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Philly Races Highlight Historic 'Rainbow Wave'

No LGBTQ person has ever won election to Philadelphia City Council. But a large slate of strong candidates are in the running this year for elected office.

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    Philly Races Highlight Historic 'Rainbow Wave'
    NBC10 Illustration
    The LGBTQ Philadelphia flag behind City Hall in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    A win by Henry Sias, who is running for judge in Philadelphia this year, would be a first in the United States.

    He is trying to become the country's first transgender man to take the bench in a courtroom. 

    "There are times when I do feel very humbled by it and that’s pretty awesome," Sias, who graduated from Yale Law School, said in an interview with NBC10 about his trailblazing campaign. "But when I hear from younger people or their parents, when a parent will say, 'Hey, my kid saw your video,' that sort of puts the wind in my sails."

    He is part of the strongest contingent of LGBTQ candidates in memory. Five people are running for Philadelphia City Council and two are running for Common Pleas judge. No LGBTQ person has ever won election to Philadelphia City Council.

    Democrats Deja Lynn Alvarez, Sherrie Cohen, Adrian Rivera-Reyes and Lauren Vidas and Republican Daniel Orsino are running for Council seats in the May 21 primary, while Sias and Tiffany Palmer are seeking judgeships. The municipal general election will be held in November.

    Philadelphia's "rainbow wave" in this year's municipal elections is one reason that LGBTQ advocates are excited about municipal races across the country this year. The Washington, D.C.-based LGBTQ Victory Fund's endorsed candidate slate in local elections is dominated by the Philly hopefuls.

    Henry Sias

    The city has played a pioneering role in the fight for LGBTQ civil rights over the decades. Independence Hall was the site of the earliest recurring gay rights demonstrations, starting in 1965. The oldest LGBTQ bookstore in the country started on South Street and now is located at 12th and Pine streets. Barbara Gittings, who lived in Center City, founded the country's first lesbian magazine, The Ladder.

    But the rainbow wave reaches far beyond Philadelphia. At the national level, Democrat Peter Buttegieg, a gay Indiana mayor, is exploring a run for president. He raised $7 million in the first quarter of 2019.

    "Last year was called a 'rainbow wave' in Congress," Victory Fund political director Sean Meloy said. "We're seeing it continue into this year. And in places like Philly, which I believe is the only top-five city never to elect an LGBTQ person to Council, it's exciting to finally bring that representation."

    The community is still woefully underrepresented in elected government positions. From local governing bodies to state Capitols to Congress, only one-tenth of 1% of elected officials in the United States identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer, Meloy said.

    That's a much lower percentage than the 4-to-5% — by conservative estimates — of the country's population that identifies as LGBTQ, he said.

    "Absolutely it's frustrating to see we're such a big part of Philadelphia as a whole, but have no elected officials in city government," Deja Lynn Alvarez, one of the Council at-large candidates, said.

    Deja Lynn Alvarez

    Alvarez said she has worked hard on the campaign trail to raise awareness about the intersection of LGBTQ issues and those facing the entire city.

    "I've faced extreme poverty. I've faced discrimination and homelessness," she said. "As a trans woman, I have faced all of those things. It’s always the most marginalized in society."

    Lauren Vidas, who is challenging incumbent Councilman Kenyatta Johnson in the Second Councilmatic district, said Philadelphia's LGBTQ community is no longer synonymous with any single neighborhood.

    "When I’m out talking to members of LGBT community, their issues and concerns are the same," Vidas said. "We all want affordable housing, good schools, clean streets."

    Lauren Vidas

    Philadelphia in this off-year election could be a test for the presidential election year of 2020, when Peter Buttegieg, the gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana, appears poised to throw his name in for the Democratic nomination. He recently gave a speech calling out Vice President Mike Pence.

    "The fact that he’s running and representing our community is emboldening to many LGBTQ members," Meloy of the Victory Fund said. "And in Philly, it's happening already."

    Sherrie Cohen, one of the Democrats running for a Council at-large seat, is a trailblazer among the trailblazers. She previously ran for Council in 2011 and 2015, nearly winning eight years ago. Her father, David Cohen, served 38 years on Council.

    Sherrie Cohen

    "It's wonderful that there are so many LGBT community members running. It's a testament to people's desire to be involved," Cohen said. "I'm a Jewish lesbian. Adrian (Rivera-Reyes) is a Puerto Rican gay man. Deja Alvarez is a trans woman. We have so many people stepping up."

    Rivera-Reyes, who secured a coveted first position on the May ballot among 32 Democrats running for five Council at-large seats, is all by himself a symbol of Philadelphia's diversity.

    Adrian Rivera-Reyes

    "You see it every time you meet someone campaigning," said Rivera-Reyes, who holds a Ph.D in cancer biology from the University of Pennsylvania. "There is a craving for having someone like them in government."