Queer Women History Forgot: Gloria Casarez

The out lesbian Latina activist is immortalized in her hometown of Philadelphia.

For Women’s History Month, GO is celebrating LGBTQ women we wish we could have learned about in high school history class. 

Gloria Casarez was the first-ever director of the Mayor’s Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs in Philadelphia, Pa., and an activist in both the LGBTQ and Latino communities. A Philly native, Casarez was heavily involved in local politics and was a founding member of the Philadelphia Dyke March, as well as having served as the executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative.

While in college at West Chester University, Casarez studied political science and criminal justice. “At the time, I thought I was going to be a lawyer,” she told EPGN in 2010. “But I got really active in student government and activism on campus. I started learning about cities and how they worked and didn’t work and wanted to connect back to Philadelphia and do some community organizing.”

One of her first post-college campaigns was working on an anti-poverty/welfare-rights initiative that President Bill Clinton was behind, and Casarez helped start a national youth organization, Empty the Shelters. Later, she became a coordinator for the LGBT Center at the University of Pennsylvania before joining GALAEI, “where she dramatically increased resources and developed nationally recognized programs serving men of color and the transgender community from 1999 … until 2008.”

In 2009, Casarez was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer and began blogging about her experiences with chemo.  Two years later, she married her partner, Tricia Dressel, in Manhattan in 2011 three weeks after same-sex marriage became legal in New York State, and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter oversaw the commitment ceremony at their 10-year anniversary party that September, the first same-sex ceremony he would ever perform.

Despite her health issues, Casarez continued her community organizing efforts. She led the Philadelphia Latino community in saving La Milagrosa, Philly’s first Spanish-speaking church that Casarez’s great grandparents had helped to establish in the early 1900s. Before passing away in 2014, she spoke at the fifth annual City of Philadelphia LGBT History Month Celebration and Flag Raising Ceremony at City Hall. After her death, Mayor Nutter hosted a flag-lowering at the same location in her honor.

Activists like Gloria Casarez are beloved and necessary, and it’s not only our community who benefits from the work people like her have done. Casarez was a highly valuable asset to Philadelphia, and her legacy has surely inspired so many other LGBTQs, Latinos and women to demand equality, accessibility and visibility. She is now immortalized in a mural in Philadelphia’s First District which is located on a block of 12th street now officially named Gloria Casarez Way.

Photo by Mural Arts