here in Philadelphia, we’re not there yet; we still have a lot to do.

We have had these policies on the books since 1982. We [then] officially added sexual orientation as a protected status and that’s 32 years ago. It took us another 20 years before we added gender identity protections to that same law. Now I say that knowing very clearly that we are in Pennsylvania, where neither are protected, right? So all of our efforts need to go towards ensuring that Pennsylvania can be what Philadelphia was 30 years ago. Twelve years ago. So these things are all very important to the lives of people who live around the state, around the country.

Just in the time that I’ve worked for government, which has been since 2008, when Mayor Nutter came on, we’ve had the chance to work on some really great things. The mayor has been completely supportive of anything we wanted to do. Kathy, who is one of the other honorees, was one of the very first people I met with back when I started the job. One of the things she talked about was trans* inclusive health benefits, and the need for these things. And you know, government moves really slow, and so really, it takes four years before there is collective consciousness and a council member is willing to stand up and say, “Hey, let’s do this.”

But, you know, we did that. I want to acknowledge Councilman Goy—how about that, Councilman Goy, promotion? Chris Goy, who works in Councilman Kenney’s office, who was a point person for us, and really helped steer that bill.

In addition to all of that, and our mandate, really, everyone needs to be at the table.

I come out of community organizing, and you don’t win the righteous wins unless you have all the voices at the table. So in anything that we’re doing, it’s really important to have many voices at the table, the people who are with you, the people who aren’t with you yet, and the people who are going to help you get where you need to go. So that is something I am encouraging you to do that as well; you want to have the naysayers as well as the yes people at your table. You need everybody.

I’ll say one more thing about the Mayor and then I’m going to wrap it up. The Mayor is a longtime supporter of all these issues, he’s part of the national coalition of mayors, that he is the chairperson of, that is working on marriage equality issues, that is obviously something that has earned his significant support. He is also working and doing anything he can do to advance non-discrimination bills that will come through the state legislature, that’s an issue that is very important to the mayor, personally.

Just one final thing, you know, I did a lot of trainings with Jaci and one of the things that—she didn’t mince words. One of the things she would say frequently, we trained cadets, so they were rookie cops, these were going to be cops that would be thrown out on the streets first, not the ones that were going to be sitting in a police office, and she felt very strongly that people needed to hear it real. And so she would say “You see me, and you might see me as a bitch, but I’m a bitch for justice, so if you’re gonna call me a bitch, call me a bitch—for justice.” And that very much was how Jaci was, so I encourage you all to do the same. Be smart and unwavering, and keep your focus.

I want to thank you for acknowledging my work and the work of the City of Philadelphia. Thank you all for being here, and thank you all for committing to learning, and thank you all for recognizing me.

At the end of the day, and I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, at the end of the day, a big part of what we do is about love. When I first started my work in activism and organizing I used to say, “I’m angry, I’m fired up,” and I was, but I was also approaching this work from a standpoint of love. At the end of the day, we all want to be loved, so I want to say a special thank you to my love, Tricia Dressel, for supporting me and doing this work all the time, so thank you all very much.”

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