Respect Equality

Deja Alvarez could be the nation’s first openly transgender, Latina state legislator

“Representation matters."
(Harrison Brink/ALDía News Via Getty Images)

Story at a glance

  • Deja Alvarez is a fixture in Philadelphia’s LGBTQ+ public health space, and she could soon be the first out transgender woman of color elected to a state legislature.

  • Alvarez, who currently serves as LGBTQ care coordinator with the city’s Health Department, has already overcome homelessness, hunger and survival sex work after being denied employment and housing as a transgender woman living in Philadelphia in the 1990s.

  • Alvarez is running for a state House seat currently held by outgoing Rep. Brian Sims (D), who in 2012 became the state’s first openly gay legislator.

If Deja Alvarez walks through the doors of Pennsylvania’s 275-foot tall state capitol in January, it could very well be the first time in the building’s — and the nation’s — 116-year history that an openly transgender woman of color has entered as a state lawmaker.

“Representation matters,” Alvarez told Changing America when asked why she had decided to run for an open seat in the state’s House of Representatives. That seat is currently held by outgoing Democratic Rep. Brian Sims, the state’s first openly gay legislator who early last year announced he would be running for lieutenant governor.

Sims in June endorsed Alvarez, who is running to represent Center City in Philadelphia. He told a crowd of supporters during her campaign launch, “If there is one thing I want in my future, I want to be represented by Representative Deja Lynn Alvarez.”

“The history that Deja is going to make as a candidate – as a proud, trans woman running for the House of Representatives in Pennsylvania – isn’t lost on any of us,” Sims said. “It is certainly not lost on me.”

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Alvarez joins a crowded race with three other Democratic candidates — Jonathan Lovitz, senior vice president of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce; Ben Waxman, a progressive policy advocate who heads a communications and public affairs consulting firm; and Will Gross, a business owner and committee person for Philadelphia’s 2nd Ward.

Alvarez said she had been toying with a legislative run for some time and finally decided to take the plunge after friends and colleagues told her they believed a voice like hers was needed in government.

But up until recently, Alvarez didn’t take them too seriously. 

“I would just laugh and brush it off,” she said. “I curse, I have a history, I’m open about who I am – my story is out there because I tell it all the time. In my head, I just thought there’s no way I could ever be in politics.”

Things changed after Alvarez helped launch a substance abuse recovery center and shelter for LGBTQ+ people in North Philadelphia, using relationships with city officials made through her other advocacy work to secure funding.

“I just kind of had that epiphany where I said, ‘This is the problem with politics.’ We have this notion in this country that you have to be from a certain background, from a certain family with a certain amount of money, with an education from an Ivy League school to make legislation that affects us and our bodies,” she said. “But they don’t have any of the lived experience to know what is actually best for us.”

Alvarez arrived in Philadelphia from Delaware, where she spent most of her childhood, in the early 1990s — a time when even fewer protections were guaranteed to transgender people. Employment opportunities were scarce and gender-based housing discrimination ran rampant.

To avoid being unhoused and hungry, Alvarez eventually turned to survival sex work.

“There was a lot of abuse there,” she said, particularly from law enforcement, who tormented her and other transgender women by routinely misgendering them in public, hurling transphobic slurs at them from their vehicles and arbitrarily arresting them even as they lived their everyday lives, she said.

“We couldn’t even walk down the street without being harassed by police,” Alvarez recalled. “We were targets every time they saw us. It didn’t matter if it was the middle of the day. It didn’t matter if it was at night, and we were just going to the bars like everybody else was doing. If the police saw us, we were targets.”

That abuse eventually culminated in a lawsuit Alvarez brought against the city after a physical altercation with an officer. Alvarez said she refused an initial settlement offer, telling lawyers, “this isn’t about the money.”

A second offer included an agreement that the police department begin sensitivity training with officers stationed in areas of the city with the largest concentration of LGBTQ+ people — one of which is now known as Philadelphia’s “Gayborhood.”

“That was a big deal at the time,” Alvarez said, noting that, at the time, while some parts of the city were seen as safe havens for gay people, transgender people had almost nowhere to turn.

After that, Alvarez was hired by Philadelphia’s Mazzoni Center, working 10 hours a week passing out condoms in neighborhoods with large numbers of LGBTQ+ people and sex workers. She quickly became a prominent LGBTQ+ public health advocate in the area and now works as an LGBTQ care coordinator with the city’s Health Department.

On top of that, Alvarez is an educator with the Transgender Training Institute and the Director of Community Engagement at World Healthcare Infrastructures, a Philadelphia nonprofit providing social services to people with HIV and AIDS.

Alvarez also co-chairs the LGBT Liaison Committee to the Philadelphia Police Department, which aims to facilitate better communication between the city’s LGBTQ+ population and law enforcement. Often, she works side-by-side with the same officers who harassed her 30 years ago.

One of them, who Alvarez referred to as her “single-biggest abuser” when she first moved to Philadelphia, is now an instrumental part of a food distribution program launched by Alvarez in 2020 to help feed struggling families affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s been this full-circle kind of thing,” she said. “That is proof that people can change. I always believe in second chances.”

But Alvarez recognizes that the same openness she extends to others isn’t likely to be wholly reciprocated if she wins her House race.

“It’s not easy,” she said. “I’ve walked into some of these spaces and I know I’m not welcome there. They don’t want me there, especially in politics.”

Recently, Pennsylvania House lawmakers passed legislation seeking to ban transgender women and girls from competing on school sports teams that match their gender identity. LGBTQ+ advocates have called the measure “doomed” because Gov. Tom Wolf (D) has signaled in the past that he does not support such legislation.

Alvarez said the state legislature — like others in introducing similar legislation — was in this case using transgender issues and women’s bodies as “political fodder.” But she added that she’d still like to work with the same legislators who backed the bill if she makes it to Harrisburg.

“I don’t have to agree with what you did. We can disagree on a lot of issues,” she said, “but if there’s one issue that we need to address that will benefit people and you and I can work together on that issue – we have to put our differences aside and we have to work.”

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