Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs names new executive director

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Celena Morrison speaking at the Leeway Foundation’s “Leeway @ 25: TransForming Inclusion” event in 2018. Photo by Kelly Burkhardt. Photo credit: KENZI CRASH / LEEWAY FOUNDATION.

Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs is at long last no longer vacant. Celena Morrison has been named executive director and will begin her tenure on March 20.

Morrison, a Black trans woman, is a known force. She comes from William Way LGBT Community Center, where she led the charge to open the Arcila-Adams Trans Resource Center, among other initiatives, in her position as director of programs. She has also been on the Philadelphia Commission of Human Relations (PCHR) since 2018 and is a support specialist for Mazzoni Center’s Pediatric and Adolescent Comprehensive Transgender Services program (PACTS). 

Working for the city, Morrison will lead the Office of LGBT Affairs’ policy work and community engagement and advise the Mayor’s Office and Philadelphia City government on the needs of LGBTQ+ people. She will also help educate the city workforce on queer competency.  

Celena Morrison

“As a longtime advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to continue that work from within our local government,” said Morrison in a statement. “As a Black trans woman, I have experienced first-hand the transphobia, workplace discrimination and many other challenges that face our community. All of this motivates me to fight relentlessly for my fellow LGBTQ+ siblings.”

Morrison also said her past experience and intersectional approach will help to build on the “impressive accomplishments” of her predecessors. 

Amber Hikes, the city’s former executive director of the Office of LGBT Affairs, publicly announced her departure from her position in July 2019. Shortly thereafter, she finished her last day on Aug. 1 and went on to become American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) first Chief Diversity Officer. Evan Thornburg, former deputy director of the office, took over Hikes’ duties on an interim basis while simultaneously working on training and program development initiatives. As of Dec. 17, according to the City of Philadelphia and an automated email response from Thornburg, she was no longer the deputy director of the Office of LGBT Affairs, leaving top positions in the office vacant. Now, the LGBTQ community has leadership again in city government.

At a time when trans women — particularly trans women of color — are facing an epidemic of violence across this country, I am proud to have a leader like Celena at the helm. Her vast experience in program development and service delivery, paired with her lived experience, will help inform a smart, strategic approach to our work that elevates the most marginalized individuals with the LGBTQ+ community.

Mayor Jim Kenney told PGN, “Leading the Office of LGBT Affairs is by no means an easy job. Even in a progressive city like Philadelphia, there are a number of challenges still facing the LGBTQ+ community, and we’ve also seen that this position brings an unmatched level of visibility. It can be hard to execute important work when you are in the public eye, but Celena is joining a long line of strong, amazing women who have led the Office of LGBT Affairs — Gloria, Nellie, Amber and now her.”

He added, “At a time when trans women — particularly trans women of color — are facing an epidemic of violence across this country, I am proud to have a leader like Celena at the helm. Her vast experience in program development and service delivery, paired with her lived experience, will help inform a smart, strategic approach to our work that elevates the most marginalized individuals with the LGBTQ+ community.”

Mirroring Kenney’s words, Morrison told PGN, she “will continue the work of the office and focus on the most marginalized members of our community. As many of us do, I am going to have a particular focus on trans women of color.”

Originally from North Carolina, Morrison has lived in Philadelphia for more than a decade. Before her position at William Way, Morrison was a community engagement specialist at the Mazzoni Center, where she provided support services to members of the transgender community. She continues to work with Sisterly LOVE and OUR Way at Mazzoni and recently partnered with the group TMAN, whose mission is to uplift transmasculine folks of color. Additionally, Morrison has been involved with TransWork, “since its birth,” she said. TransWork, founded by Marcus Iannozzi, connects transgender and nonbinary job seekers and entrepreneurs to supportive employers and business partners.

In her new role as executive director, Morrison said she wants to continue working with these community efforts and organizations.

“One thing that I have really thought about is how some of the initiatives that I have worked on or am presently working on — how can I support those initiatives from this standpoint and continue to work along the folks that I built these positive relationships with over the years.”

Thinking big picture, “I would love to see more unity and support from within our community — a more solid unit,” Morrison told PGN. “We have so many entities that are fighting against all of us, things that we’re up against every day. Some of us can’t meet our basic needs. …I mean we’ve come a long way, we’ve made a lot of accomplishments, but I believe we can do so much more if we were just more united.”

She added that it takes the willingness of the entire spectrum of identities to stand together. 

Rue Landau, executive director of PCHR and an out lesbian, said, “One of Celena’s main strengths is that she sees the world through an intersectional lens and knows that people bring many parts of their life experiences to any situation. She is compassionate but strong, and I think she’s going to do a fantastic job in this role.” Landau said, “I was not part of the hiring committee, but I am thrilled by her appointment. In my experience working with Celena on the commission, she’s smart, kind, caring, and she has a passion for justice. She was the first trans person appointed to the commission. She quickly jumped into her role; she actively participated in meetings, discussed cases recommended for closing and served on a hearing panel to decide an employment discrimination case based on sex. She takes her responsibilities seriously.”

Additionally, Landau noted the loss for PCHR with Morrison’s new position but pointed to a project that will involve further collaboration. 

“At the PCHR, we know we’re going to continue working closely with her, especially because, among other projects, PCHR will be partnering with the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs and Faith-Based and Interfaith Affairs to write regulations for the new law requiring institutions and organizations serving youth to adopt nondiscrimination policy guidelines to better serve transgender and gender-nonconforming youth. “

Landau’s excitement on future work with the Office of LGBT Affairs pairs with what Morrison said in a release from the Mayor’s Office — “I want Philadelphians to know that I am ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work from the moment I step into my new office, and I plan to do so with a focus on engaging the most marginalized members of our community.”