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Two LGBTQ candidates competing for state house seat in Philadelphia’s ‘gayborhood’

Victory Fund criticized for failing to stay neutral in race

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Jonathan Lovitz and Deja Alvarez are among four candidates seeking to replace Brian Sims in the Pennsylvania House. (Blade file photo of Lovitz by Michael Key; photo of Alvarez courtesy of the Alvarez campaign)

Transgender community activist Deja Alvarez and LGBTQ rights and economic development advocate Jonathan Lovitz, both of whom have been involved in LGBTQ rights issues for many years, are running against each other and against two LGBTQ supportive straight men for a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in Philadelphia’s center city area.

Alvarez, Lovitz, public affairs consultant Ben Waxman, and café owner and community activist Will Gross are running in the May 17 Democratic primary in the 182nd District, which includes Philadelphia’s “Gayborhood” and is believed to have more LGBTQ residents than any other legislative district in the state.

The seat has been held since 2013 by out gay Rep. Brian Sims, who is giving up the seat this year to run for Pennsylvania lieutenant governor. Sims, a close friend and current housemate of Alvarez, has endorsed her to succeed him as representative of the 182nd District.

Lovitz supporters have expressed concern that Sims may have orchestrated a lobbying campaign that persuaded and possibly pressured the LGBTQ Victory Fund, the national group that raises money to help elect out LGBTQ candidates for public office, to endorse Alvarez. Lovitz backers have argued that the Victory Fund should have endorsed him, remained neutral, or made a dual endorsement of Alvarez and Lovitz as it has in other races where LGBTQ candidates have run against each other. 

Lovitz backers also point out that Lovitz has raised far more campaign funds than Alvarez and the other two candidates, making him a more viable candidate than Alvarez and the one with the best chance of being elected as another LGBTQ person to the 182nd District seat.

Elliot Imse, the Victory Fund’s vice president for communications who was just named executive director of the sister organization Victory Institute, told the Washington Blade about 11 LGBTQ elected officials from across the country sent the Victory Fund a letter encouraging the group to endorse Alvarez. He said it was a “polite and respectful” letter.”

He said the Victory Fund welcomes input from the community and from supporters of all LGBTQ candidates on which candidates to endorse. According to Imse, it was the group’s 150-member Campaign Board, which consists of politically engaged activists from throughout the country, that voted to endorse Alvarez after analyzing a wide range of factors in the race. But some critics familiar with the Victory Fund, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the lobbying by Sims’s supporters of board members was irregular and drew the ire of Victory Fund leadership. 

Although it decided to endorse Alvarez, the Victory Fund considers Lovitz to be a highly qualified candidate who would be an excellent state legislator representing the interests of LGBTQ people in Pennsylvania, Imse said. But he said the group determined that Alvarez’s background and status as a Latina trans candidate make her the right candidate for the job at this time.

“Deja is a candidate with extremely strong name recognition in her district,” Imse said. “She’s worked in the district for decades,” he said, “from founding organizations to help LGBTQ people who are homeless to help trans people through recovery programs, to providing COVID relief to immigrants and undocumented people,” he said.

“Deja is a Latinx trans woman and would be the first in the entire nation elected to a state legislature,” he said, as well as the first trans person elected to the Pennsylvania Legislature.

Alvarez currently serves as director of community engagement for World Healthcare Infrastructures, a Philadelphia-based group that provides HIV/AIDS related services and other community healthcare and social services. She also serves as the LGBTQ Care Coordinator for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and, among other posts, was appointed to a task force to create an LGBTQ Advisory Board for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.

Lovitz supporters point to what they call his long, highly distinguished record as an advocate for LGBTQ rights and public policy and economic development related issues that have resulted in endorsements from both organized labor and groups representing small community-based businesses.

Lovitz has served as senior vice president of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce from 2016 until he announced his candidacy for the state house seat last year. He joined the LGBT Chamber in 2015 as vice president for external affairs and as director of the group’s New York subsidiary.

He has been credited with helping to write and pass more than 25 state and local laws, including in Pennsylvania, extending economic opportunity to LGBTQ-owned businesses around the country, including millions of dollars in small business grants to local and minority-owned businesses. In 2020, Lovitz co-founded PhillyVoting.org, an initiative to register and turn out the vote in the Black and LGBTQ communities, which, among other things, resulted in the registration of more than 300 new voters in the program’s first month.

The most recent campaign finance reports filed with the state’s campaign finance office show that as of January of this year the Lovitz campaign had raised $152,355. The reports show that Waxman had raised $45,276, Alvarez raised $35,941, and Gross raised $22,134 as of the January filing period. The next round of finance reports was scheduled to be released on May 6.

