OutFest showcases LGBT success stories

OutFest showcases LGBT success stories

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A purple-haired DJ spun pop songs by Beyoncé and Jason Derulo under the rainbow sign for Manning Street as the 25th-annual OutFest got underway Oct. 11, National Coming Out Day.


The event in the heart of the Gayborhood was full of LGBT success stories, and only two relatively quiet religious protests. 

Bruce Chorzelewski and David Watson made the trip from southern New Jersey. They had been to the event as a couple once before. 

“I like being a part of the community,” Chorzelewski said. “I like the openness.” 

While Chorzelewski told his family he was gay when he was a teenager, Watson only came out last year, when he was 42, thanks to Chorzelewski.

“I just care about him so deeply,” Chorzelewski said.

Watson said they plan to get married soon.

Down the street, Valley Youth House set up a couch that advertised the statistic that 51 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT. With a new initiative called “Sheltering Pride,” which received a $5,000 grant from the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund this month, the organization plans to combat that problem. 

“You don’t necessarily see people out on the streets, but these LGBT youth are crashing on friends’ or strangers’ couches,” said Colleen Landy, associate director of the Achieving Independence Center of Valley Youth House. “A couch is not a home.” 

Landy said her organization has set up a couple couches throughout the city. Passersby are invited to take photos of themselves on the couches and post them on social media with the hashtag #couchesdontcount. They can also donate to Pride Housing by visiting www.valleyyouthhouse.org.   

Aadam Muhammad, a North Philadelphia native, turned his life around thanks to help from Valley Youth House, he said at OutFest. He had struggled with homelessness growing up with his mother and younger brothers. At 18, he came out to his family. His mother supported him, though his extended family did not. He ended up homeless again after a landlord found out he was gay and prematurely changed the locks.

When Muhammad discovered Valley Youth House, he received rent and food subsidies. He was able to go back to school and secured employment. Now 26 and living in Mt. Airy, Muhammad has a degree in psychology from Temple University and is pursuing master’s degrees in public health and counseling at Arcadia University. He wants to work to decrease LGBT youth homelessness.

“These are unacceptable numbers,” said Muhammad, a member of the board of governors for Valley Youth House. “It’s an LGBT issue, but also it’s a public-health issue. When you’re homeless, you’re not thinking about your education or career, you’re thinking about survival.”

Just after 1 p.m., as the sun was heating up, dozens gathered in front of the 12th Street Gym to see a partial unveiling of the mural to memorialize Gloria Casarez, the inaugural director of the Philadelphia Office of LGBT Affairs. She died of breast cancer last year.

Artist Michelle Angela Ortiz said her team had some issues with scaffolding, which delayed the installation of the mural; but it’s expected to be complete by the end of the month. Still, everyone involved wanted to celebrate Casarez at OutFest, one of her favorite events.

 “We’re all here today to celebrate Gloria’s life and honor her legacy,” said Rue Landau, executive director of the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission, who worked with Casarez for more than 20 years. She noted their evolution from “scrappy activists” to “activists in suits.” 

 “Gloria is one of those special people who spent her life with purpose,” Landau said. “She had a vision of a more equitable and understanding world and worked every day to make that vision a reality.”

 “I wish I had more walls to show all of the impact that she’s had,” Ortiz said.

Two people read poems in honor of Casarez. Philadelphia Mural Arts Program chief operating officer Joan Reilly, 12th Street Gym owner Frank Baer and Mayor Michael Nutter also spoke, among others. 

In addition to the mural, Philadelphia honored Casarez before OutFest began with the annual raising of the rainbow flag at the northeast corner of City Hall, a tradition Casarez started in 2010. A tropical storm drenched the flag that officials erected Oct. 1 to celebrate LGBT History Month. The new flag added the seal of the City of Philadelphia for the first time. 

Moments after wrapping up at the Casarez mural, Nutter was whisked to the OutFest main stage at 13th and Locust streets to accept the OutProud Friend Award. He read a proclamation recognizing National Coming Out Day as an official holiday in Philadelphia.

Other award winners included the OutProud Award for Philadelphia Freedom Band, Jaci Adams OutProud Transgender Award for Deja Lynn Alvarez, OutStanding Youth Award for Mckenzie Villa, an 18-year-old transgender activist, and the LifeTime OutProud Award for Philly Pride Presents, the organization that helms OutFest.

“We’ve been consistent for 25 years and keep growing,” said Franny Price, founder of OutFest. “We wouldn’t be able to do this without our volunteers and Gayborhood sponsors. Really, it’s about everybody coming together to make it a success.” 

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