Judge Dan Anders is gay. Big deal.
Judge Daniel Anders may be the most well-known personality in the least-known political campaign in Philadelphia. On top of his regular judicial schedule, Anders is flying in full campaign mode, running ragged from one event to another throughout the city while seeking a 10-year seat on Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas. He’s also running as the city’s first openly gay judge.
Larger than life—he towers more than 6 feet tall and is prone to peppering conversations with his megawatt smile—Anders can be as easygoing (high-fiving over his new rooftop hot tub or mini bamboo garden) as he is serious (presiding over Courtroom E in the Family Court building on Vine St.).
The serious side is what he brings to work. “I deal with real problems that are intertwined between poverty, drug addictions, mental health issues, and they all impact on the safety of children,” he says. “It’s my job to make sure these children are safe in their environment—whether that’s with their biological parents, extended family or foster parents.”
Anders helps families that have been cracked open by poverty connect with services like rehab, therapy and foster care. He also has the difficult task of terminating parental rights when a child is being abused in the home. Anders says the job can be both draining and rewarding, and admits it can also be a bit like Groundhog Day, powering through up to 15 cases on the docket in one sitting.
Endorsed by the Philadelphia Bar Association and both the Democratic and Republican parties, Anders looks like a shoo-in. There are 93 positions overall in the Common Pleas court, with assignments split between three main divisions of Trial, Family and Orphans’ Court. This year, 22 candidates are vying for seven open seats. The primary election is May 19.
Anders’ most vocal support comes from powerhouses like Gov. Ed Rendell and Mark Segal, owner of the Philadelphia Gay News. Rendell cherry-picked Anders out of the 2007 race and assigned him a seat on Family Court, where he’s ruled on 5,000 cases in the last two years. So technically, Anders is already the first openly gay judge in Pennsylvania.
The key word is “openly.” He laughs and lifts his brows when he says it, because the idea that there have been no gay people out of the thousands of judges in the state’s history is about as unlikely as the idea that there were never and are not any gay Philadelphia police officers. “Of course there are,” says Anders. “I know some.”
Seems the citizenry was ready to allow an out-and-proud gay person to serve before anyone stepped up to the plate.
“I think Philly’s been ready for an openly gay candidate for a while,” he says. “Someone has to be the first. I haven’t found it to be pushing uphill at all. It’s a big deal that it’s not a big deal, so that’s tremendous.”
The initial announcement sparked a debate over whether the milestone was a big deal—or bigger deal if it wasn’t such a big deal.
The day of his swearing in, gay culture and “fabulous disco trivia” blogger “Joe.My.God” blogged about it and linked to a profile of Anders in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Gail Shister (herself an LGBT hall-of-famer, Shister was one of the first openly gay reporters in the U.S. mainstream media).
“That’s great, and sort of fabulous that it’s not all over the news,” wrote the first commenter beneath Joe.My.God’s post. Within minutes, a response surfaced: “I dunno, I’d be pleased to see a story about an out-and-proud gay politician as a nice change of pace from closeted-and-pathetic gay politician self-destructing.”
Talking to Anders, the is-it-a-big-deal conundrum is just the beginning of the politics of campaigning as a gay politician. “It depends if you’re talking about the LGBT community or the allied community,” he says. “With the LGBT community, the politics of being an openly gay person is making sure you reach out to all parts—it’s not one community, it’s communities.”
Anders goes on about reaching out to the black, Latino and female communities—niches of Philly’s rich LGBT scene that aren’t always apparent at politico hobnobbing events. “You go to some events and it’s all white men who looks like each other,” he says, shaking his head.
Anders shifts gears a little when campaigning within what he calls the “allied community,” which means groups like the Democratic Party, labor unions and other gay-friendlier groups. “My sexual orientation is not an issue with them. I raise it sometimes only because I can’t campaign as an openly gay person unless I’m telling people that I’m openly gay,” he says. “In some ways I don’t present myself as an openly gay person. I’m not wearing a pink robe or a pink suit, so I have to come out to people. That’s part of being an openly gay candidate. But in general, it really doesn’t matter.”
“If I’m out at some campaign or Teamster event in Chestnut Hill, people don’t care,” says Anders. “And I mean that in a positive way—they really don’t care.”
Judge races are extremely low-profile in Philadelphia—the election is more of an insider-y political process—and it’s difficult to find information on the candidates and race even when you’re looking for it.
There’s not much money for television and radio ads, so face time counts. And face time is something Anders is great at, whether it’s carefully explaining the Common Pleas courts system or gabbing about how much he loves Extreme Makeover Home Edition—two gears he shifts between with great ease. Asked if he has any detractors, Anders doesn’t miss a beat.
“No,” he says, smiling. “But you can call my boyfriend if you want.”
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