Political LGBTQ&A with Xander Orenstein, Magisterial Judge Elect

We also must remember that your identity is part of your power, but do not let it alone define who you are. There are always bits of who you are that are out there to be discovered and what you will find will surprise and empower you.

A few days after Election Day 2021, the Victory Fund released a list of known out  LGBTQ  candidates who won their offices. They identified nine in Pennsylvania who were victorious. This list is based on VF candidates, but I suspect there are others, especially in very local elections. If you know someone who should be on this list, please message them to message me privately. Loosely speaking, I’m interested in out LGBTQ candidates who won their office in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania elected at least 9 out LGBTQ candidates to office this November. 4 people have responded to this Q&A – 3 men and 1 nonbinary individual. There is no other Pennsylvania media outlet that will connect elected officials to the statewide LGBTQ community. I’m not saying that to shame anyone for deciding not to follow through, but to remind you that there are queer kids and adults throughout the Commonwealth who deserve to read these stories, I am dismayed that the majority of those elected chose not to participate in a LGBTQ centric series.  No women responded and only one elected official from Western Pennsylvania – this one.

There are now 54 out LGBTQ elected officials in Pennsylvania and 999+ in the United States. At least 430 candidates ran for office in 2021 and 184 of them won their office, setting a record.

So I created a political Q&A for these specific candidates who are mostly brand new to municipal politics. And we’ll be using their responses as a launch pad to explore equality issues in their municipalities. It is all exciting stuff and worth diving into, I promise. Stay tuned for an announcement of how we are sliding into electoral politics in 2022.

Xander Orenstein was elected Magisterial District Judge in 05-03-10, which covers parts of Lawrenceville, Polish Hill, and Bloomfield. Xander’s response was a bit atypical in that they chose not to answer the questions about name/pronouns/office and a few further below. I’m not sure what to make of that, so I’ll let their words speak without any further introduction by my words.

Please note that as a judge, I am bound by the code of conduct for Magisterial District Judges, and as such can not always directly answer questions on substantive policy, matters that may end up in the courtroom, or would or appear to be signs of prejudice. I will answer as clearly and directly as I can, but for those that would get even close to breaking the rules, I will state that I can not answer.

How do you describe your identity? I am a Jewish, bisexual non-binary scientist and housing organizer.

Tell us about your district. Who are your constituents and the community you will serve? While my district consists of parts of Lawrenceville, Polish Hill, Bloomfield, and the Strip, as a magistrate, I will also be required to routinely fulfill county-wide functions such as arraignment court, which would give me the potential to be in contact with any and all of the Allegheny County residents. While my district is predominantly white, it is diverse in its income and educational levels. We also see a strong mix of families who have lived here for generations and recent implants. My district also houses a number of well-respected local businesses.

Why did you decide to run for this office? After losing my job as a chemical technician in the first few months of the pandemic, I started organizing with the Pittsburgh Union of Regional Renters, going around the county helping people facing eviction get in touch with resources as well as navigating the court system. While doing this, a sitting magistrate recommended I run for magistrate in my district if I wanted to have a bigger impact on ensuring fairness and harm reduction in my community. I knew that the incumbent did not share my outlook on the judiciary and when I found out he was up for election, and that nobody else who did represent my views was willing to run, I decided that launching my campaign was the right thing to do.

Who were your endorsements and supporters? I am proud to say that I won my election based primarily on the strong, grassroots support from individual community members. I was not endorsed by any currently or formerly elected officials and won without the support of any major political parties. I also worked with a broad coalition of community organizations that endorsed me, including the Pittsburgh chapter of the DSA, the national DSA, No Cop Money PA, the LGBTQ Victory Fund, Run for Something, the Sunrise Movement, 314 Action Fund, #VOTEPROCHOICE, and Jacob Klinger for Constable.

What are your priorities for your first months in office? I plan to hit the ground running, focusing on learning as much as I can in order to better serve my community not just in terms of performing the functions of the office to the highest standard but also while reducing the harm that is incidentally done to people by contact with the judiciary. Communication with the community will be central to this effort, as understanding the shifting needs of our neighborhood will help to better inform the impact decisions have.

How did your identity as an openly LGBTQ person impact and inform your campaign? How will it impact and inform your tenure in office? My identity as an openly non-binary person impacted my campaign in that it informs much of the way I interact with the world in general. That is to say, it is a part of who I am and it is hard to separate the things I do into categories based on the different parts of my identity. The amount of hostility I personally faced because of it was far outweighed by the excitement and support for it by the community at large, which is a blessing I will carry with me always. I also recognize that that was definitely influenced by my status as a white non-binary person, whereas Black trans people (especially Black trans women) face routine violence at the hands of our community. 2021 has been cited as having the highest rate of murdered trans people on record.

In terms of impacting my tenure in office, it will inform my dedication to fairness and compassion, and to treat everyone the way I wish to be treated. Basic respect and dignity go a long way.

How does open and visible representation of different LGBTQ identities in elected office change the world? By having a diversity of backgrounds in positions of critical decision making, it brings a wealth of experiences and perspectives into the legislative, executive, and judicial practices that have been so far unheard. These systems were not built with us in mind, and hopefully, we will begin to see the impact we are bringing sooner rather than later.

At least 410 LGBTQ candidates were on the general election ballot in 2021, including 26 from Pennsylvania. We had the third largest number of candidates in this most recent election and many high profile folx lined up to run in 2022. What are your thoughts about this? I am hesitant to answer this one based on the judicial code of conduct, but can say proud to be among a class of LGBTQ candidates who were bold enough to step up and run for office.

Are there ways in which the harmful impact of the pandemic on the lives of LGBTQ folks could be lessened by government intervention? I am hesitant to answer this one based on the judicial code of conduct.

Please tell us about your very first impression of Pittsburgh. I was struck at once by how each neighborhood had a radically different feel to it.

What Pittsburghers have influenced your life and work? Earnestly, Fred Rogers. He taught us that we must prioritize kindness and approach all problems by listening to the other.

Please tell us about the first LGBTQ person that you knew and what impact they had on your life. Xander would like to leave the question blank and does not have anything to add.

What is your message to the LGBTQ youth who may not realize that people like them hold elected office? I am the first elected out non-binary member of the US Judiciary. I am beyond humbled to have the opportunity to be able to tell those youth that you can and should fight for your goals, even if you haven’t seen anyone like you in a role like this before. As queer people, we lost almost an entire generation to the AIDs epidemic and therefore often have to find ways to forge new paths ahead. We also must remember that your identity is part of your power, but do not let it alone define who you are. There are always bits of who you are that are out there to be discovered and what you will find will surprise and empower you. I believe there is basic decency in everyone that can be connected with, and if you are able to let others see it in you, it will come out in them. By always striving to be kinder, to learn more, and to listen more, you will be able to reach far more people than you ever thought possible.

Where can readers find you on social media? @xander4mdj on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Is there anything you’d like to add? Xander would like to leave the question blank and does not have anything to add.

Thank you, Xander.

Read previous posts in this series.

Political LGBTQ&A with Sean Strub, Mayor of Milford

Political LGBTQ&A with Gregory O. Yorgey-Girdy, Judge-Elect


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