City mourns LGBT director Gloria Casarez

“I pledge to represent the community with authenticity, integrity and respect.”

— Gloria Casarez, in her 2008 speech accepting the post of Philadelphia’s Director of LGBT Affairs

The rainbow flag outside Philadelphia City Hall continues to fly at half-staff in honor of Gloria Casarez.

The city’s director of LGBT affairs died Oct. 19, more than five years after she was diagnosed with cancer.

Reaction to Casarez’s death has been overflowing in the community and the city this week, with many remembering not just the depth and breadth of Casarez’s accomplishments in advancing LGBT equality, but also the spirit and energy that inspired her work.

“Gloria was a great friend to a lot of folks,” Mayor Michael Nutter told PGN. “She was tremendously kind and thoughtful and had a great spirit about her.”

Her wife, Tricia Dressel, said Casarez’s strength and determination over the last few years exemplified the fortitude she exhibited each day.

“She was a warrior to the end. She lived and died the way she wanted to — on her own terms.”

City leader

Nutter appointed Casarez as Philadelphia’s first director of LGBT affairs in 2008. In that capacity, she oversaw the city’s work to ensure full LGBT inclusion in all facets of city government, bridged gaps between the LGBT community and city leaders and represented Philadelphia and its LGBT efforts on local and national levels.    

The mayor said Casarez far exceeded the duties of her position.

“She didn’t just limit herself to the work I asked her to come here to do. She was active in a variety of areas of government. She knew everybody, engaged with everybody,” Nutter said. “She was a highly respected and valued member among our top leaders here and set a very, very high bar and standard for all public servants: those who serve, those who give, those who do. She elevated issues of diversity and made sure there were a number of different voices around the table. She insisted on that.”

Casarez sought to include members from across the community in her work, telling PGN in 2008 that it was “entirely within everything I’ve ever done to have as many people involved in something as possible. I don’t try to run things all by myself; it’s not in my character.”

She led the establishment of the Mayor’s Advisory Board on LGBT Affairs, a collection of LGBT and ally individuals from an array of industries, to represent the needs of the community.

“She was just really remarkable in that she always had her finger on the pulse of what was happening in the community,” said Elicia Gonzales, executive director of GALAEI: A Queer [email protected] Social Justice Organization. “She would regularly check in with all of us in different regards. She had a way of making sure she had a bird’s-eye view of the city, really getting into the nitty-gritty details of things. She knew the business sector, tourism, providers, just what was happening with everyday people. She was meticulous in a sense in knowing when something was awry, like a detective, and then figuring out a way to advocate for that at the city level.”

Among her most visible accomplishments was the raising of the rainbow flag each October outside City Hall, which she conceived of and spearheaded. Casarez spoke at the fifth flag-raising ceremony earlier this month.

The flag was lowered the day after her passing, and the site has served as a memorial to Casarez, with candles and flowers amassing there Monday morning.

Casarez also undertook a wealth of behind-the-scenes initiatives.

Philadelphia Human Relations Commission executive director Rue Landau worked closely with Casarez to ensure the policies and practices of city agencies were LGBT-inclusive.

“That was often informal. It could be something like having a conversation with the head of a department when we heard the department was doing something wrong. Or it could be a larger effort, when we were brought in by the department to make sure they did something right,” Landau said.

Casarez’s efforts also extended to the legislative front.

She was among the coalition of community and city leaders who began meeting in 2008 to discuss reforms to city policies that ultimately resulted in the landmark 2013 LGBT-rights bill, which offered first-in-the-nation tax credits for companies providing domestic-partner and transgender-health benefits, and it revamped a significant number of trans-related policies. She was a key figure in the overhaul of the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance and pressed for the legislation to mandate that some city contractors offer domestic-partner benefits.

“We worked together on a lot of legislative work,” Landau said. “I’d dissect the legal part and Gloria was a great visionary for the policy part. I think that’s why the mayor called us the ‘Dynamic Duo.’”

Casarez testified before a state Senate committee in 2008 on behalf of the Mayor’s Office about legislation that sought to instate a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, and she successfully advocated for the removal of gender markers from SEPTA transpasses.

In 2009, Casarez helped create a committee to heighten awareness about LGBT inclusion in the U.S. Census, and also worked to connect locals for a pioneering survey of LGBT elders’ needs. Her efforts also extended to youth, as she worked with the Philadelphia School District in 2009 to create and distribute an LGBT resource guide to city schools and lobbied for the tighter anti-bullying policy the School Reform Commission adopted in 2010.

