By Alison Cooper
Take a stroll down 12th Street in Philadelphia’s Gayborhood. At the intersection of 12th and Locust, you will come face to face with a mural of one of Philadelphia’s most inspirational figures, community organizer and activist, Gloria Casarez.
This mural, created by artist Michelle Angela Ortiz, tells the story of Gloria Casarez’s influential life. From her grassroots starts helping the homeless fight for housing equality to her HIV/AIDS activism in the Latin@ community to her founding of the The Philadelphia Dyke March, Gloria Casarez is a queer and Latin@ Philadelphian icon.
Raised in Kensington, Philadelphia, Gloria Casarez witnessed the poverty her community faced. In an interview with Philadelphia Gay News, she said: “…I was living in Kensington and things were getting dangerous there. Looking back, I realize that it was because most of the factories had closed or moved out of state. It was a real manufacturing part of town and a lot of people lost their jobs. One of the side effects of that was the neighborhood going down and the crime rate going up.”
Witnessing the damage inflected on her community influenced Gloria Casarez in college at West Chester University, where she majored in Political Science and Social Justice. Her plans to become a lawyer were detoured when she joined grassroots activist organizations, such as Empty the Shelters. Focused on housing rights, this region and nationwide group of college students fought for the homeless through various creative activities: marches, protests, voter registration, and even a newspaper.
Gloria described this work as a significant experience in her activist history: “…I was moved over and over again by women who were poor but always put their families first and tried to make things better. People who in the media were characterized as downtrodden but who rose to the occasion to fight for their families.” In all her activism, Gloria sought to uplift and empower the most marginalized and oppressed in our communities.
Serving as Executive Director of the Gay and Lesbian Latin@ AIDS Education Initiative (GALAEI) from 1999 to 2008, Gloria Casarez “increased resources and developed programs serving men of color and the transgender community.” One such program was the Trans-Health Information Project (now known as the Transequity Project). During her tenure as Executive Director, Gloria Casarez developed and created this groundbreaking project. This was the first health program in the city that provided services to transgender people. The project’s approach to healthcare, however, was different.
Transgender patients often face discrimination in healthcare. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 1 in 5 transgender patients were denied healthcare services because of their gender. Twenty-eight percent were harassed. And 50% had to teach their doctors about their transgender identity. Further, transgender individuals are most at risk to contract HIV/AIDS, but also less likely to seek care because of potential discrimination. And the health risks are even greater for trans people of color.
Gloria Casarez knew the reality of how trans people of color are treated in healthcare and the risk they face when getting treatment, and she sought to develop a solution.
Through the Trans-Health Information Project, a patient would receive care from someone knowledgeable trans healthcare issues: other trans people. Instead of receiving assistance from a doctor, who may mistreat or misunderstand a transgender person’s needs, the project was peer-based. This provided a safe space for transgender individuals to seek access and information to essential healthcare resources without the fear of being turned away or abused. To this day, the Transequity Project provides vital services to the trans community, such as sexual health and HIV prevention counseling.
GLORIA GOES TO CITY HALL
Gloria Casarez’s devotion to her community lead her all the way to City Hall where, in 2008, she was appointed to be the first LGBTQ liaison. As the Executive Director of the newly established the Office of LGBT Affairs, she influenced the direction of LGBTQ rights within in the city, making it one of the safest in the country for LGBTQ people.
She pushed for legislation protects LGBTQ people’s rights, which was ultimately passed by Mayor Michael Nutter. The LGBT Rights Bill established important rights for trans people, including trans-inclusive access to healthcare, the creation of gender-neutral bathrooms in City-controlled buildings, and the right for a trans person to request name and gender changes. This legislation also included protections for same-sex couples, including the nation’s first Equality Tax Credit—a tax credit for “employers who offer health benefits to same sex couples, life partners and transgender employees.”
THE FATE OF GLORIA’S MURAL
The colorful mural on 12th Street, an homage Gloria Casarez’s awe-inspiring life, is in peril. With the closure of 12th Street Gym in January 2018, the building’s fate, and the fate of Gloria’s mural, is in jeopardy. The gym, a previous gay bathhouse, has been an LGBTQ institution in the Gayboorhood for decades. Frank Rizzo, former mayor and police commissioner of Philadelphia, pushed for raids targeting LGBT establishments. Under Rizzo’s leadership, LGBT businesses and their patrons were over-policed and harassed. In some cases, gay and trans individuals were arrested for simply being visible.
Under the shadow of such raids, in 2016 the Department of Licenses and Inspections entered 12th Street Gym and found dozens of fire code violations, including “unsafe fire escapes, insufficient standpipes, inadequate fire doors and a fire-alarm system that isn’t certified, according to city records.” Because of these violations, the gym required millions of dollars in building updates and renovations, or faced closure. And so, after over thirty years serving the LGBTQ community, 12th Street Gym was forced to shut down.
New York developers have bought the building, and thus control what will happen to Gloria Casarez’s mural. Jane Golden, Executive Director of the Mural Arts Philadelphia, explained that the mural has “…become very much a fabric of the neighborhood and the community.” But will New York developers see the importance of Gloria’s mural to the community? Only time will tell what happens to Gloria Casarez’s mural. We encourage you to see it while you still can.
You can learn more about Gloria Casarez’s impact in Philadelphia on Beyond the Bell Tour’s Queering Philly History. Availability, booking, and further information can be found on our website. You can also check us out on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.