Some critics of Alvarez have pointed out that she had not been living in the 182nd District for a number of years and only recently moved back to run for the state house seat. Imse called such claims unfair and misleading, saying Alvarez at some point in the recent past was forced to find an apartment in another area outside the district because of the excessively high cost of living in the Center City area due to gentrification.

Imse said Alvarez continued to work in the district and retained her “decades long” ties to the district before she moved back to the district and became housemates with Sims to enable her and Sims to share the living costs in a high-priced neighborhood. 

Alvarez told the Blade she and her supporters believe rumors circulating that she was unqualified for the state house seat because she had not been living in the district and just moved back were being orchestrated by Lovitz and his campaign to discredit her.

She said she has been living in Philadelphia since the late 1990s and has been living and working in the district most of the time for more than 20 years.

“The fact of the matter is my opponent has been in Philadelphia for like three years,” she said. “As a woman of color, as a trans person and, yes, like many Philadelphians, there was a time I had to move out of this district because I could not afford to live here any longer,” Alvarez said.

“But there’s not a single person out there and in this race that has both worked in this district, socialized in this district and then come back and done all the work that I’ve done in this district, which I have been part of for more than half of my life,” she said.

When asked to respond to Alvarez’s remarks, Lovitz said in an email that he has had a “lifelong connection to Philadelphia that no one can dispute” and that he moved to the 182nd District in 2017.

“What matters to me, and to voters, isn’t how long you live somewhere, but how much you’ve done to make their lives better in the time you’ve been there,” he said. “Since the day I returned home to Philly I’ve helped register over 1,000 voters through the PhillyVoting project; protected women’s rights by volunteering as a Planned Parenthood escort in my neighborhood; raised millions for charity through the boards I serve on and the events I’ve had the honor of emceeing; and so much more because I love my city.”

Additional information about each of the four candidates running in the Democratic primary can be accessed on their campaign websites, which show that each received endorsements from various advocacy or political organizations, with Alvarez, Lovitz, and Waxman receiving endorsements by local and state elected officials: lovitzforpa.com, dejaforpa.com, votewaxman.com, WillforPA.com.

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Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Governor bans conversion therapy using state funds

Tom Wolf signs executive order directing agencies to discourage practice

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Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf (D). (Photo courtesy of the Office of the Governor of Pennsylvania)

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, (D) signed an executive order Tuesday that banned use of state funds for conversion therapy and also directs state agencies to discourage conversion therapy. The order will also put measures in place to ensure state offices implement culturally appropriate care and services to LGBTQ constituents.

“Conversion therapy is a traumatic practice based on junk science that actively harms the people it supposedly seeks to treat,” said Governor Wolf in a press statement. “This discriminatory practice is widely rejected by medical and scientific professionals and has been proven to lead to worse mental health outcomes for LGBTQIA+ youth subjected to it. This is about keeping our children safe from bullying and extreme practices that harm them.”

Advocates from The Trevor Project attended Tuesday’s signing of the executive order, commemorating it as a victory for LGBTQ young people in the state. On Wednesday, The Trevor Project will be hosting a town hall meeting in Philadelphia to discuss the impact of the executive order with community members.

“Taxpayers’ dollars must never again be spent on the dangerous and discredited practice of conversion ‘therapy’ — which has been consistently associated with increased suicide risk and an estimated $9.23 billion economic burden in the U.S.,” said Troy Stevenson, Senior Campaign Manager for Advocacy and Government Affairs of The Trevor Project.

“Thank you Gov. Wolf for your leadership and for taking bold action to protect and affirm LGBTQ young people across the Commonwealth. We urge the state legislature to pass comprehensive state-wide protections and for governors across the nation to follow the Keystone State’s lead in ending this abusive practice.”

After the signing the Governor also noted:

“The Trevor Project’s Youth Mental Health Survey showed that rates of negative mental health outcomes among LGBTQIA+ youth are much lower in communities, schools and families that are accepting and supportive of LGBTQIA+ people. That’s why I signed this executive order to protect Pennsylvanians from conversion therapy and the damage it does to our communities. Because all of our youth deserve to grow up in a commonwealth that accepts and respects them.

“I want LGBTQIA+ youth and individuals across Pennsylvania to know that I stand with you. I see you, I respect you and I support you. My administration will continue to support policies to keep children safe from bullying and harmful practices.”

“We have worked tirelessly over the last year to collaboratively get this executive order drafted, through discussions with advocates, parents, and many stakeholders. With this action, the practice of conversion therapy has its days numbered in Pennsylvania​,” said Rafael Alvarez Febo, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs. “Young people should never be punished for being who they are and that’s what socalled conversion therapy does, while causing sometimes irreparable trauma to individuals.” 

