After a gay couple was attacked by a group of people in Center City last fall, Philadelphia responded largely with disgust as public figures declared that this type of behavior is wholly unacceptable. The incident got tons of press and even more attention from city leaders and lawmakers.
A year before, a transgender woman of color named Diamond Williams was brutally murdered and dismembered in Strawberry Mansion, and her alleged killer is still awaiting trial. Her remains were claimed just a few weeks ago. The slaying received far less attention.
These are some of the problems that Nellie Fitzpatrick aims to change. As the director and sole employee of Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs, Fitzpatrick says she serves as a neutral adviser, an educator and as someone who can empower the LGBT community in Philadelphia.
“There is a need for systemic change,” Fitzpatrick said. “So where else is that sort of cultural, institutional, government-led change going to happen? This is the type of office that truly every city should have to help direct that change.”
This Tuesday when you head to the polls to vote, you’ll see the Office of LGBT Affairs on the ballot. It was established in 2008 under executive order by Mayor Michael Nutter, and was approved as a permanent fixture of city government by City Council in May. To formalize its permanency, voters have to approve a change to the city’s Home Rule Charter.
What that means for the city? It would continue paying the office’s only cost: The $90,000 a year salary of Fitzpatrick, or whomever the director of the office may be. That person is appointed by the mayor. It would also mean that Philadelphia would be one of the first cities to have such an office. Many large cities have LGBT liaisons employed in city government, but the only other city with a formalized office is Washington, D.C.
The point of the office, as Fitzpatrick says, isn’t to be a finger-pointing watchdog, but rather a tool and a resource for city agencies, organizations, residents and visitors. Fitzpatrick says she’d like to think that one day there won’t be a need for such an office — but for now, she says, it’s necessary.
“In 50 years, do I think we will be in a place where we’re going from having trans women of color murdered to them being able to run for mayor, if they want? I don’t know,” Fitzpatrick said. “I’d like to hope so. I’m damn sure gonna try. That’s the very reason why this office is so important.”
Here’s a look at some of what the office has accomplished:
Police training – The office trains every class of police cadets in Directive 152, which Fitzpatrick helped to create while working as a prosecutor in the Office of the District Attorney. The directive lays out exactly what officers are to do when they encounter a transgender person, whether the individual is a victim or an alleged perpetrator. Fitzpatrick said she also works to get that directive into the hands of transgender individuals so they know what to expect if they encounter an officer.
Recruitment – Fitzpatrick said the office works to distribute and make public information about joining the police force to members of the LGBT community. The idea is that the force should reflect the LGBT community within its own ranks. She also works with officers wrestling with coming out as well as diffuses issues that may arise when an officer does.
Working with attorneys – The office consults district attorneys and defense attorneys on a case-by-case basis to ensure victims of crime and people who have been charged with crimes are met with respect and provided appropriate services.
Prisons – Fitzpatrick also sits on the board of the Philadelphia prison system, and there works to advocate for further programming regarding the high rate of incarceration and recidivism within the LGBT community.
Shelters – Fitzpatrick is working to visit every homeless shelter in the city to ensure LGBT community members are able to access sheltering that is available. She said this is important to note especially for transgender individuals who may be turned away from gendered shelters because of discrepancies in their gender assigned at birth and the gender they identify as.
Training and mentoring – The office offers adult literacy, job training, mentoring and support systems for transgender individuals moving out of homelessness and into jobs and security.
Schools – The office offers training and works closely with schools in the city as they develop strategies and ways to protect LGBT youth, especially from discrimination and bullying. It also offers resources for teachers and administrators in how to deal with issues that can arise when working with LGBT students.
Youth homelessness – While LGBT youth make up about 5 to 8 percent of the youth population, nationally they make up 40 percent of the homeless population. In Philadelphia, that number rises to 54 percent. Fitzpatrick said that in addition to on-the-ground work being done to locate these youth and reach out to them with resources, she’s also urging city government and policymakers to guide their neighborhoods in embracing LGBT children.
“Opportunity for youth is tremendous,” she said. “It’s about getting youth from where they are or homeless to positions where they understand they are just as capable and brilliant and beautiful as any other kid.”
Violence – Nationally, transgender individuals — specifically trans women of color — face staggering rates of violence. (You can read more about how often it occurs in Philadelphia here.) Fitzpatrick says that while nationally, something needs to change combat the violence, Philadelphia can lead in creating housing and employment opportunities that represent the transgender community. “Government is what lays the tracks for pushing society forward,” she said.
Education – Fitzpatrick trains nearly every city agency in working with transgender individuals, in addition to outreach with community groups, organizations, schools, universities and other entities to ensure transgender people are met with dignity throughout the city.
Businesses – Fitzpatrick the office works to engage businesses and corporations to train top leaders, especially with regard to transgender individuals and the discrimination they can often face while job seeking and maintaing employment.
Seniors – The office works closely with seniors and senior centers to ensure older LGBT residents are met with understanding in housing, healthcare and other facets.
Immigration – Fitzpatrick offers outreach to the growing immigrant community in Philadelphia and works with LGBT individuals making their way through related processes.