Gloria Casarez was a lifelong activist and political force in the Philadelphia area before losing her battle with cancer at the age of 42. She began her career passionately advocating for social justice issues as a college student at West Chester University where she served as President of the Latino Student Union and a representative to the Commission on the Status of Women, a network of students from state universities examining women’s issues on campus. During that time Casarez also helped found Empty the Shelters, a national housing rights and economic justice organization that staged marches and protests, engaged in voter registration, and created a street newspaper to tackle homelessness in Philadelphia.
After graduation, she was hired as coordinator for the LGBT Center at the University of Pennsylvania and then as executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Latin@ AIDS Education Initiative [GALAEI] in Philadelphia, where she dramatically increased resources and developed nationally recognized programs serving men of color and the transgender community from 1999-2008.
Casarez went on to become Philadelphia’s first director of LGBT affairs in 2008, and proved a prolific leader, focusing specifically on LGBT-inclusivity in policymaking and the practices of city agencies. Casarez continued to address housing rights by creating a LGBTQ homeless youth committee in collaboration with Project HOME. She was among the coalition of community and city leaders who began meeting in her inaugural year as director to discuss reforms to city policies that ultimately resulted in a landmark 2013 LGBT-rights bill which offered first-in-the-nation tax credits for companies providing domestic-partner and transgender-health benefits, and it revamped a significant number of trans-related policies. Casarez was a key figure in the overhaul of the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance and pressed for legislation to mandate that some city contractors offer domestic-partner benefits.
Community organizing was a natural extension of Caserez’s work in city politics. In 1998, she helped initiate the first Philly Dyke March. She engaged in LGBT advocacy at the grassroots level in sectors of policing, tourism, elder engagement and justice for LGBT victims, particularly transwomen of color who have been murdered in Philadelphia–Nizah Morris, Kyra Cordova, Stacey Blahnik and Diamond Williams–and in 2012, she read the city’s first-ever proclamation in observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Casarez was honored with a Community Service Award from the NAACP, the Kiyoshi Kuromiya Award for Justice from Philadelphia FIGHT, the Cheryl Ingram Advocate for Justice Award from the Philadelphia Bar Association, the Hero Award from the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund and the David Acosta Revolutionary Leader Award in 2013 by the Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative. Metropolitan Community Church presented Casarez with the Patron of Humanity Award at their 40th Anniversary Convocation Service held in Philadelphia. Dignity USA honored Casarez with a Community Service Award in 2010.
In 2015, a mural dedicated to Casarez was unveiled at the 12th Street Gym.