Philadelphia celebrates Trans Day of Visibility today, an international holiday to highlight transpeople, their experiences and the issues that affect them. Yesterday, City Council adopted a resolution to observe it.
Since today is also the last day of Women’s History Month, we decided to delve into the city’s trans history to find some of the pathbreaking local women who’ve left a mark or are forging one.
Our list comes courtesy of Sharron Cooks, chair of the Mayor’s Commission on LGBT Affairs; Christian Lovehall, co-coordinator of GALAEI’s (formerly the Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative) Trans-Health Information Project; and Elisabeth Flynn, a spokeswoman at the Mazzoni Center. They’ve highlighted women who’ve achieved a long list of accomplishments, only a few of which we’ve related here. Philadelphia’s trans community continues to produce tireless champions who work full-time jobs, serve on several boards and make a point to nurture other transpeople in their spare time. The history of transwomen in Philly is filled with examples of this, and their legacy stands clear even though this history has been deeply under-reported.
Here are 10 women who have made Philly trans history:
Nizah Morris was a beloved figure. She was a weekly performer at Bob and Barbara’s. She founded a trans Buddhist faith group, something that drew national attention. She mentored younger transwomen in the city and had a way with them. “A lot of the younger girls in the trans community, Nizah was always so sweet to them,” trans advocate Deja Lynn Alvarez told the Daily Beast. (More on her in a bit.) Morris died in 2002 under suspicious circumstances after accepting a courtesy ride to the hospital from police, and was later found on the sidewalk with a severe head wound. The Police Department’s and District Attorney’s Office’s handling of her case— her homicide report was missing for nearly a decade; the case remains unsolved— has been widely criticized.
Philly Pride’s OutProud Awards honor a local transperson each year: That award is named after Jaci Adams. She was an indefatigable AIDS and transgender health advocate. Her turnaround was oft-written about: an abused child runaway, she lived on the streets as a young woman before developing into an activist. She told the Philadelphia Gay News that it was Morris’ death that inspired her to start speaking up: “I had an ‘aha’ moment and decided that instead of being angry, maybe a career criminal like me could use that familiarity with the cops to slither in and become part of the solution.” She died of cancer in 2014.
This notable transwoman hails from the United Kingdom, but is a Penn alumna who’s pushed for trans issues in Philadelphia for decades. She’s a biologist but lends her voice to several boards and groups, as well as writing editorials that illuminate trans experiences in the city. According to her bio for NewsWorks, where she’s been a contributing writer, her activism goes back to the ’60s with Gay Liberation Front and Civil Rights Movement. In recent years, she’s been outspoken on the nuances of transgender aging.
Kathleen Padilla has fought for transpeople politically both locally and nationally. She was a founding board member of the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition. She was a DNC delegate for Pennsylvania in 2004. She played a key role making transgender protections city law in 2002, and then again was a driving force behind Philly’s 2013 LGBTQ rights legislation, sponsored by then-City Councilman Jim Kenney, which is one of the broadest LGBTQ rights laws in the country. She’s also served on a number of boards and advisory committees. She’s currently the director of the Office of Business Diversity at the Philadelphia Airport.
Deja Lynn Alvarez
Deja Lynn Alvarez has been called a hero. She’s the founding director of Home for Hope, a shelter for LGBTQ people. Transpeople experience homelessness at higher percentages, research shows, and face discrimination seeking services. “Going to other shelters and such, you are oftentimes just turned away at the door if you’re trans,” Alvarez explained to NewsWorks last year. Alvarez has received accolades for the work at the shelter, but even before that, she had been longtime activist in the city and previously worked with the Trans-Health Information Project. In addition to her responsibilities at Home for Hope, she works for the city Department of Public Health connecting LGBTQ individuals to medical resources.
Last year, Sharron Cooks made national news for being the only black transwoman serving as a DNC delegate. She started her own business, Making Our Lives Easier, a consultancy firm that provides resources, advising and advocacy, turning her struggles finding traditional employment into serving as an example for self-made women. Her work focuses on transwomen of color, but encompasses other marginalized groups. Yesterday, Philly Mag reported that Cooks has been elected the chair of the Mayor’s Commission on LGBT Affairs, making her the first transperson to head a city commission.
Stacey Blahnik wasn’t just influential in the ball scene; she was the mother of the House of Blahnik, which had 115 members at the time of her death, per a Philadelphia Gay News report. Robert Burns, the then-executive director of local black LGBT health organization COLOURS, explained to the paper that Blahnik touched many lives, “not just to those in our house, but to those in the entire ballroom community and even those who are not a part of the ballroom house culture, with the extent of the relationships and the support she provided. She was a mother figure to a lot of young people, particularly for many of our transwomen of color here in Philadelphia.” She was discovered strangled to death in her own apartment in 2010, a case that also remains unsolved.
Charlene Arcila also inspired a named award for transpeople, an honor bestowed by the Mazzoni Center. Arcila, a Mississippi native, made history in Philly when she founded the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference in 2000. She was an ordained minister, and served as a deaconess at the Unity Fellowship of Christ Church. It’s because of her that SEPTA no longer applies gender markers to transpasses. In an interview conducted months before her death to TransFaith, she cited a bible verse to explain her mission as someone who fought for trans rights. The verse was Isaiah 56:5: “I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name, better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”
Naiymah Sanchez is the transgender advocacy coordinator for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. Her activist cap bears many feathers. Earlier this year, she was the host committee co-chair of Creating Change, the National LGBTQ Task Force’s annual conference. Sanchez also worked at the Trans-Health Information Project. She’s passionate about Prison Rape Elimination Act compliance, a federal law that she’s championed locally.
Two years ago, school officials at Boys Latin of Philadelphia Charter School wouldn’t accept her gender identity, Hazel Edwards has said, an experience that influenced her to drop out. Seventy-five percent of trans students say they feel unsafe at school, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. While 83 percent of teachers, per a Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) survey, say that creating safe environments for LGBTQ students is a responsibility of theirs, half admitted they hadn’t provided that support. Edwards didn’t leave the issue alone after leaving school. She worked on the School District’s trans and non-gender conforming policy, which was officially adopted last year.