2023 People of the Year: Honorable Mentions

Clockwise from top left: Tyrell Brown, Chesley Lightsey, Moms for Liberty protestors and trans youth activists.
Clockwise from top left: Tyrell Brown, Chesley Lightsey, Moms for Liberty protestors and trans youth activists.

Each December, Philadelphia Gay News honors various noteworthy people of the year who have made meaningful contributions to advance the community. This year’s winner of Person of the Year is Rue Landau — the first openly queer member of Philadelphia City Council. PGN is also recognizing Tyrell Brown — the executive director of galaei — and Chesley Lightsey — a newly elected judge — as well as two collectives: the protesters who organized actions against Moms for Liberty and trans youth who held a walkout to advocate for trans rights. PGN appreciates their work as leaders, activists and role models in the community.

Tyrell Brown

Tyrell Brown was appointed Executive Director of galaei earlier this year. In this role, Brown, who is nonbinary and queer, organized the city’s first OURfest as part of galaei’s Pride 365 initiative. Brown is centered on the word “expansiveness,” explaining that they hope to continue to improve access to resources. This includes basic necessities, such as fresh food and gender-affirming clothes, but also educational and wellness programs and more opportunities to connect with self expression and community.

Brown continually uses their skills to improve the lives of others. For instance, Brown is a former preschool teacher and camp director who co-developed the children’s programming for the Philadelphia Trans Wellness Conference. They also organized for the Bernie Sanders campaign efforts and have participated in a variety of mutual aid projects.

But they said they’re most proud of accomplishments most people wouldn’t notice — the kind that come with personal growth.

“In my teen years, I had a desire to express myself,” they said. “But I learned very quickly that there are barriers to how one could do that in the ’90s — especially as a young, Black queer person.” Brown explained that they felt “under siege” during their youth, challenged by the constraints of authoritative norms, before deciding to become the authority of their own.

“I worked on transforming myself, because the revolution starts from within,” Brown added, noting that this year they learned to lead with compassion and love — for themself and others — as a primary goal in their new role.

“I’ve organized out of fear. I ran for office out of fear,” they said, adding that they remind themself, their staff, and their community members — especially youth, “You don’t have to fight anymore.”

“Part of being an organizer is being mission driven — giving your life’s work to the service of others,” they said. “So I wake up every day and think about how to make things better.” They want galaei to exist as a space to “create and expand, to share with compassion, to experience the support and love [community members] may not have experienced in other places.”

“I already am a space of love and compassion,” explained Brown, who embodies that message as they pursue their work at galaei. They want community members to feel this way about themselves as well.

Chesley Lightsey

Chesley Lightsey (Photo via Facebook)

Judge Chesley Lightsey, who previously served in the role of assistant district attorney, was elected to the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas. She’s serving the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, which encompasses Philadelphia County, in the Criminal Division.

“Folks who are queer sometimes don’t feel super comfortable with the system or feel they’ll be treated fairly,” she acknowledged. “And I think it’s really important that there are people on the bench who [not only] have a wide breadth of knowledge about criminal law but also of the folks who are appearing before them.”

In the past, she has seen people snicker or behave disrespectfully towards trans people in court. She underlined, “As a judge, that won’t happen in my courtroom.” She’s setting a new precedent with her leadership. She notes that her punctuality is key to the way she’s showing up to respect people — because she understands the burden of missing work, organizing childcare, and navigating other hurdles to be present in court.

Although over a dozen openly queer judges have served Philadelphia, Lightsey is one of the first to run a campaign that openly included her LGBTQ+ identity, and she spoke freely about her family as she pursued the election. 

“Running as an out candidate — I really feel proud of that,” she said.

Taking on this new role requires that Lightsey refrain from advocating or commenting on political issues — including matters relevant to queer justice — but by continuing to be out in all aspects of her life and by hiring queer staff members, she’s advancing LGBTQ+ visibility.

Lightsey is also on the board of directors for the LGBTQ+ Bar Association, which recently honored her with the Michael Greenberg Award — which Lightsey described as similar to a lifetime achievement award. She said this is her biggest accomplishment of the year.

In her community, Lightsey is a youth baseball coach. As someone who grew up deeply connected to a church community, it was important to Lightsey that her children be given those same opportunities for community and spiritual development. She serves on the vestry of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where her family has attended for many years.


Moms for Liberty Protesters

Attendees at a press conference held by Grandparents For Truth, a project of People For the American Way, on June 30 at 12th and Market.

