In his campaign video to become a Philadelphia judge, Henry Sias is seen shaving, putting on a tie, and taking public transport. He’s just like the rest of us, the footage seems to say. His voiceover clarifies why that’s important: “Men like me—transgender men—are not supposed to be visible.” If Sias wins, he will have made history as the first transgender man to be a judge in the United States.
On May 21st, a primary election will determine if Sias will be the Democratic party’s candidate, with the general election held November 5th. A win in the primary would all but ensure Sias’ victory this fall, as the city is heavily democratic. He is running for a spot on the Court of Common Pleas, which is the primary court system in Philadelphia. This is Sias' second bid for the seat. In 2017 he ran and lost. If elected, he will be seated for a decade, marking a new era of inclusion for the country’s judiciary.
Sias grew up poor in Michigan, he said. His father had been an air traffic controller after serving in the military and was part of the PATCO strike of 1981, when 12,000 workers walked off the job in an effort to secure higher pay and a shorter work week; it was “one of the pivotal moments of labor history in the last 50 years,” as Sias described it. That strike, broken by President Reagan, left families like Sias’ out of jobs and blacklisted from federal government employment. “My father was never the same,” he said. His dad got depressed and his parents eventually divorced, and then the family lost their home in Detroit. Sias aimed for a future that would give him stability, and started on a path that eventually led to his becoming an Ivy-league-educated lawyer.
Sias lived as a woman until he was 35. When he transitioned, he was working in the court system and had clerked for two Supreme Court Justices as well as two judges in the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia. His career remained intact through his transition, but Sias says that his family did not accept him. He found love and acceptance in his wife of six years and the extended family he’s gained through her, he said.
“I’ve been running a very 'out' campaign,” Sias said. He's not the first transgender person to do so in recent years. In 2017, Virginia State Representative Danica Roem became the first openly transgender person to be elected and seated to state legislature in the United States; Christine Hallquist, a trans woman from Vermont, ran for governor last year with a campaign that didn't shy away from being clear about her identity. “If you’re not running with it, you’re running from it,” Sias said.
In his campaign video, Sias suggests that because of his life experience as a trans person who was raised in poverty, he understands what it means to be disenfranchised and to live on society’s margins, and says that he has dedicated his career “to ensuring that the justice system works for everyone.” In Philadelphia—as elsewhere—the impact of such a nuanced personal understanding of inequality could begin to reshape the court's relationship with local populations of marginalized people, including the trans community.
Previous reporting by Broadly found that many Black trans women in Philadelphia living in poverty are forced into criminalized economies such as survival sex work, and they report a severe lack of trust in the police. One infamous incident has long darkened the relationship between trans women in Philadelphia and the PPD: In 2002, Nizah Morris, a trans woman, died from a wound to her head that she endured while in the department’s custody. “I wouldn’t even say that, as a group, African Americans in Philadelphia have received justice—Black trans women are in the center of a Venn diagram of two communities that have been taking it on the chin for a long time,” Sias said.
“I absolutely respect the police department. I know most police officers are good people who got into this… because they wanted to help people.” Nonetheless, Sias said, "some communities are policed with, and on behalf of, and some communities are policed at. There’s no question that trans women of color are policed at.”
Inside the court, trans people have historically had their gender identities used against them, whether through bias in a jury or in the arguments of a prosecutor. Sias mentioned that, for example, sometimes trans people’s testimony has been cast as unreliable because their entire lives are seen as lies. But judges are the ones to decide whether someone’s gender identity can be used as evidence. “[This] has a downstream impact on policing, and people’s perception of whether the system is for them.”
If elected, Silas believes that as a transgender person, his presence alone would help to transform the United States Court System—an institution that still fails to represent the scope of American diversity.