With Casarez at the helm, Philadelphia twice topped the Human Rights Campaign’s list of LGBT-friendly cities.

“When her office was moved into the Mayor’s Office, she took that role and that charge seriously,” Landau said. “She knew the importance of having this office in the Mayor’s Office and she was going to make sure she provided access to the entire LGBT community. For the first time, a lot of people were able to better understand things that were happening, because she made the information coming from City Hall so much more accessible.”

While Casarez was a key figure in Philadelphia’s progress on LGBT issues in recent years, her commitment to LGBT equality was rooted long before her 2008 appointment.

“Gloria always had her eye on the community in every capacity before working for the mayor. It was always in her gut,” said Philly Pride Presents director Franny Price. “She would always be the first to say, ‘Did you know?’ ‘What do you think about this?’ No matter what it was — trans issues, white-collar, grassroots. Gloria was a community person, and it wasn’t limited to her job.”

Social-justice start

Born in South Philadelphia, Casarez grew up in North Philly, raised by a single mother, and moved to New Jersey to live with an aunt during high school, as her Kensington neighborhood grew more dangerous. She came out at age 17 and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and political science in 1993 from West Chester University.

During college she helmed the Latino Student Union and was involved with the Commission on the Status of Women. While still in school, she was involved with such initiatives as the Summer of Social Action and Spring Break for a Change and founded Empty the Shelters, a housing-rights group.

Her involvement with that organization led her to participate in many demonstrations — including one she recounted to PGN during a 2008 interview, in which she humorously recalled pitching a tent on the lawn of Independence Hall only to be awakened by the sprinklers.

She also worked at the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in the mid-’90s, where she met Landau.

After graduation, she got a position as program coordinator at the LGBT Center at the University of Pennsylvania, where she worked from 1995-98.

Center director Bob Schoenberg told PGN Casarez was hired along with another woman of color program coordinator, and the pair made impressive strides toward full LGBT inclusion at the organization and university.

“To have two women who had strong senses of who they were as lesbians of color really helped to deepen the understanding at the center and at the university that we need to recognize the diversity within the community,” Schoenberg said.

In 1998, Casarez helped organize the first local Dyke March and continued to organize that event for a number of years, recently becoming an annual speaker.

Casarez told PGN the Dyke March was “one of the things I am really proud of and something that lives on. When you can be a part of founding something and see it thriving years later, it’s really rewarding.”

In 1997, she began working at Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative.

GALAEI founder David Acosta hired Casarez, noting it was a short interview.

“I knew I wanted to hire her instantly, and I did. It was one of the best decisions I ever made,” he said. “She was bright. She was intelligent. She just had a really great spirit about her and this wonderful energy that was very palpable to me.”

Casarez told PGN that GALAEI was a “special place,” as it represented both the Latino and queer communities, which she said were “big parts of my personal identity.”

After joining the team, Casarez launched its Reaching Adolescents Via Education program and, when Acosta decided to step down, Casarez took the helm.

“After a year of her being there, I knew I wanted to leave the organization to her. It just became a natural that I would give her my baby,” Acosta said. “And I did that with an incredible amount of confidence, knowing she would shepherd it and steer it forward. I took a conscious step back because I wanted her to bring her own vision, her own ideas and own character and charisma to the organization.”

During her tenure with GALAEI, Casarez grew the organization’s established programs and launched others, spearheading the creation of its Trans-Health Information Project, with Casey Cook and Ben Singer.

“This project was very much in line with Gloria’s commitment to social justice in general,” Cook said. “She was always a really fierce agent for change — through LGBT liberation, access to health care and housing, economic justice, HIV treatment. When we started TIP, ‘transgender’ was always just the tack-on to ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual’ to a lot of people in the community. But it was important to Gloria that trans folks had access to health care and other programming and that it was designed and run by the community.”

“GALAEI had always been an organization that worked to serve the most marginalized communities and, under Gloria’s leadership, we really excelled in reaching the trans community,” Gonzales added. “TIP was and continues to be the only peer-based program by trans folk, for trans folk, not just in the city but the whole country. Gloria recognized early on that the T is often lowercased and is often a neglected part of our community.”

That spirit of inclusion extended across her tenure with GALAEI, Gonzales noted.