Moms for Liberty — the right-wing organization known for infiltrating school boards to ban books and promote anti-LGBTQ+ policies — came to Philadelphia for their national summit this year, and activists gathered together to show them they weren’t welcome.

At first, concerned Philadelphians urged the Marriott and the Museum for the American Revolution — where the group found lodging and space for their events — not to host them, but those businesses weren’t responsive. 

“When we realized no matter what, they were coming anyway, we decided we would show them resistance through joy,” said Jazmyn Henderson, an ACT UP organizer who helped to plan a dance party outside of the museum during Moms for Liberty events.

“When you’re always angry and all you’ve got is that anger, but the other people don’t really care that you’re angry anyway, you can do yourself more damage than what you’re healing,” Henderson explained. “The dance party evolved from that.”

Continued protests were organized by ACT UP and other advocacy groups, leading to a full weekend of direct actions in response to the summit. Agenda PAC, an organization that aims to hold anti-LGBTQ+ politicians and electoral groups accountable, placed door handers on the handles of Marriott guest rooms. The door hangers read, “Did you know a designated hate group is staying at this hotel?” with a QR code to find more information about Moms for Liberty.

Other efforts included rallies with children’s activities and the placement of trans Pride flags on light poles in front of the hotel by the city. Philadelphia’s response to the summit raised awareness about the organization, which Henderson said had been “silently taking over school boards around the country.” She added, “Before anyone even knew what was happening, they were already influencing their communities.”

“We showed people around the country that there are ways to fight back against them,” she said. 

Moms for Liberty lost their foothold in the November 2023 elections. 

“The light we shed on them with the work other people were doing around the country was instrumental to that,” said Henderson, who acknowledged that the victory doesn’t mean the group or others like it are going away.

Candidates endorsed by Moms for Liberty still serve on four school boards in New Jersey and include a state assemblyman. In Pennsylvania, six school boards have embraced Moms for Liberty candidates, including three school board directors. Three state representatives are endorsed by the group as well.

But official endorsements do not necessarily reflect the influence of their ideology, and Henderson also worries about the impact of other right-wing efforts, including Project 2025 — a policy plan for conservative politicians.

“I think we’re going to have to take new tactics in the future,” she said, explaining that protesters will have to be more active and consistent to disrupt their influence. “While we can still be joyful, we’re going to have to be a little more militant — no matter what danger that puts us in — because it’s the only way to be free.”

Trans students and their allies marching around City Hall. (Photo by Jason Villemez)

Trans Youth Activists

On April 25, 2023, Philadelphia youth left their schools and took to the streets to participate in a planned walkout to advocate for trans rights. Wes Allen, one of the organizers of the event, said, “My main goal for the protest was to spread awareness about the 400+ anti-trans and anti-queer bills that have been introduced across the county,” including bills 138, 216 and 319 in Pennsylvania.

Allen, who initially worried the walkout wouldn’t be a success, received help from classmates and students from across the city — and by a social studies teacher who gave them time during class to plan the event. Organizing the walkout helped Allen learn about the power of community and develop more confidence in their ability to make a difference. 

“I couldn’t have done it without all that help,” said Allen, who learned that even the seemingly smallest contributions to organizing efforts make a big difference.

The event had an intergenerational impact. 

“I noticed a shift in teachers and staff and their attitudes towards trans students to be more curious and wanting to be more understanding and accepting,” said Allen, who is gender queer and was a senior in high school at the time. “I think the walkout really opened their eyes.”

Allen also observed an increase of older activists (who they typically saw at rallies for other issues, such as climate change) participate in more queer-centered activism. Allen even received an email from a Bucks County teacher whose 4th graders organized a walk around their own school to support trans rights.

Ben Ace, a trans man in his mid-20s, attended the walkout to support younger trans people. 

“Colleges — a lot of the time — don’t have queer history courses,” said Ace, who is a digital artist, so he took photos of the event for a class project. He’s thankful to have attended high school before trans inclusion and affirmation was so hotly debated.

After the walkout, he paid close attention to adult reactions. Many supporters exclaimed, “The kids are all right!” But Ace underlined, “I would argue that the kids are not all right. That’s why they’re here asking for help.”

“I feel we have a responsibility to the youth to listen when they’re calling for protection,” he added, highlighting that it’s the role of adults — who have the ability to respond with tangible action — to use their power.

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