With the signing of this executive order, Pennsylvania is now the 27th state in the country to enact statewide protections against the practice of conversion therapy.

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Pennsylvania

Pride Franklin County welcomes rural LGBTQ community

Pennsylvania organization planning October celebration

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When Pride Franklin County held its first Pride celebration in 2018, it sought to address a lack of LGBTQ programming in rural southern Pennsylvania. Greeted by more than 1,000 attendees at its inaugural event, Pride Franklin County’s leadership was reassured the event was something the area not only wanted, but needed. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the local organization has once again sought to address community needs — in new and broadened ways.

Pride Franklin County operates under the Franklin County Coalition for Progress, a local social justice nonprofit that formed in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. “We live in a very rural, conservative area, but that election was a turning point all across the country,” explained Noel Purdy, a founder of Pride Franklin County and founder and president of FCCP.

“People came out of the woodwork who were worried about the LGBTQ community … and other populations that had experienced different forms of oppression in our community,” Purdy explained. This interest in supporting the local LGBTQ community led to a group of LGBTQ community members and allies leading the 2018 Pride celebration.

“We just really wanted to create a space where people know that they’re accepted, no matter who they are,” said Nathan Strayer, vice president of FCCP and a founder of Pride Franklin County. “We want people to know that you fit in. There are a lot of people here that are going to love you.”

But in 2020, at the peak of the event’s popularity — Strayer noted that upwards of 3,000 people attended Pride the year prior — Pride Franklin County had to cancel its programming in light of public health concerns. 

With the “momentum” it has going, Strayer explained that the organization did not want the pandemic to limit its ability to serve the Franklin County community: “ That’s when we really decided to make the entire initiative something bigger,” he said. “We’re not just here to throw a party.”

In 2021, the organization began advocating for a local non-discrimination ordinance codifying inclusivity for all community members, regardless of their identity. The Borough of Chambersburg Council, which represents the largest borough in the county, adopted the ordinance that fall — a major win for LGBTQ activists and allies in a rural Pennsylvania county that leans conservative socially and politically.

Yet, just months after the organization celebrated its achievement, new council members were elected in the borough in January 2022, and soon thereafter a majority of the council decided to repeal the non-discrimination ordinance.

While the ordinance’s revocation greatly disappointed Pride Franklin County, it also reminded its leaders and activists how much work was left to be done.

“From the growth of Pride to the pushback we’ve gotten from some of our elected officials here locally, it’s definitely lit a fire in us to continue pushing ahead so that we can truly make Franklin County an inclusive place for everyone,” Strayer emphasized.

This year, the organization launched its Franklin County Welcoming Project, which spearheads public displays of support to the LGBTQ community. In June, the organization received a media grant to create billboard and radio advertisements throughout the county advocating for inclusivity within the Franklin County community.

The organization also reached out to local businesses, providing them with custom decals to put in their windows after signing a pledge stating that they are a “diverse, inclusive, accepting, welcoming, safe space for all,” Strayer said, adding that, despite some initial hesitation, more than 100 local businesses signed the pledge and displayed the logo in their storefronts.

Pride Franklin County has also looked to meet the local demand for LGBTQ programming throughout the year while maintaining public health precautions. More recent projects have included mental health LGBTQ programming, community picnics, drag shows and a Taste of Pride food event. Strayer added that there has been significant demand from the community for more programming centering LGBTQ youth.

Purdy added that voting rights advocacy has become a center point of current efforts from the organization, as it hopes to educate the local community on the importance of their political involvement. “Hopefully, we’re inspiring more people to learn to pay attention more to what’s going on, and trying to understand the connection between policy and voting,” Purdy explained

While the process of founding a grassroots organization has come with obstacles, Purdy and Strayer both noted that the community response has been rewarding.

 “One thing that I’ve been surprised about is how you have this cultural context of being in a conservative area, thinking that that’s going to be a barrier to doing an event that supports the LGBTQ community, and that it’s going to be super controversial,” but ultimately receiving a positive reception from many community members and resources needed to keep the organization running, Purdy explained.

Getting Pride Franklin County up and running has “definitely been very emotional,” Strayer noted. When Strayer decided to come out in 1999, he turned to leaders in his school — a guidance counselor and principal — for advice, but he recalled them “both sitting down and looking at (him) like, ‘We don’t really know what to do,’” making him feel alone in a particularly important part of his life. But with Pride Franklin County, Strayer is “seeing how things are growing and changing.”

“There’s help out there for youth that are struggling with the same things I was struggling with,” Strayer said. “When I look back at when I was coming out, I thought, ‘This is never going to happen here.’ Seeing now that it is happening here, it’s just such an amazing feeling and it just gives me so much pride in my community.”

