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Pennsylvania gets its first historical marker honoring a Latino or Latina person. Just outside Philadelphia City Hall, the marker will honor Gloria Casarez, a civil rights activist who has championed the LGBTQ community, people of color and people who are homeless.

The honor is particularly significant as the tributes to Casarez, who served as Philadelphia’s first LGBT director, have been repeatedly desecrated over the past year.

A mural of Casarez in the Gayborhood was brutally repainted in January by a New York City development company. A local queer artist’s subsequent tribute to the activist was ripped off within 48 hours of installation.

“[Gloria’s mother] passed away in January 2020. If she had been alive when this happened, I think it would have killed her, ”said Linda Grieser, Casarez’s aunt. ” It was awful. All I could think of was, man, I’m glad my sister was dead.

Fortunately, new tributes have survived, such as a portrait of Casarez by local artist Symone Salib at the LGBTQ Latinx organization GALAEI. Casarez was the second executive director of the nonprofit Philly.

Now he will be joined by one of Pennsylvania’s 2,500+ distinct historical markers. Installed during Hispanic Heritage Month and LGBT History Month, the Casarez marker is part of an ongoing effort to diversify those honored by the Blue and Gold Poles. In 2018, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission announced the Proactive Marker Initiative, intended to encourage applications from under-represented groups.

Named by people from the William Way LGBT Center, the marker honoring Casarez was approved by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission last year. Like everything else, he was pushed back.

“It seems important because of the incredible slap the community received with the dismantling of their mural,” said Elicia Gonzales, who worked with Casarez at the Mazzoni Center and GALAEI. “It’s really important that there is now some kind of permanent structure where people can go to pay homage and remember the fight she had in her.”

The tribute will be installed at town hall on Friday at noon, as officials raise the building’s rainbow pride flag – a tradition Casarez began more than a decade ago.

Kimberly Paynter / WHY

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 an executive director at GALAEI before being appointed the first director of the Office of LGBT Affairs in Philadelphia.

She led a comprehensive LGBTQ rights bill through city council in 2013. With this bill, Philly became the first in the United States to provide tax credits to businesses that provided benefits to individuals. national partners and trans people.

Casarez’s long list of accomplishments includes:

  • Advocacy for the removal of gender stickers on SEPTA transpasses
  • Distributing an LGBTQ Resource Guide to Philadelphia Public Schools
  • Lobbying for a stricter anti-bullying policy which was adopted by the School Reform Commission in 2009

GALAEI founder David Acosta knew Casarez before all this, when she was just starting to get her feet wet as an activist in Philly. They first met in the mid-90s, at an Empty the Shelters protest on Lehigh Avenue.

“She kind of cut her teeth on the streets,” Acosta said. “I found her to be very committed, very thoughtful, very intelligent and a very good organizer. She had a lot of the skills that I was looking for.

Acosta eventually hired Casarez to take his position as Executive Director of GALAEI. He said she was particularly dedicated to projects involving trans people and LGBTQ youth.

By the time Casarez was working at GALAEI, his aunt Grieser had moved across the country to California. When Grieser came back to town for the funeral of her father (Casarez’s grandfather), she said her niece would spend time with her family in the evenings – and when everyone fell asleep she would go and help her community. .

“At night, she and other people would go out and distribute clean needles, so people wouldn’t get infected with dirty needles,” Grieser said. “She was working hard.”

Casarez married his wife in 2011. Just three years later, she died at age 45 from breast cancer. Since then, an affordable LGBTQ housing center has been named after him.

Gonzales hopes the new tribute galvanizes LGBTQ activists.

“We still have so much work to do. I don’t want the marker to replace that, ”Gonzales said. “We can use it to remember the fight she had. As a fierce little person, she did all she could in her life to make our city a better place.