“She taught me how to pay attention to those whose voices aren’t at the table,” Gonzales said. “She showed me how to look around a room and see who isn’t there, to recognize our own privilege in this world, and then work to invite those people to the table.”

She didn’t just supervise from behind a desk, but delved into the work, telling PGN she was among the team that would distribute condoms and health information everywhere, from bars to drug corners and drug houses to public-sex parks.

“You have to know where these people are and go out and meet them, literally and figuratively,” Casarez had said.

Acosta said the GALAEI of today is a direct reflection of Casarez’s work.

“She certainly pushed the organization forward, strengthened its mission and continued to keep an eye on what’s really made GALAEI unique. Then she brought her own magic to it,” Acosta said. “She steered the ship into new waters and stayed the course.”

Community leader

GALAEI was one of a number of organizations Casarez was involved with over the past two decades.

She served on the board of directors of the Bread & Roses Community Fund since 2003, sitting on its Jonathan Lax Scholarship Committee since 2001.

She was an ex-officio member of the LGBT Police Liaison Committee since 2008, working with community leaders and police officials to address LGBT public-safety issues, and taking part in a number of LGBT-sensitivity training sessions for incoming officers. Price, who heads the committee, said Casarez was also instrumental in pushing for attention to LGBT issues, such as the Nizah Morris case, in the Police Advisory Commission.

Casarez was a founding board member of the LGBT Elder Initiative, started in 2010.

LGBTEI co-chair Heshie Zinman said Casarez co-chaired the programming committee for the LGBT Aging Summit with him that year, sat on the working group afterward and then joined the inaugural LGBTEI board.

“She brought this wisdom and insight into the planning process for the summit and, when we sat our board, she just said, ‘I’m in. I want to be part of this effort,’” Zinman said, noting that Casarez was a strong advocate for LGBT community members beginning to look at aging issues earlier in life. “She was instrumental in moving us toward this theme of successful aging at every age. Her knowledge, her sensitivity, her accessibility really opened a lot of doors for the LGBT Elder Initiative.”

Her work also extended to the tourism sector; she sat on the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau’s PHL Diversity board and recently was involved in the planning for next year’s Reminder 2015, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Annual Reminder demonstrations.

Philadelphia Gay Tourism Caucus vice president Tami Sortman said Casarez also assisted in getting the Gayborhood listed as such on official city maps.

“She was the connector for our group to the city,” Sortman said. “For anything we needed help with — if we were bidding on groups to come into town or holding events here in town — she was the one who would connect us to the city.”

Casarez previously served on the board of Prevention Point Philadelphia and on the LGBT Research Community Advisory Board of Public Health Management Corporation.

Her years of LGBT community leadership was integral to her work for the Nutter administration, as she labored to link the city and the community — working with the Philadelphia Police Department to ensure its first trans applicant felt secure, facilitating crime-prevention meetings among the mayor, city officials, LGBT community members and LGBT business leaders and alerting and mobilizing city and community leaders to a planned visit by anti-LGBT group Westboro Baptist Church.

She spoke at a number of rallies to honor local transwomen who were murdered — Nizah Morris, Kyra Cordova, Stacey Blahnik and Diamond Williams — and pressed for justice for all LGBT victims, attending court proceedings and advocating and being present for meetings between Cordova’s family and police officials.

Casarez read the city’s first-ever proclamation honoring Transgender Day of Remembrance in 2012 and was often seen delivering mayoral proclamations and statements at community events, from Prides to galas to rallies, such as the marriage-equality celebration at City Hall in May.

Casarez was a driving figure in helping attain a marker from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for Giovanni’s Room.

She was a frequent face at LGBT sporting events: She performed the coin toss for the 2010 championship game of the Greater Philadelphia Flag Football League, was instrumental in the city’s welcoming of the 2011 women’s softball tournament held in Philadelphia, lobbied for an eventually successful deal between the city and the City of Brotherly Love Softball League for field improvements in 2010 and threw out CBLSL’s first pitch that year. She also pitched the first ball at the LGBT night at the Phillies in 2010, joking to PGN that her pitching needed some work.   

“I’m thinking it’s a smaller ball [than the CBLSL softball] so that may be my only hope. But I wouldn’t expect any heat to come off my throw,” she laughed.

Her community involvement wasn’t always celebratory, Price noted, as Casarez worked hard to provide resources and assistance to the complex issues facing local LGBT community organizations.