Pride Franklin County will host its Pride Festival 2022 on Oct. 9 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. More information can be found on the organization’s website at pridefranklincounty.org

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Pennsylvania

Brian Sims, four other LGBTQ candidates lose races in Pa.

Gay, trans hopefuls competing for Philly state house seat lose to straight ally

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Brian Sims lost his race for Pennsylvania lieutenant governor.

LGBTQ candidates running for the U.S. Senate, U.S. House, lieutenant governor, and a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in Philadelphia’s ‘gayborhood’ each lost their races in the Keystone State’s May 17 Democratic primary.

Transgender community activist Deja Alvarez and LGBTQ rights and economic development advocate Jonathan Lovitz, who ran against each other in a four-candidate race for the 182nd District State House seat in Center City Philadelphia, were thought to have the best shot at winning among the four LGBTQ candidates running in the state primary.

The two were running neck-and-neck to one another but were trailing far behind straight LGBTQ ally and businessman Ben Waxman as of late Tuesday evening. With the votes counted in 52 of 59 of the district’s electoral divisions, Waxman had 41.6 percent of the vote, Lovitz had 19.1 percent, with Alvarez garnering 18.6 percent. Café owner, community activist, and LGBTQ ally Will Gross had 20.5 percent of the vote.

Lovitz and Alvarez along with Waxman and Gross were running for the seat held by gay State Rep. Brian Sims, who gave up the seat to run in Tuesday’s primary as the state’s first out gay candidate for lieutenant governor.

Sims lost that race to fellow State Rep. Austin Davis by a margin of 63.3 percent for Davis and 24.5 percent for Sims with 88 percent of the votes counted. The Associated Press declared Davis the winner early in the evening. A third candidate in the race, Ray Sosa, had 12.2 percent of the vote.

In a development that surprised many observers outside Pennsylvania, more than 40 prominent LGBTQ leaders from across the state endorsed Davis over Sims earlier this year, saying Davis is a strong and committed supporter of LGBTQ rights and has the best chance of winning in the general election in November.

Davis also received the strong backing of Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who ran unopposed in Tuesday’s primary for the Democratic nomination for governor. Shapiro, who also received strong backing from LGBTQ activists, said he considered Davis to be his running mate in the primary.

The fourth of the LGBTQ candidates running in Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary, State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta of the 181st District in North Philly, ran as a longshot candidate for the state’s U.S. Senate seat being vacated by GOP incumbent Patrick Toomey. Kenyatta lost to Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who was declared the winner with 88 percent of the votes counted.

Fetterman had 59.3 percent, with Kenyatta finishing in third place in a four-candidate race with 10.0 percent of the vote. U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb finished in second place with 26.6 percent of the vote as of early Wednesday morning, with IT specialist and former small business owner Alex Khalil finishing fourth with 4.2 percent of the vote.

Kenyatta, who was one of three gay speakers who joined others in delivering a joint keynote address at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, received the endorsement of the Philadelphia Gay News in his bid for the U.S. Senate seat.

Gay Democratic and LGBTQ rights activist and former congressional staff member Sean Meloy, who ran for the U.S. House seat in Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District in the Pittsburgh suburbs, was the fifth LGBTQ candidate competing in the state’s May 17 primary. Meloy lost his race to Chris Deluzio, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s cyber policy center.

With 93 percent of the votes counted, Deluzio had 63.2 percent of the vote compared to Meloy, who had 36.8 percent. If Meloy had won the race he would have become Pennsylvania’s first out gay member of Congress.

The race in which Lovitz and Alvarez competed for the State House seat in the 182nd District, which is believed to have more LGBTQ residents than any other legislative district in the state, drew the most attention among LGBTQ activists both in Philadelphia and in other parts of the country.

Both have been involved in LGBTQ rights issues for many years. Lovitz drew support from a wide range of LGBTQ and labor and small business leaders who he knew in his past role as senior vice president of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce. Alvarez, a widely known transgender activist who led local community-based organizations providing services to the LGBTQ community, would have been the first transgender person to serve in the Pennsylvania General Assembly if she had been elected to the State House seat.

The LGBTQ Victory Fund, the national group that raises money in support of LGBTQ candidates for public office, drew criticism from some activists for endorsing Alvarez over Lovitz. Some argued that the group should have remained neutral or backed Lovitz, who had raised far more money for his campaign and appeared to be the most viable of the two candidates. Others expressed concern that two LGBTQ candidates running in a four-candidate race could result in a split in the LGBTQ vote that would help the straight candidates, who were known LGBTQ rights supporters.

As it turned out, the approximate combined share of the vote that Alvarez and Lovitz received — 38.2 percent — still fell short of the 42.6 percent of the vote received by Waxman.

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