Local attorney hopes to become nation's first male trans judge

Henry McGregor Sias aims to be the nation's first male transgender judge.

Columnists don't usually single out a candidate running for office unless it's newsworthy.   

That certainly is the case with Henry McGregor Sias.  Should the 40-year-old lawyer emerge victorious  in the May 16 Democratic primary for a Common Pleas Court seat,  he'll have cleared a major hurdle toward becoming the nation's first transgender man to be elected a judge.

Sias, who has clerked under various local judges and also started his own law practice, hopes his unique story will help boost voter turnout in his favor.

"To have the city look at me as an out trans guy and elect me would send the message that trans people are a part of our community and have a lot to contribute," pointed out Sias, who is married to a woman and lives in South Philly.

"Also, to have a male judge who understands gender discrimination firsthand is pretty rare,"  he  continued.  "That's a body of experience that I would bring with me to the bench. I will never be naive about what women experience because I've experienced it too."

Growing up in Michigan, Sias had no idea that his current life would ever  be an option. 

"I was a tomboy when I was a kid. I really balked at being made to wear dresses and skirts and I was not particularly interested in dolls," he recalled.  "I didn't like any situation where I was being made to conform to female gender norms."

 In high school, Sias dated boys and was active at church, serving as captain of the Bible quiz team and president of the youth group.  Later, Sias studied creative writing at Western Michigan University and began dating women.  After graduating in 1998, Sias moved to San Francisco and later Boulder, Colo., before entering law school.  

"I just wanted some stability, especially after living in the Bay Area and being so wretchedly poor," Sias said, looking back. "I remember borrowing $5 from an 18-year-old coworker so that we could buy peanut butter so that ... we could get through the week. I never wanted to feel like that again."

Sias graduated from Yale Law School in 2005 and moved to New York City to work as a summer associate in a white-shoe law firm before landing a gig at Blank Rome in Philadelphia. That led to a series of demanding clerkships with local judges, including one under Barbara McDermott. It was while working for McDermott that Sias came out as trans.

"It was just a big relief to say to myself, 'Would you feel better and would your life be easier if you just let yourself be a guy, use male pronouns, and have a guy's name?' " Sias asked himself. "And the answer was clearly yes."

"Most people I told were not surprised," Sias said. 

Even before beginning testosterone treatment,  Sias  looked somewhat masculine. The fact that Sias stood  5 feet, 10 inches tall helped as well.  As part of the transition, Sias underwent top surgery to reduce his breast size but declined to discuss any other possible modifications.

While out getting signatures from voters, Sias said, he didn't encounter any negative pushback from potential voters.  He's No. 6 on the ballot in a crowded field of 48 candidates.  The top nine vote-getters move to the November general election. 

LGBTQ activists hope for a big victory with Sias.

"Transgender people are significantly underrepresented on the judicial bench. Right now, there are only two openly transgender judges in the entire country," said Eric Lesh, fair courts project director at Lambda Legal, a national organization that fights for LGBT civil rights. 

"In most states, judges simply do not look like the court users who stand before them, and that's a problem," he wrote in an email.  "Courts depend on the trust of the public."

 According to Lambda Legal's  data, only 27 percent of transgender people said they "trust the courts," Lesh said. "That's disturbing. "

LGBTQ activists say having a trans judge would go a long way toward boosting  public confidence in the judicial system.

Sias made a case for why he should be elected by quoting former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, who famously said, "If you're not at the table, you're on the menu."

It certainly would be a change to allow a member of the trans community to have a seat at the table.