Pioneering LGBT and HIV/AIDS activist Jaci Adams died Feb. 15 at the Keystone House in Wyndmoor from complications of cancer. She was 56.
Plans for a memorial had not been finalized as of presstime.
Adams spent decades advocating for policy changes, mentoring LGBT young people and using her own diverse experiences to press for social-justice reforms.
Adams was born in Beckly, W. Va., and eventually moved to North Philadelphia, where she grew up in a rough environment with an abusive father. She spent years battling drug addiction and turned to prostitution and crime before pulling herself through to recovery. She grew into the activist career she is now known for following the murder of her friend, Nizah Morris.
“I feel like she has always been around, always a presence,” said AIDS Law Project executive director Ronda Goldfein. “When do you first notice something that is everywhere?”
Adams was a founding member of the Temple University Community Advisory Board, sat on the planning committee for the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference and the planning committee for the Morris Home and was the longest-serving member of the Philadelphia Police LGBT Liaison Committee.
Adams was also a long-time volunteer for groups like AIDS Law Project, Delaware Valley Legacy Fund, LGBT Elder Initiative and Philadelphia FIGHT, where she also worked for a time.
Goldfein said Adams brought her background to her volunteer work as a way to inspire others.
“Jaci had the perspective of ‘I had this awful life, I have overcome it and, if I could do it, you can do it,’” Goldfein said.
Adams was born Dec. 12, one day before her good friend and city director of LGBT affairs Gloria Casarez, who said the pair would often celebrate their birthdays together.
“It was always very special to me,” she said.
Casarez, the former executive director of GALAEI, met Adams at a planning session for a memorial to honor Morris and went on to be impressed by Adams’ ability to connect with community members.
“I was at GALAEI during that time and we shared a building with Philadelphia FIGHT and she had a long relationship with them and worked with them at the time. I primarily knew her through the HIV/AIDS world. I would see her with other GALAEI clients and she was always outside engaging with folks,” she said.
One audience Adams was particularly adept at engaging with was the police cadets she would train through the Police Liaison Committee; she would rely on her own background to give the future officers a realistic picture of smart policework.
“She spent a good amount of time and energy working on police issues,” Casarez said. “She helped train every cadet class until recently. Police officers would come up to her and say remembered her. That is important because she would put things out there in a way that was off-putting, maybe different than other sessions these officers would have received. She was clear that it was important that they be presented with scenarios that would happen on the street.”
Casarez said Adams was also influential in helping pull together GALAEI’s Trans-Health Information Project.
Current GALAEI executive director Elicia Gonzales said Adams, whom she met in 2009, was determined to see that the community’s LGBT organizations were adequately addressing the needs of the trans community.
“She came to me in an attempt to provide immediate support and, as I was a new director of an organization that at that time was in a state of transition, she wanted to make sure GALAEI was reaching the trans community,” Gonzales said.
Last year, Adams was named one of PGN’s Person of the Year runners-up and was also recognized with Philly Pride Presents’ first-ever OutProud Transgender Award at OutFest. The award will now be presented annually in Adams’ name.
Philly Pride Presents executive director Franny Price, who also served on the Police Liaison Committee with Adams, said she had a gift of reaching people across all barriers.
“Jaci was someone who could communicate with any person in our community and that was the wonderful thing about her,” Price said. “You knew she was from the street and yet she could talk to you no matter what class you were from. She was a leader not just for herself but for the community as a whole.”
Despite confronting serious systemic issues impacting the community, Adams never lost her humor, said LGBT Elder Initiative president Heshie Zinman.
“Jaci was a beautiful woman,” he said. “When she spoke, she was loud and funny. She had a great sense of humor.”
In addition to her formalized work, Adams was a constant source of support for the trans community, often working directly with young people to ensure they realized their potential.
Director of SafeGuards LGBT Health Resource Center Brian Green said Adams served as a role model for the community.
“Jaci was really an incredible person who touched the lives of so many people and I think she was looked up to by the trans community. Trans women looked up to her as a mother figure, an aunt, someone they could learn from,” he said. “Jaci had a way of really drawing you in. She would start talking to people, complimenting them, finding out things that would make people feel good and she would start conversations. She heightened awareness about trans folk, the importance of health and testing for HIV. She had a way of helping you let down your guard so you wanted to hear what she had to say.”
Adams was a frequent face at LGBT community events and rallies, specifically those focused on trans issues. Last summer, she spoke at a rally in memory of Diamond Williams, a transgender woman who was brutally murdered in North Philadelphia.
“It was telling of her character that, even though she was sick and in a lot of pain, she found her way to the vigil for Diamond,” Gonzales said. “She got up there and preached about the importance of being trans-inclusive and fighting violence against the trans community.
Gonzales said Adams was one to not only “talk the talk, but walk the walk.”
While Adams did not like to draw attention to herself, her work speaks for itself, Casarez said.
“Jaci was never somebody to put her name on something, to say ‘I did this.’ That is not how Jaci functioned, but the imprint of her work is obviously seen all over the city. We are in this age of Philly where things are looking brighter and brighter for our community and Jaci has been a big part of that.”
“This wasn’t a job for her,” Gonzales added about Adams’ community leadership. “This was her blood, her life, something she knew she needed to do. The LGBT community would not be what it is today without Jaci Adams.”