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Pennsylvania is getting its first historical marker honoring a Latino or Latina person. Right outside Philadelphia City Hall, the marker will honor Gloria Casarez, a civil rights activist who advocated for the LGBTQ community, people of color, and people experiencing homelessness.
The honor is especially meaningful because tributes to Casarez, who was Philadelphia’s first LGBT Affairs director, have been repeatedly desecrated in the last year.
A mural of Casarez in the Gayborhood was abruptly painted over in January by a New York development company. A local queer artist’s subsequent homage to the activist was ripped down within 48 hours of installation.
“[Gloria’s mother] passed away in January of 2020. Had she been alive when that happened, I think it would’ve killed her,” said Linda Grieser, Casarez’s aunt. “That was awful. All I could think about was, man, I’m glad my sister is dead.”
Fortunately, newer tributes have survived, like a portrait of Casarez by local artist Symone Salib at the QTBIPOC org GALAEI. Casarez was the second executive director of the Philly nonprofit.
Now, it’ll be joined by one of Pennsylvania’s 2,500+ distinct historical markers. Installed during both Hispanic Heritage Month and LGBT History Month, the Casarez marker is part of a continued effort to diversify those honored by the blue and gold poles. In 2018, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission announced the Proactive Marker Initiative, meant to encourage nominations from underrepresented groups.
Nominated by people at the William Way LGBT Center, the marker honoring Casarez was approved by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission last year. Like everything else, it got pushed back.
“This feels important because of the incredible slap in the face that the community got with the tearing down of her mural,” said Elicia Gonzales, who worked with Casarez at both the Mazzoni Center and at GALAEI. “It feels really important that now there’s some sort of permanent structure where folks can go and pay respects and just remember the fight that she had in her.”
The tribute will be installed at City Hall on Friday at noon, as officials raise the building’s rainbow Pride flag — a tradition Casarez started more than a decade ago.
A 24/7 advocate
Casarez ushered in a new era for LGBTQ equality in Philadelphia. She helped found the Philly Dyke March and the homeless advocacy group Empty the Shelters. She worked as executive director at GALAEI before being appointed Philadelphia’s first director of the Office of LGBT Affairs.
She shepherded a comprehensive LGBTQ rights bill through City Council in 2013. With that bill, Philly became first in the U.S. to provide tax credits for companies that offered domestic partner and trans health care benefits.
Casarez’s lengthy list of accomplishments includes:
- Advocating for the removal of gender stickers on SEPTA transpasses
- Distributing an LGBTQ resource guide throughout Philadelphia public schools
- Lobbying for tighter anti-bullying policy that was adopted by the School Reform Commission in 2009
GALAEI founder David Acosta knew Casarez before all that, when she was just getting her feet wet as an activist in Philly. They first met in the mid-90s, during an Empty the Shelters demonstration on Lehigh Avenue.
“She had kind of cut her teeth on the streets,” said Acosta. “I found her very committed, very thoughtful, very smart, and a really good organizer. She had a lot of the skills that were the things I was looking for.”
Acosta eventually hired Casarez to take his job as executive director at GALAEI. He said she was especially dedicated to projects surrounding trans people and LGBTQ youth.
By the time Casarez worked at GALAEI, her aunt Grieser had moved across the country to California. When Grieser returned to the city for her father’s (Casarez’s grandfather’s) funeral, she said her niece would spend time with family in the evenings — and when everyone went to sleep, she’d head out to help her community.
“At night, she and some other people would go out and give out clean needles, so people wouldn’t get infected by dirty needles,” Grieser said. “She was working hard.”
Casarez married her wife in 2011. Just three years later, she died at 42 from breast cancer. Since then, an LGBTQ affordable housing center was named after her.
Gonzales hopes the new tribute galvanizes LGBTQ activists.
“We have so much work to do still. I don’t want the marker to be a replacement for that,” Gonzales said. “We can use it to remember the fight she had. As this fierce little person, she did all she could in her life to make our city a better place.”