Numerous members of the LGBTQ community did outstanding work amid extraordinary circumstances this year. While we wish we could recognize everyone, here are some whose work deserves recognition. All of them helped make our lives better, whether through keeping us safe and healthy, getting us to vote, keeping us entertained, or shining a light on systemic inequality. All of them are leaders in the LGBTQ community, and all of them gave us hope this year and for the future.
Dr. Rachel Levine
As Pennsylvania’s Health Secretary, Dr. Levine has worked tirelessly this year to keep Pennsylvanians safe during the COVID-19 crisis by providing critical information and helping to implement best practices based in science. Throughout the pandemic, Dr. Levine has been the daily face of data-driven science as well as empathic calm amid fear and uncertainty. In her press conferences, after reminding people to wash their hands for the full 20 seconds, Levine often signed off with, “Stay calm, stay home, stay safe.”
Dr. Levine did her job with poise amidst hateful attacks on her gender identity as well as attacks from Republicans in the state legislature. In a statement this past summer, Rafael Álvarez Febo, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBT Affairs, lauded Dr. Levine’s work amidst such attacks.
“The leadership of Dr. Levine and her staff has helped save countless lives during this unprecedented time. In addition to a wealth of knowledge and experience, Dr. Levine has also proven to be a calming presence on our screens with her daily press conferences,” Alvarez Febo said.
“Week after week, members of the LGBTQ community and thousands of Pennsylvanians have tuned in [to social media] to be informed by our health secretary, only to be assaulted by streams of comments and slurs aimed directly at Dr. Levine and indirectly at all transgender Pennsylvanians.” Alvarez Febo added. “In times of crisis and pain, LGBTQ individuals are united in pushing back against transphobia of any kind.”
2020 was Dr. Levine’s third year as Pennsylvania Secretary of Health. She previously spent two years as the state’s Physician General and one year as the acting Secretary of Health. Before joining Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration and becoming the first transgender PA cabinet secretary in the process, Levine spent nearly 20 years working at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, where she served as the Chief of the Division for Adolescent Medicine and Eating Disorders, which she created. While in that position, Levine also served on the board of the statewide LGBTQ advocacy group, Equality Pennsylvania.
VinChelle is a strong voice in Philly’s queer and trans drag community of color. One of her biggest accomplishments this past year was organizing the virtual town hall forum with Icon Ebony-Fierce, where they held white, privileged Gayborhood performers and producers accountable for their racist actions. They facilitated conversations between producers and bar owners and LGBTQ+ performers of color, who addressed their experiences being underpaid, tokenized and harassed. Subsequently, VinChelle was hired to manage events at Woody’s and Voyeur.
Throughout the pandemic, VinChelle continued to digitally produce her drag show Black Girl Magic. When safety regulations initially eased, she performed weekly one-woman shows at Woody’s and started running the show Turnout Tuesday at Jocks. Not long after the initial lockdown, VinChelle created the weekly Zoom series Black Diaries, which consists of conversations between herself and a rotating cast of performers of color, including Icon, Sir Donyx, Sapphira Cristal and Paula Dean White. Topics vary, but tend to be related to race. “I remember we were talking about the Karens,” VinChelle said. “And then we were talking about dating in the scene, how we first started drag, specific issues in the city. Almost every time we get together and talk, it’s very meaningful.”
In the coming year, VinChelle hopes to make Black Girl Magic “bigger than ever,” bring the show to other cities and colleges and travel more. “It’s time for me to also let other people have a chance that maybe aren’t getting those chances.” Digital Black Girl Magic shows, Black Diaries and other of VinChelle’s drag pursuits can be found on her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SheaButterWerk
Icon Ebony-Fierce is one of Philly’s queer entertainers of color who has done notable work in the LGBTQ+ community this past year. In 2020, they co-created the Philadelphia Performing Artists’ Emergency Fund with Patti LuStoned and Beary Tyler Moore. “It really hits close to home as someone that abruptly lost their job due to this pandemic,” Icon said in an email. Icon didn’t stop there; they organized a supply hub for community activists when the Black Lives Matter uprisings took place in summer, 2020, and co-organized the digital Phreak N’ Queer festivals, lineups of artists, organizers, health instructors and wellness practitioners who performed and shared their craft.
Perhaps most prominently, Icon and VinChelle, another big-name Philly drag queen, organized a virtual town hall meeting where they called on white bar owners and producers to address racial discrimination in Philly’s LGBTQ drag and burlesque scenes. Some positive changes came from the meeting; Icon was hired with Burd Events, where they now book shows for Tabu Lounge and Sports Bar.
“The scene has almost done a 180,” Icon said in an email. “There will always be more work to be done, but changes have been made. People have been more free to discuss inequality and unfair casting practices without fear of retaliation. We are also challenging folks to use correct language and to address anti-blackness, transphobia and misogyny in spaces.”
Going forward, Icon plans to continue their work as board member at William Way LGBT Community Center, pursue a range of artistic projects including a solo show, help community members perform digitally, continue to elevate Black and Brown trans voices and keep changing “the perception of gender expression, one subculture at a time.”
José de Marco
A long-time Philadelphia community activist, José de Marco has done substantial work as an organizer through ACT UP Philadelphia and the Black and Brown Queer and Trans Community Control of Health. In 2020 de Marco organized several actions fighting for human rights, including two political funerals outside the homes of City officials demanding adequate housing for people facing homelessness and living in congregate housing; a demonstration supporting the opening of the supervised injection site Safehouse; and a collaboration with the Black and Brown Workers’ Coalition to make sure residents of the JTD encampment are properly housed, including people with disabilities and the elderly.
