Jaci Adams, who overcame childhood abuse and drug addiction to become an inspiring leader in Philadelphia’s LGBT community, died on Saturday, February 15, at Keystone House, a hospice in Wyndmoor, PA, after a struggle with cancer.
Miss Jaci, as she was widely known, rose above the trauma and chaos of her early life to become one of the city’s most tireless advocates for trans people and on HIV and AIDS issues.
Last year, Philly Pride Presents gave her the first OutProud Transgender Award, which will be renamed in her honor. At OutFest in October, Jaci was clearly in ill health and needed help on stage to accept the award.
“It’s not what they call you, it’s what you answer to,” she said in an emotional speech.
Gloria Casarez, director of the Office of LGBT Affairs of Philadelphia, worked with Jaci on a variety of issues, including shelter and behavioral health policies, transgender health, and HIV and AIDS programs.
“Jaci Adams was a fierce leader, mentor, and friend who was unafraid of sharing her own difficult life experiences in an effort to make a difference in the lives and actions of others,” Casarez said.
Jaci, 56, served on many boards and commissions, but was perhaps most loved for her willingness to share her story in personal, one-on-one conversations. Whether offering support to a young trans woman or counseling a person with HIV, she offered hope to those who thought there was none.
The Rev. Andrea Harrington, a long-time friend, said she was one of many who benefited from Jaci’s help.
“Even with all of her rough exterior, she was a teddy bear and a sweetheart and would bend over backwards to help anyone,” Harrington said.
Jaci served as a member of the Morris Planning Committee, as well as the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference Planning Committee. She was a founding member of the Temple University Community Advisory Board and founded the Trans People with Hope Conference in 2004. She was on the Philadelphia Police Liaison Committee, acted as an advisor to the City of Philadelphia Office of LGBT Affairs, served on the board of the LGBT Elder Initiative and the board of The God Environment and volunteered with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Youth Aid Panel and the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund.
Franny Price, executive director of Philly Pride, said people were drawn to Jaci because she was so genuine.
“Jaci would never tell you everything she’s done, she never feathered her own cap,” Price said. “You’d hear about it from others, but not her.”
Born in Beckley, West Virginia, Jaci moved with her family to Philadelphia when she was a child. After her mother left the family, “there was no laughter in our house,” Jaci told the Philadelphia Gay News in an interview last year.
But there was horrible abuse. At age nine she fled the house in search of safety, she often related when telling her life story. The streets of Philadelphia offered no sanctuary and she was soon consumed by a life of prostitution, drug abuse and crime while searching for an identity.
Jaci said she slowly began to rebuild her life after being sent to prison, where she earned her GED.
Diagnosed with AIDS in 1983, Jaci had done some HIV work, such as distributing condoms. But it was the death of Nizah Morris, a transgender woman, in 2001 that propelled her into activism.
Reflecting on the aftermath of Nizah’s death, Jaci told PGN, “I had an ‘aha’ moment and decided that instead of being angry, maybe a career criminal like me could use that familiarity with the cops to slither in and become part of the solution.”
She eventually became the longest serving member of the Philadelphia Police Liaison Committee. She also served on the planning committee for the Morris Home, named for Nizah, which provides holistic, comprehensive services for transgender and gender-variant individuals.
“The policies and service delivery of the city are greatly improved as a direct result of Jaci’s selfless contributions,” Casarez said.
In addition to other honors, in November POZ Magazine named Jaci to its list of 100 Unsung Heroes.
“Jaci was a remarkable person who was a source of inspiration for everyone who met her,” said Ronda B. Goldfein, executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, where Jaci was a long-time volunteer.