YOU WOULDN'T think that anyone who had endured what Jaci Adams had in a life of childhood abuse, drug addiction and prison would have any right to be cheerful and friendly.
And yet there Jaci was, in many a social gathering, "the brightest spot in the room," as Ronda B. Goldfein, executive director of the AIDS Law Project, put it.
"All the laughter came from her corner of the room," Goldfein said. "She had a great outlook on life."
Jaci Adams, a transgender woman and an inspirational leader for others in Philadelphia's LGBT community, a busy volunteer in HIV and AIDS programs, died Saturday of cancer. She was 56 and lived in West Philadelphia.
Partly because of her own painful experiences, Jaci was able to shed a light into the darkness that often shrouds the frequently misunderstood and abused dwellers of the LGBT world.
Jaci (pronounced Jackie) often volunteered with Goldfein's AIDS Law Project, working and performing in fundraising shows, selling tickets, tending bar, whatever was helpful, even in recent months when her illness was sapping her energy.
Goldfein said Jaci had a way of interacting with people from all walks of life that charmed them and left them in better spirits.
"She would tell a woman sitting next to her on the subway how well her lipstick went with her complexion or her eyes," Goldfein said. "How nice her scarf looked. She made people feel good about themselves.
"Once in a pretzel store, she got into a conversation with a woman clerk about AIDS and how important it is to get tested for HIV. The clerk agreed to be tested, and gave Jaci a bag of free pretzels for her fellow cancer patients."
Jaci frequently gave dance performances for charitable programs, garbed in flashily colorful outfits. One of her performances was for a recent winter solstice event at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.
Jaci had special concern for young people who might be going through the same painful experiences she endured, and she would urge them to find help before their lives spun out of control, as hers threatened to do.
Jaci was born in Beckley, W.Va., and moved with her family to Philadelphia when she was a child. When her mother left the family, "there was no laughter in our house," she told the Philadelphia Gay News in an interview.
There was so much physical and mental abuse that she left the house at age 9 in search of safety. Living in the streets, Jaci turned to prostitution, drug abuse and crime. She was often arrested and sent to prison.
But she managed to make the best of prison, earning her GED behind bars.
It was the murder of Nizah Morris that shocked her into changing her life. Nizah was a 47-year-old transgender entertainer who was found viciously beaten on the street at 15th and Walnut streets in December 2002. She died two days later. The murder was never solved.
"I had an 'a-ha' 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 told the Gay News.
The Morris Center, which provides holistic services for transgender and gender-variant individuals, was named for Nizah. Jaci was a member of the planning committee.
Despite her own run-ins with the law, Jaci became the longest serving member of the Philadelphia Police Liaison Committee, which seeks to encourage better understanding of the LGBT community.
Jaci was diagnosed with AIDS in 1983, but it was under control and did not contribute to her death.
"Jaci 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," said Gloria Casarez, director of the Office of LGBT Affairs of Philadelphia.
They worked together on a variety of issues, including shelter and behavioral health policies, transgender health, and HIV and AIDS programs.
Jaci was honored last year when Philly Pride Presents gave her the first OutProud Transgender Award, which will be named in her honor.
In November, POZ Magazine named Jaci to its list of 100 Unsung Heroes.
The Rev. Andrea Harrington, a longtime friend, said she was among 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.
Franny Price, executive director of Philly Pride, said: "Jaci would never tell you everything she's done. She never feathered her own cap. You'd hear about it from others, but not her."
Services: A memorial service is being planned.