History could be made in Philadelphia this spring.
Henry Sias is seeking a judgeship on the Court of Common Pleas. If he’s successful in the May 16 primary election, and later the general election, Sias would be the first transgender man to be elected judge in the nation.
“There are no trans guys in any judgeship in the United States,” Sias said. “I’d be the first trans man to take the bench if I won so it’s exciting.”
Transgender women are currently serving on the bench in California and Texas.
Sias, 40, said he believes he’s also the first transgender candidate to ever seek elected office in Philadelphia.
The Yale University Law School grad has been living in the city for about a decade. After graduating from Yale in 2005, the Detroit-area native joined a law firm in New York. He began dating someone in Philadelphia and was won over by the city after visiting here.
He and his wife now own a home near the Italian Market.
After his move, Sias joined Philadelphia-based firm Blank Rome LLP and went on to clerk for two state Supreme Court justices: James J. Fitzgerald 3d and Jane Cutler Greenspan. He later clerked for Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judges Barbara McDermott and Kenneth Powell. He also founded the Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, a nonprofit legal-aid organization informally known as the Expungement Project.
Sias said the agency has performed thousands of free expungements for clients, including many transgender individuals.
It was during his tenure working with McDermott, an out lesbian, that Sias began transitioning, in 2011. The judge was the first person he came out to at work.
“You can’t take it for granted that just because somebody is a member of the LGBT community that they’re going to be up to date on what it means to be trans and respond appropriately, but [McDermott] absolutely took it in stride and was a wonderful supporter,” he said. “She helped me transition in the courts in a way that was not awkwardly ostentatious but not furtive; she set the right tone.”
That attitude was echoed throughout the workplace, Sias said.
“Regardless of whether it was a judge, a staff member, a sheriff, everybody wanted to get it right and to show me respect they’d show to any employee,” he said.
But, Sias noted, many transgender people don’t have such a positive experience in the workplace.
“In Philadelphia, the trans community has a very serious problem with jobs: Almost half of trans people report some form of discrimination or adverse experience related to their trans identity at work — and that’s not including all the people who never get a call back when an employer Googles them and they’re outed as trans and the employer doesn’t want to hire them for that purpose,” he said. “Employment discrimination is an enormous issue in our community.”
That’s part of why his election would be so meaningful, Sias said.
“To have somebody run for election, be out and say to the city, ‘Hey, consider me on equal terms as all the other people asking for your vote. It’s not disqualifying that I’m trans. I’m a real person, a trans person, a member of the community who has contributions to make just like all trans people in the community. Consider me equally.’ To have the city yes to that and elect me? That may mean nothing to people who think, Yeah, no big deal; of course we’d consider you. But to the trans community, that would mean the world. We’re not used to that feeling of people considering us equally with other applicants. We have decades of a different experience, of doors closing to us when people find out we’re trans.”
If elected, Sias said he would hope to serve as a resource for his colleagues.
He noted that misunderstanding about the trans community, including among members of the court system, prevents many people from becoming allies.
“There’s stuff about us that just doesn’t make sense to some people and it would if they knew a trans person and had somebody to talk to,” Sias said. “If I’m elected and any of the judges in the First Judicial District has a question about how to handle someone who maybe doesn’t use ‘he or she’ and would prefer ‘they’ or there’s another pronoun situation, they can come and talk to me about it. The judges want their courtrooms to be places of respect and openness but they may not have ever met someone who identifies as transgender or gender-queer. I want to be a resource in that case.”
Apart from elevating transgender issues, Sias said he would also be eager to help revamp the judicial system’s technological capabilities.
Most of the computers in the First Judicial District, he noted, use the outdated Internet Explorer.
“That can create a security vulnerability,” Sias said. “Computers now have e-discovery, witness statements, medical records of people who’ve been victims of assault or sexual assault; those are sensitive documents.”
He said the city’s judicial system was one of the earliest to start e-filing but its technological leadership has since waned.
“I want to revisit some of the trailblazing electronic stuff we did previously to make sure the system is safe and still working as it should,” Sias said.
He will compete against 47 other candidates for one of 10 vacancies. At last week’s ballot-position lottery, Sias drew the sixth spot, giving him an edge over lower-ballot candidates.
He noted that, while judicial elections don’t normally draw big crowds, he’s hoping the LGBT community will mobilize behind his potentially history-making campaign.
“I really need the LGBT community to come out and show support for me,” he said, noting that his campaign is just now taking off because he had to wait until he resigned from his clerk position. “Because I’ve been working in the courts, I’ve been prohibited from any political activity until right about now. That’s one of the reasons I’m a good candidate: I know the courts intimately from working in the courts. But because of that, I haven’t been able to get to know people politically the way you normally do when you run for office, so I really need the LGBT community to come out in force on Election Day.”
For more information on Sias’ campaign, visit https://www.facebook.com/HMSias4CommonPleas/.