Community mourns loss of Charlene Arcila

Charlene Arcila, credited with a number of pioneering LGBT and HIV/AIDS efforts, died Tuesday afternoon at age 52.

Arcila was known for both her advocacy and activism; among her achievements, she founded the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference in 2000 and filed a discrimination complaint against SEPTA’s use of gender markers, which it ultimately removed.

“There would be no Trans-Health Conference without Charlene,” said Yoshiaki Yamasaki, executive director of The Philadelphia AIDS Consortium. “She initiated it with the support of TPAC more than a decade ago and then Mazzoni picked it up. It is because of Charlene it exists in the first place.”

Mazzoni Center executive director Nurit Shein said Arcila remained involved with the conference for years after getting it off the ground.

“She was working at TPAC and they were willing to put up dollars to fund the beginning of the conference and we collaborated as the fiscal conduit. Charlene was very instrumental in bringing that money around,” Shein said. “She then served on the committee that created the program and was involved in the conference on the community committee for a number of years.”

Mazzoni Center honored Arcila with an award during the conference’s 10th anniversary. Shein said PTHC organizers will announce at this summer’s event the creation of an annual award in Arcila’s name.

“The conference has created visibility for the community, opportunities for networking, for learning and, now that we have created professional tracts, an opportunity for us to educate providers — legal, medical or behavioral health — on issues relating to the trans community,” Shein said.

In her professional work, Arcila served as Yamasaki’s assistant for 20 years, the past six as his executive assistant. He said her “passion and drive” were inspiring, as was her “patience and dedication” to the fight against HIV/AIDS.

“She’s going to be missed by the entire community,” Yamasaki said. “We have lost a great advocate and great human being.”

William Way LGBT Community Center executive director Chris Bartlett sat with Arcila on the board of a local community organization, for which she served as treasurer. He said she had natural leadership abilities.

“She accomplished that role with incredible dignity and integrity, always patiently answering questions, completing all the necessary work at hand and smiling even in the most challenging moments,” Bartlett said. “I learned from her what grace and dignity look like at even the most difficult moments of leadership.”

That leadership showed itself in 2007 when, after having been challenged by SEPTA staff for the gender marker on her transpass, Arcila filed a discrimination complaint with the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, which is still mired in an ongoing legal battle.

SEPTA filed a lawsuit in 2009 challenging PCHR’s jurisdictional authority, delaying resolution of Arcila’s and six other discrimination complaints against the agency. The Court of Common Pleas found in PCHR’s favor, but SEPTA appealed to Commonwealth Court, which found in SEPTA’s favor. PCHR appealed to the state Supreme Court, which found that Commonwealth Court ruled on the wrong standard and remanded it back to that court, with instructions for how to review the case.

A hearing was held this past February before Commonwealth Court.

Arcila, accompanied by the late Gloria Casarez, was present at the first court hearing of the case.

“She attended the Court of Common Pleas hearing from the very beginning of the case and it was wonderful to have her support and by our side the entire time,” said PCHR executive director Rue Landau. “It’s sad she won’t know the ultimate resolution of the case, which we hope is in the favor of the commission.”         

After Arcila’s complaint, an advocacy group called Riders Against Gender Exclusion kept pressure on the agency, an effort supported by a 2012 Philadelphia City Council resolution. SEPTA finally began making moves to abandon the practice the following year, holding a public hearing and an ultimately successful vote by its board. The markers were officially removed in the summer of 2013.

“Charlene was certainly a pioneer and she stood up against what she and many others saw as a discriminatory practice,” Landau said. “Her leadership mobilized other people around this issue and ultimately SEPTA took gender markers off their transpasses. That was a victory for equality in Philadelphia and we are still waiting for a final court decision to see if justice can be further served.”

Shein said she admired Arcila’s quiet resolve.

“She was very strong and vocal in a quiet way,” she said. “She voiced her opinions but always in a respectful way. She was a very gentle soul and respectful. And I loved that smile of hers; she would walk in a room and, no matter how bad of a day she was having, she’d have a huge smile.”

Among her community honors, Arcila was named a 2014 Trans 100 honoree and was the plenary speaker at the 2014 Pennsylvania Youth Action Conference. She was recently named a grand marshal of the 2015 Pride parade, with one of the two grand-marshal floats renamed in her honor, to coincide with the event’s focus this year on the trans community.

The Mississippi native studied Christian ministry at Belhaven College, graduating in 1991, and served as a deacon at Unity Fellow of Christ Church since 2009.

Naiymah Sanchez, coordinator of the Trans-Health Information Project, said that when she began working in the field several years ago, she knew there were two primary figures she should look to for guidance in providing resources to the trans community: Arcila and Jaci Adams, who passed away last year.

“She was a great fighter until the end, helping whoever she could,” Sanchez said of Arcila. “Her inspiring words and effort to make a difference inspired me to continue the fight of injustice and provide my community with the same integrity I would want. This is a great loss indeed and is surely felt throughout the community and everyone she came in contact with.”

Nellie Fitzpatrick, the city’s director of LGBT affairs, referenced a quote she found of Arcila’s about what motivated her work: “The important thing is to feel connected to people or communities beyond yourself. That plays a major role in reducing isolation and helping us get out of our own heads, gives us a framework for coping and provides support when things get tough.”

“From the Trans-Health Conference to bringing about gender-neutral transit passes on our public transportation, Charlene will remain connected to our communities and our city for generations and beyond,” Fitzpatrick said, calling Arcila a “true champion of humanity.”

“Through her bravery and selflessness, she improved our city, our communities and countless individual lives,” Fitzpatrick added. “Charlene’s tireless work to bring about equality, access, safety, respect and community is a true inspiration.” 

Bartlett said it is the leaders Arcila inspired who will now be tasked with carrying on her work.

“Charlene knew how to invest in other leaders. Younger leaders naturally flocked to her for mentorship. She also knew how to encourage people when encouragement was most necessary: when it seemed that SEPTA would never budge on getting rid of gendered transpasses or helping a budding trans leadership in Philadelphia to see why a trans-health conference was necessary and important,” he said. “She knew how to take her strong and wise vision, enroll others in that vision and then make a lasting difference. It is not an exaggeration to say that her work goes on — both in the systems she developed, and also in the leaders she cultivated.”

Arcila is survived by partner Marcus Ecks in addition to family and friends. 

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