“The city has promised not to send them back to the streets and provide safe non-congregate housing,” de Marco said in an email. “That has yet to happen. We are watching closely.”
As part of the Community Control of Health group, de Marco played a role in giving recommendations to the Philadelphia AIDS Activities Coordinating Office on best practices for the federally-funded program Ending the HIV Epidemic. In the coming year, de Marco and Community Control of Health plan to write the Philadelphia Principles for People with HIV, based on the Denver Principles of the 1980s.
“In 2020 the principles must change to reflect the populations’ HIV impacts,” de Marco said. “While HIV transmissions remain the same, the reasons for Black and Latinx people are different. Community Control is deeply concerned about crystal meth use in Black and Latinx men that is generating HIV infections that no one is addressing in Philadelphia.”
The Community Control of Health group is also working to empower trans femme Black and Latinx people to take authority on issues that directly affect them.
Members of the community recently launched a GoFundMe to help put together a retirement fund for de Marco.
Deja Lynn Alvarez
Deja Lynn Alvarez is a trans advocate and a leader in Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community. In 2020 she continued her advocacy work while also helping to feed undocumented immigrants and others in need during the global pandemic.
In the wake of COVID-19, many businesses had to lay off workers and undocumented immigrant workers were often the first to go. For an undocumented person, losing a job is devastating because it is that much more difficult to find another employer who is willing to give them a job. After helping one undocumented woman get food, Alvarez, a health liaison for World Health Care Infrastructures (WHCI), had the idea to post her Cashapp and Venmo accounts on Facebook and ask for donations to put together grocery boxes for other undocumented immigrant families in need. When she woke up, she found a few hundred dollars in her account. She drove to Delaware county, where she bought sustainable food such as peanut butter, pancake mix, dry pasta and pasta sauce.
After making a few deliveries to a dozen or so families, Alvarez connected with friends in government such as State Sen. Sharif Street, James Harrity and Micah Mahjoubian who work in Street’s office, Councilman Bobby Henon, and former Montgomery County candidate Michael Doyle. Together with State Rep. Brian Sims and WHCI Executive Director Yoshiaki Yamasaki, Alvarez was able to connect with larger food resources in order to feed more families. The donations continued throughout 2020, reaching hundreds of people and families in need.
Alvarez also continued to be a leader in the Philadephia LGBTQ community this year, continuing to serve as a trainer for the Transgender Training Institute and as a co-chair of the Philly LGBT Police Liaison Committee.
Rue Landau led the Philadelphia Human Relations Commissions for 12 years before stepping down at the end of 2020. She also led the Fair Housing Commission, which addresses unfair and unsafe rental practices. During her tenure, she helped overhaul and expand the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance and Fair Housing Ordinance to add civil rights protections including wage equity, fair-chance hiring for people with criminal records, and reasonable accommodations for pregnant and breastfeeding women. Additionally, she strengthened protections for the LGBTQ community, along with renters and persons victimized by hate crimes.
“Rue Landau is among the fiercest advocates for civil rights and issues of social justice that I’ve had the pleasure of working with during my decades in city government,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement. “In her dual roles as executive director of both the PCHR and the FHC, she has helped shape and enforce some of our city’s most consequential anti-discrimination laws. Rue’s passion for her work is ever-present and will be missed by her colleagues in the Administration, on City Council, and at partner organizations outside of government.”
Landau is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Equal Justice Award from Community Legal Services (2020), the Cheryl Ingram Advocate for Justice Award from the Philadelphia Bar Association’s LGBT Rights Division (2019), the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award on behalf of the PCHR (2016), the Building Bridges, Opening Doors Award from HIAS PA (2010), and “Lawyer on the Fast Track” by The Legal Intelligencer (2006). She will join the faculty at Temple University Beasley School of Law for the spring semester teaching housing law.
Lovitz, a Senior Vice President at the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC), co-founded the voting initiative PhillyVoting.org in summer 2020. Because traditional advertising methods like handing out flyers were not available due to the pandemic, the initiative utilized contactless QR code technology to immediately connect residents to voting resources on their smartphone, tablet, or computer. Posters with QR codes were put in the windows of local businesses throughout Philadelphia. Volunteers also worked with Black-owned businesses in West Philadelphia to help spread voter awareness.
“Philadelphia’s greatest strengths are its diversity and its commitment to helping one another,” Lovitz told PGN. “It’s been incredibly heartening to work with community organizers focused on Black and LGBTQ+ voter engagement this cycle who are helping us get these digital resources to community centers, political clubs, schools, and businesses.”
According to exit polls by the Human Rights Campaign, 37% of voters in the general election had LGBTQ issues as a priority, an increase of 8% from the 2018 midterms. The increase in LGBTQ voter turnout and LGBTQ allies helped Joe Biden win election in battleground states including Pennsylvania.
Along with helping to turnout LGBTQ voters, Lovitz’ work with the NGLCC involves representing the 1.4 million LGBTQ business owners and the 1.7 trillion dollars those businesses add to the national economy. He also works with the NGLCC as a policy advocate to effect change at the federal, state and local levels.
“It’s important for the community to remember what our dollars can do to effect change,” Lovitz told PGN. “The LGBT consumer spends over $917 billion each year. That’s a lot of clout. Groups like NGLCC and locally the IBA (Independent Business Association) help to harness that power.”