“She knew all the organizations, and she also knew the city policies and the bills. She knew it all. And that’s what we needed in a representative at City Hall,” Price said. “There could be a little organization with three members and if they were having an issue, Gloria knew about it. And she knew what needed to be done to address it. That’s exactly what our community needed.”

Outside the office

While Casarez was a ubiquitous presence in the community, she wasn’t always focused on work.

She was passionate about photography, and once told PGN her dream job would be to open an iron-on T-shirt shop. One particular T-shirt she bought, Gonzales noted, kept Casarez laughing during a 2011 trip to Miami.

“She was just living it up and buying everyone shirts that said, ‘I’m in Miami, bitch.’ She was just really goofy and funny,” Gonzales said. “I’m so glad I got to see the side of her where she got to let loose and be crazy.”

Casarez had a penchant for “’70s and ’80s swag,” Landau said, like her collection of vintage toys and iron-ons. She was a fan of karaoke — especially rap songs by Biggie Smalls, Gonzales noted — and loved to dance and play video games, especially “Rock Band,” with friends at her East Passyunk home.

Sortman added that Casarez sought to keep up on the latest technology. She recently purchased a computer system that operated everything from her TV to her lights to her speaker system.

“She was a gadget guru,” Sortman said. “She was funny, playful, had all her toys.”

Her clever sense of humor, Landau said, extended from home to the office.

“She was playfully subversive,” Landau laughed.

Casarez would often escort the mayor to LGBT events, and sometimes wrote talking points for him — which Landau said she’d have fun with.

“She loved when she had him saying, ‘Congratulations to the Dyke March’ or ‘Congratulations to the Flaggots,’” Landau said. “I would say, ‘That’s hysterical,’ and she would say, ‘I love it. I told him how to say it.’ She was quirky and witty.”

Casarez idolized Wonder Woman — and had a poster of Lynda Carter on her wall during her time with GALAEI.

In 2001, while working at GALAEI, Casarez was introduced to Dressel, who then worked for Mazzoni Center.

Ten years later, shortly after New York, Dressel’s home state, legalized same-sex marriage, they traveled to the Big Apple to wed. As they already had a 10th-anniversary party planned in Philadelphia the following month, the couple kept their nuptials under wraps until the event, surprising their guests with a video montage of the wedding. At the party, Nutter presided over his first same-sex commitment ceremony.

“I think people felt our love, and we felt all the love coming from them,” Casarez told PGN about the event.

Their family — Gloria, Tricia and cat Baby — expanded by one last spring when they opened their home to a Yorkie puppy, Rocky.

“Gloria was always a cat lover and was OK with dogs, but when she got Rocky, it totally changed her whole persona,” Sortman said. “When you have a puppy, you do become a mother and that gave her a whole different outlook in life and gave her a lot of joy.”

Dressel, as well as family and friends, were by Casarez’s side the past five years as she sought aggressive cancer treatments — chemotherapy, radiation, hormone therapy. She was diagnosed in March 2009 with metastatic breast cancer, and the cancer progressively moved through her body, including the central nervous system.

Casarez kept a blog documenting the experience, portions of which were published in PGN. The passages often took a humorous angle on the serious situation, which friends say is how Casarez approached most things.

On losing her hair, Casarez joked in her blog, “Don’t call me ‘Baldie-locks.’ I’ll kick you” and she said she was trying to keep her bags “packed with positivity” and enjoy each day’s experiences.

Those experiences included work.

Nutter said Casarez approached the illness with a commendable sense of humility.

“She never wanted the focus to be on her; she was always deflecting or deferring to others. She would really only talk about how she felt if you asked her. She wasn’t walking around talking about herself or her health issues. I would see her in the hallway and say, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ and she’d just say, ‘Coming along, getting better.’ And I know it wasn’t always necessarily true. But she was a fighter. And that’s one of the things I love about her so much. And why this hurts so much.”

Gonzales postured it was that commitment to her position and to the community that inspired Casarez to fight for so long.

“She was diagnosed over five years ago, and she didn’t miss a beat,” Gonzales said. “Other people, myself included, may feel a headache coming on and take a half-day, but she was diagnosed with this horrible form of cancer and was right back at work as soon as she was physically able and she stayed there for the duration. She never let on how much pain she must have been in because that wasn’t important to her. She was going to live her life, and give 100 percent to her work, to her community. And I think it was that work that served as her lifeline and kept her going. Tricia’s said she intended to go out on her own terms. She was in control.”

