It's been a crazy election year, but one of the greatest things to come out of it is the growing number of grassroots activists advocating for legislators that look like us, speak like us, live like us, and will work on issues that directly impact us. After all, that's the whole point of electing representatives.
One city that led the charge this year, helping to turn the state of Pennsylvania blue, is Philadelphia. Thanks to sophisticated approaches for voter registration, queer activists used their power to make real change. Now, one of them is taking it a step further.
Greg Yorgey-Girdy is running for judge for Municipal Court in Philadelphia, a city with a historically broken justice system. If elected, he would be the first out gay Black man elected to judge in Municipal Court history. An experienced attorney with nearly two decades focusing on litigation, conflicts, and compliance, Yorgey-Girdy says he decided to run so that he can fight from within to ensure that court culture changes for the people of Philadelphia, specifically for those who are disproportionately impacted by the system.
"As gay people, we are not one to sit around and be quiet. We have a history of being marginalized," Yorgey-Girdy tells Out. "We had one of the highest registrations [in 2020]. It's queer people getting out and doing it. I want the same for this election. It's important because it's a people's court, and a lot of people in the queer community come through that court. One of the things I've seen as a litigator, and personally, is that there's a lot of biases in the court... [LGBTQ+ people] come in and are stigmatized. I would remove all of that. It's extremely important that we have respect and fairness in our courtrooms."
Indeed, Yorgey-Girdy's message comes at an interesting time. In 2019, Philadelphia had a poverty rate of 23.3 percent, according to ThePhiladelphia Inquirer, reigniting its reputation as the "poorest big city" in America. The economic repercussions of the pandemic have made it worse, specifically for people of color. The Municipal Court is the center of where the vast majority of these cases pass through, which is why Yorgey-Girdy recognizes the need for someone like him behind the bench.
"In the municipal court, we deal with a lot of landlord-tenant issues. We also deal with debt collections, which are going up," he explains. "I think that [issue] is so big, especially in a city of poverty."
Greg Yorgey-Girdy and his husband Paul
"My family was created by the courts," he says of his husband Paul and their three kids Anabella, Trevor, and Xander. "We were sequestered from the courtroom at times because we wanted the best interest for our kids. Unfortunately, we lost one kid [to the system] because of all kinds of situations. I blame that partly on the courts because they weren't listening to us. We as foster parents at the time didn't have a voice."
Yorgey-Girdy credits being a foster parent for the fuel he has to fight for other families like his. "I want to see a better life for my kids," he explains. "I want to see a better life for everyone's kids."
One of the first things Yorgey-Girdy will be focusing on should he be elected judge is what's called procedural justice, which basically means creating an atmosphere of respect within the courts.
"When someone comes in, you respect them," he says. "That's from the judge all the way down, and that's through education. You take people the way they are. You have better participation when you are respectful of all people. That's the first thing that we'll do. The next thing is to look at each case individually. When you come in and you see a man of color, you have a stereotype. You see a queer kid come in, you have a stereotype. You put them in a category already and those categories need to be removed. Period. You take people as they are. That is crucial. It is so simple and that's how you get a better result. If you can't do that as a judge, we are limited in how much we can do. I truly care about people. There is a reason why you got in your situation, let's figure out how you can get out of it. And stay out of it."
Yorgey-Girdy's years of crisis management has also given him a unique perspective on finding the root of problems and solving them through strategy, human connection, and results-driven policies.
"One of the things I learned with crisis management is that someone who is really upset, they just really want to be heard. Listen to them," he says. "When it comes to all their negativity, your natural reaction is to match them and get hostile. I sit back and I listen. I literally listen. It's not this fake listening where you kind of shake your head. You really listen and take it from there. I think that's important. They may not get the outcome that they want, but I want people to leave my courtroom saying he was fair. He listened to me."
"I've dealt with people and hostile situations. I've dealt with lawyers who make millions of dollars and literally wanted to kill me because I said, 'No, you cannot take that case. It conflicts with something else.' It is what it is. I am old enough and I'm mature enough, and I have the temperament to deal with that," he says before quipping, "Trust me, I have three kids."
"If I'm elected, I'm elected by the people," he concludes. "I'm going to make a change because it's about respect. I'm a Black queer man. You will respect Black queer people. All people."
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