Queer-Sighted

Gloria Casarez puts the fair in LGBT affairs.

By Chip Alfred
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 5, 2010

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It’s a rainy August night at Citizens Bank Park just a few minutes before the Phillies take on the Astros. Thousands of fans watch as a petite brunette sporting a Phillies jersey steps up to the pitcher’s mound and prepares to throw the first pitch.

It’s the ninth annual Gay Community Night at the Phillies, and the woman on the field is Gloria Casarez, Philadelphia’s first director of the Office of LGBT Affairs, appointed by Mayor Nutter in 2008.

Casarez, considered by many the face of Philly’s queer community, trained for weeks to throw the pitch in front of friends, family, the Phillies and more than 1,000 LGBT fans.

“How could I not take it seriously?” says the North Philly native. “I viewed so many YouTube videos of first pitches gone wrong.”

Casarez throws the ball. The crowd roars.

Directing LGBT Affairs is no cushy 9-to-5.

On a typical day, Casarez might be planning an LGBT senior summit, assisting a merchant with a city-service issue, coordinating an LGBT History Month event, meeting with youth advisors to address bullying in city schools or throwing the opening pitch of a Phillies game. “I staff an office of one,” Casarez says. “So it’s a little bit of everything.”

The Office of LGBT Affairs, which includes Casarez and a volunteer advisory board, keeps the mayor and city government informed of the needs of LGBT residents and protects them from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The job entails getting the necessary parties together to advance pro-LGBT legislation and keeping the community’s issues in the public eye—ensuring a voice to the voiceless. “I bring to City Hall that commitment to getting people around the table, to working it out, fighting it out,” says Casarez. “We have to.”

Casarez sees her job as making sure the lives of LGBT people are reflected in the city’s practices. “Our work is not completely understood and, in some cases, not particularly welcomed,” she explains. Casarez addresses the key issues facing the queer community. Whatever the issue may be—discrimination, bullying, hate crimes, homeless youth, marriage equality—Casarez is the one who brings clusters of people and organizations together to assess the problem and develop a plan to solve it.

“We have policies that are inclusive. Where we get jammed up sometimes is when the city has no procedures in place to back up the policies, or when people don’t know what the city’s values and beliefs are, they’ll go with their own beliefs,” she says. “We can’t perpetuate the notion that being inclusive and being equitable are nice things to do. Equity isn’t nice. Equity is what’s right.” 

Casarez’s fighting spirit goes back 15 years. During the mid to late ’90s, she was the program coordinator for Penn’s LGBT Center, where she developed a student-mentoring program and initiated safe spaces for LGBT students of color, transgender students and queer women. Casarez also co-founded Empty the Shelters, a nonprofit anti-poverty organization in which she lobbied against anti-poor legislation and worked on affordable housing and homeless initiatives.

In 1997, Casarez was named youth programs director for the Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative, the primary organization in the city providing HIV prevention and care services to LGBT Latinos. Two years later, at the age of 27, she was promoted to executive director. Under her leadership, GALAEI provided Philly’s first mobile HIV testing centers to neighborhoods throughout the city. She also developed the Trans-health Information Project—the city’s first multi-service transgender health program.

Casarez continued her work with the organization for nine more years before accepting the job with the Mayor’s Office. Along the way, she earned a reputation as a fierce, outspoken activist.

“She kicks ass,” says Elicia Gonzales, who succeeded Casarez at GALAEI. “Gloria is a woman dedicated to standing up for what she believes in and for fighting with all of her might.”

“Gloria built her career as a tireless and effective advocate for the most vulnerable members of the city,” says Perry Monastero, director of development and marketing for the Mazzoni Center. “She is known for her work to build support for people of color, low-income individuals and families, and especially the LGBT community.”

While Casarez calls her position with the Mayor’s Office her “dream job,” she’s felt her share of frustration. She concedes that Philly’s economic crisis has altered the focus of the position a bit. “I didn’t think that two months into the job the mayor would be giving speeches about the bottom falling out on every level,” says Casarez. “A big part of my job became working to ensure the sky wouldn’t fall on top of it.”

Funding was slashed completely for a number of LGBT organizations. Program grants that were promised had to be rescinded. City workers, including Casarez, took pay cuts. Many discussions with community leaders ended with the question: “How can we implement this project with no money?”

Besides more funding, Casarez says, “We need more voices. We need to see reflective leadership and real diversity in the city leading us.” She also emphasizes the need for more data about Philly’s LGBT community: more details about its demographics, where we live, how we live, what we do and what we need. “Anything we do here needs to be evidence-based,” she says. “We need to know more about who we are.”

Despite this lack of funding, resources and even a battle with breast cancer last spring, Casarez’s passion is evident as ever.

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