Pennsylvania’s 182nd House District is a storied piece of land in the center of Philadelphia, home to several corporate headquarters, City Hall, and Philly’s gayborhood. It was the first district in the state to elect an out representative, Brian Sims, a gay man who was first elected in 2012. Now that Sims is vacating the seat to run for lieutenant governor, four candidates are running in next Tuesday’s Democratic primary to replace him — a transgender woman, a gay man, and two straight cisgender men who identify as allies. There is one candidate in the Republican primary, but since the district is heavily Democratic, the winner of that party’s primary is very likely to win the seat in November. Today The Advocate offers interviews with the trans candidate, Deja Lynn Alvarez (below), and the gay competitor, Jonathan D. Lovitz (here).
“For far too long, we have had people elected into office who don’t have the lived experience of the people affected by the legislation that’s created,” says Deja Lynn Alvarez.
Alvarez is out to change that. She is running for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in the 182nd District, located in the center of Philadelphia. She and three other Democrats (and one Republican) are vying to succeed Brian Sims, the gay man who made history as Pennsylvania’s first out state legislator and who is now running for lieutenant governor. Alvarez would make history of her own, as the first transgender Latina state lawmaker in the U.S.
“I decided that we needed a voice,” she says of her decision to run. “We need to be at every table where legislation is being discussed.”
She laments the current assaults on trans rights and LGBTQ+ rights in general, plus the likely undermining of reproductive freedom at the hands of the Supreme Court. “What is happening today is the culmination of only white men running things,” she says.
Alvarez, 50, asserts that her experience makes her the best candidate in the Democratic primary race, which includes gay man Jonathan D. Lovitz and two straight cisgender men, Ben Waxman and Will Gross, both of whom identify as allies to the LGBTQ+ community. One candidate, Albert Robles, is running in the Republican primary, but the district is so heavily Democratic that the victor in the Democratic primary is pretty much assured of winning the general election in November.
Alvarez was born in Chicago, moved to Delaware as a child, and has been in Philadelphia since the late 1980s-early ’90s. “Philadelphia was the first place I came to where I saw somebody like me. … There were other people who looked like me, trans people and a lot of gay people,” she says. “I just kind of knew Philadelphia was going to be home.”
Her experience of Philly wasn’t always positive, though. She was homeless for a time, and she and her friends faced harassment by police. “One night I had just had enough,” she recalls. She and a friend had left a bar and were waiting for a taxi when a police officer call then “effing animals,” she says.
That incident, about 20 years ago, led her to a career in activism. She began advocating for sensitivity training for officers in the gayborhood, and with the help of publicity and a lawsuit she and her friend filed, that training became a reality and has improved the situation greatly, she says. An officer who was one of her worst abusers is now one of the biggest community allies, she notes.
She has been a leader of several LGBTQ+ organizations and other activist groups, including Mayor Jim Kenney’s Commission on LGBT Affairs, the Philadelphia Office of LGBT Affairs, and Liberty City LGBTQ Democratic Club. She is a former cochair of the city’s annual Trans March and cofounder and director of its first LGBTQ-specific shelter and recovery facility, the LGBTQ Home for Hope.
She is currently president of the Women’s March on Philadelphia, on the board of directors of the William Way Community Center, chairwoman of the Philadelphia Police Liaison Committee, and chairwoman for International Trans Day of Remembrance. She is one of the founding members of the Trans Wellness Program at Mazzoni Center, a cofounder and former facilitator of Sisterly Love (a support and skill-building program run by and for transgender women), and a former coordinator for the Trans Information Project of Galaei, an organization serving LGBTQ+ people of color. She was recently appointed to the task force to create an LGBTQ Advisory Board for the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.
Professionally, Alvarez is director of community engagement for World Healthcare Infrastructures and the LGBTQ care coordinator for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.
If she is elected, she says, her priorities will include improving economic opportunities and public education, making health care more widely available, addressing climate change and gun violence, and “absolutely” advocating for LGBTQ+ rights — Pennsylvania has no state law banning anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination. She’s also looking forward to meeting other state legislators, building relationships, and determining what issues they can form coalitions around, she says.
Alvarez has received several high-profile endorsements, including those of the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund, Latino Victory Fund, Emily’s List, several labor unions, and Sims himself. Find out more about her campaign here.