In a little over a year’s time, Philly’s Deja Alvarez could disrupt the status quo in Harrisburg in a big way.
Not only would she bring a rare public health background to Harrisburg at a time when the state is still trying to crawl its way out of a pandemic, but Alvarez would also be the first transgender Latina Pennsylvanian ever elected to the General Assembly.
If her history-making campaign for the 182nd House District proves successful, Alvarez plans to bring a fresh voice and new perspectives to a legislative body that, she says, is in desperate need of a new outlook on how to craft policy.
Alvarez is open about her past. She came to Philadelphia in the early 1990s and had to scrap her way through personal struggles.
“I'm someone that has experienced a lot of what people talk about in the city. I've experienced homelessness. I've experienced drug use and all the other things that come with being someone who didn't have access to resources,” Alvarez told City & State. “Back then, nobody was really hiring transgender people, so my life wasn't always easy. I think that gives me a different perspective than most politicians that we usually see, because I tell people I'm not really a politician. I'm just someone that ended up getting into politics.”
Alvarez currently works as the director of community engagement at World Healthcare Infrastructures, a Philadelphia nonprofit focused on providing food, social services and health care to those with HIV/AIDS. She is also an LGBTQ care coordinator for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, co-president of the Women’s March on Philadelphia and a trainer and educator for the city’s Transgender Training Institute.
And while Alvarez has served on several Philadelphia-based panels, including the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office’s LGBTQ Advisory Board and Mayor Jim Kenney’s Commission of LGBT Affairs, she has her sights set higher – on Harrisburg. She’s looking to replace outgoing state Rep. Brian Sims (known for his own historic election as the first openly gay man elected to the state House of Representatives) and bring her own dedication to LGBTQ issues to the state level.
Alvarez never intended to get into politics; but realized that her advocacy work frequently overlapped with public policy. After initially thinking she didn’t fit the mold for public office, she had a change of heart.
“I just never thought of myself of becoming one of the people to run for office because I had this idea in my head … that you had to come from a certain background, then be of a certain kind of breed and have lived a certain type of life in order to be a politician,” she said. “And then at some point, I realized that actually is the wrong train of thought and that's how we have ended up with a lot of what we [have] today, because we have too many people that are creating legislation – pushing legislation – for issues that they really don't have any experience in and so they don't understand what actually needs to be done.
“I think having a voice that understands marginalization to the degree that I do is definitely a voice that's missing,” she said. “And it's a voice that's needed.”
LGBTQ advocates in Pennsylvania say they haven’t seen the progress they have hoped for in terms of advancing LGBTQ-inclusive legislation in recent years. Advocates, as well as a bipartisan collection of lawmakers, have attempted to advance nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ residents, but the proposal has stalled in multiple legislative sessions. Efforts to ban conversion therapy and to expand hate crimes laws to protect LGBTQ individuals have struggled to gain traction. Meanwhile, some lawmakers have floated a proposal that prohibits transgender student-athletes from playing on sports teams that match their gender identity.
Sean Meloy, vice president of political programs for the LGBTQ Victory Fund, said the election of Virginia Delegate Danica Roem in 2017 – the first transgender person to be seated in a state legislature in the U.S. – has inspired more transgender candidates to run for office. Meloy said if Alvarez wins in 2022, she could have the same impact in the commonwealth.
“It inspired many other trans candidates to step up and run, not only for state legislature, but for all offices,” Melloy said of Roem’s victory.
“There's probably a lot of Republican legislators, and probably some Democrats, who have never met a trans person in Harrisburg,” Meloy said. “It's easy to other someone who is not in the chamber with you, or is a minority that is far, far away – 100 miles away, right? I think that [Alvarez] would definitely help change hearts and minds.”
Sims, who is running for lieutenant governor and not seeking to regain his seat in the legislature, has endorsed Alvarez to succeed him. “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. It is certainly not lost on me,” Sims said at Alvarez’s campaign launch event. “There is one thing and one thing I want in my future. I want to be represented by Representative Deja Lynn Alvarez.”
Alvarez said there’s no shortage of issues she wants to address as a state representative. She pointed to a complex, interconnected web of issues – homelessness, housing insecurity, addiction, poverty and gun violence – as some of the most pressing concerns facing her community. She said the state needs to unleash federal aid dollars to support educational programs that will direct people to good-paying jobs and also cut down on gun violence. She also stressed the need to help businesses still struggling from the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.