Casarez went to the emergency room last Thursday after her blood pressure dropped and was transferred to the ICU the following day. She received radiation as late as Saturday evening, then stopped treatment that night. She died Sunday morning as the sun rose.

A ‘wonder woman’

Casarez accrued a host of awards and honors over the years, including Delaware Valley Legacy Fund’s 2009 Individual Hero Award; Women’s ENews 2010 Philadelphia Leadership Award; House of Prestige’s 2010 Humanitarian Award; Philadelphia FIGHT’s 2011 Kiyoshi Kuromiya Award; Metropolitan Community Church of Philadelphia’s 2011 Patron of Humanity Award; induction into West Chester University’s 2012 Legacy of Leaders class; GALAEI’s 2013 David Acosta Revolutionary Leader Award; Pennsylvania Student Equality Coalition’s 2014 Keystone Award; and being named Pride grand marshal in 2001 and 2014.

But, friends and colleagues say, the list of accolades does not nearly encompass all that she gave to the community, and the lessons she imparted to her fellow leaders.

“She spoke out against any injustice, big or small,” Gonzales said. “She taught me to speak my truth, to live my life with integrity. Even if you’re in the minority, don’t be afraid to say what you think is right.”

Sortman noted that Casarez’s strong will permeated all of her work — including her writing, noting she was a “wordsmith of all wordsmiths.”

“She’d send me something she wrote and I’d say it sounds great and, next thing I know, she’s sending out something completely different,” Sortman laughed. “Things had to be perfect. And she hardly ever backed down on anything. Once she got started, she would keep going.”

A group of friends gathered earlier this week to share stories and memories of Casarez, Landau said, and came to a consensus on three words that most described her: determined, fierce and hilarious.

“She had no problems dropping the f-bomb to whoever,” Gonzales joked.

“I have a picture of her basically telling off a police officer at the Fourth of July festival. She’d confront whoever if they did something wrong, it didn’t matter who it was.” she said. “But then the next second, she could be so tender. Someone would come up to her who just knew her from her work and she was so compassionate, warm and would make them feel like they were the only person in the room.”

That tenderness was ever-present, Acosta added.

“She was a dear friend, a confidant, a mentor. We weren’t anywhere near contemporaries in age but even when I was still at GALAEI, I would sit and talk to her and ask what she thought I should do about certain things,” he said. “She was always someone I could go to for advice. She was generous in spirit in all she did; anything that you gave her, you knew she’d take care of it.”

That included innumerable people to whom she served as a mentor.

Louie Ortiz-Fonseca met Casarez in 1996 while both were interviewing for jobs at the same agency, and they quickly forged a friendship. Casarez went on to become a central figure in his life, he said.

“I don’t know many people who can move in and out of different groups as easily as she could,” Ortiz-Fonseca said. “People wondered how we were so close because we had such different backgrounds, but that was never something that separated us. The connection was just always there.”

Ortiz-Fonseca said Casarez helped him “discover [his] magic,” introducing him to new experiences, people and places. She was there for celebrations like birthdays and holidays and would drop everything to be by his side in times of heartbreak.

“Gloria saved lives and guided lives,” Landau said. “There are plenty of young people who need mentors and there are plenty of us who can mentor. If we want to carry on Gloria’s torch, we need to move forward with the mentoring work she did.”

Cook noted that, while many in the community knew Casarez from her professional responsibilities, her authenticity spanned all settings, professional and personal.

“If you knew Gloria in any capacity, you knew her entirely,” Cook said. “She was a really loving person, who was compassionate and had an amazing sense of humor. She always helped me see the humor in every situation. And she was an incredibly passionate person. That’s one of the things I loved about her most: If she set out to do something, she did it, all in. She set out to change the world, and she did it.”

Casarez’s skill as a passionate, dynamic leader always impressed Dressel.

“She could bring people together and move people forward,” she said. “I loved and respected her. She was a complete warrior on every level.”

In addition to Dressel, Casarez is survived by her mother, Elisa Gonzalez, great-aunt Teresa Rodriguez, godparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, and was predeceased by her great-uncle Henry Rodriguez. A funeral service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Oct. 24 at Arch Street United Methodist Church, 55 N. Broad St. A community memorial is also being planned.

Memorial contributions can be made to the West Chester University Foundation in support of the Gloria Casarez Leadership Scholarship at P.O. Box 541, West Chester, PA 19381. Make checks payable to WCU Foundation, with “In Memory of Gloria Casarez” in the memo line.