Giving back and speaking up: Meet the Philadelphia LGBTQ Bar Association

‘As lawyers, we have a responsibility to be leaders in society, and as LGBTQ+ lawyers, we have a special responsibility to advocate for the entire LGBTQ+ community,’ a leader said

By: - Friday November 26, 2021 6:30 am

Giving back and speaking up: Meet the Philadelphia LGBTQ Bar Association

‘As lawyers, we have a responsibility to be leaders in society, and as LGBTQ+ lawyers, we have a special responsibility to advocate for the entire LGBTQ+ community,’ a leader said

By: - 6:30 am

Stephen Kulp, Thomas Ude, Jr., Rebecca Levin Nayak, Gregory Yorgey-Girdy (Philadelphia Gay News photo collage).

Stephen Kulp, Thomas Ude, Jr., Rebecca Levin Nayak, Gregory Yorgey-Girdy (Philadelphia Gay News photo collage).

By Victoria Brownworth

The import and impact of lawyers — like those working under the rubric of the Philadelphia LGBTQ Bar Association — is integral in the continuing fight for LGBTQ equity. This has never been more apparent nor more critical than now.

In the past decade, monumental legal cases have challenged and changed discriminatory policies and laws affecting LGBTQ people at all levels of society.

Among them have been landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases on same-sex marriage — United States v. Windsor in 2013, Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, and Bostock v. Clayton County, the 2020 anti-discrimination case in which the Court held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also protects gay and trans employees against employment discrimination.

More recently, in the case of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, the U.S. Supreme Court found the City of Philadelphia violated the First Amendment rights to religious freedom of Catholic Social Services (CSS) when the City demanded CSS agree to certify same-sex couples as foster parents.

In 2021, discrimination, hate crimes, custody issues, divorces and a plethora of other legal wrangles face LGBTQ people. The pandemic has heightened awareness of biases against LGBTQ people in healthcare, employment, housing and other venues. But where and how do queer and trans people search out an attorney if they need one sympathetic to their case and understanding of the problems and perils they face?

The plethora of issues that LGBTQ people face underscores the vital need for a group such as the Philadelphia LGBTQ Bar Association.

The history and growth of the group over the 35 years since its inception in 1986 runs parallel to the changes in the Philadelphia LGBTQ community as a whole. When the Philadelphia LGBTQ Bar Association was founded, it was as a group of 25 attorneys. As Philadelphia Attorneys for Human Rights (PAHR), the group advocated for the rights of the LGBTQ community in the greater Philadelphia area.

The group chose the ambiguity of that acronym during the apex of the AIDS crisis to protect the identities of its members, some of whom refused to receive communications from PAHR lest they be accidentally outed.

In 1992, PAHR’s membership changed the organization’s name to the Gay and Lesbian Lawyers of Philadelphia (GALLOP) and the group formally incorporated in 1997. The organization’s role expanded quickly. GALLOP wrote, helped to write or co-signed amicus curiae briefs advocating for equal rights for LGBTQ people, including parental rights and marriage equality throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

In 2002 the National LGBT Bar Association’s Lavender Law Conference was hosted by GALLOP, and now-judge Tiffany Palmer organized the first-ever Lavender Law Career Fair for students. That first career fair attracted 30 employers and around 200 students, but has since become a staple of Lavender Law that attracts over 175 employers annually.

In 2019 GALLOP changed its name to the Philadelphia LGBTQ Bar Association “to fully include the diverse identities of its members. These name changes reflect the Philadelphia LGBTQ Bar Association’s ongoing commitment to being forward-thinking and encouraging a diverse and inclusive group of LGBTQ+ leaders for tomorrow.”

Diverse and inclusive it now is. In 2021, the Philadelphia LGBTQ Bar Association leadership is young, progressive and racially, ethnically and gender diverse, led by a millennial gay man of color, Stephen Kulp, who has chaired the organization since January 2021.

The swearing in ceremony of new LGBTQ lawyers. L-R: Stephen Kulp, Olivia Hester, Kimberly Kaelin, Alexander Perry, Hon. Ann M. Butchart, Hon. Idee C. Fox, Hon Abbe F. Fletman, Hon. Daniel J. Anders, Alexandra Sobieski, Nandani Deendyal, Dean Daniel Filler, Gregory O. Yorgey-Girdy (Philadelphia Gay News photo).

 “I am overwhelmed with gratitude to our members and our community for the privilege of serving as Chair of the Philadelphia LGBTQ Bar Association,” Kulp told The Philadelphia Gay News.

But, says Kulp, there is hard and relentless work involved, as exemplified by the enumeration of recent legal battles.

“As lawyers, we have a responsibility to be leaders in society, and as LGBTQ+ lawyers, we have a special responsibility to advocate for the entire LGBTQ+ community,” Kulp said.

He added that although the organization’s membership is now wholly out to the community, that carries its own burden. Kulp asserted, “This work takes courage, bravery and a bit of grit. Our organization’s success is a credit to the strength we have when we work together with purpose.”

That advocacy is apparent in the work of the organization’s Secretary, Gregory Yorgey-Girdy, who just won his judicial race on Election Day, becoming the first openly gay man in history elected as a judge on the Philadelphia Municipal Court.

For Yorgey-Girdy, his role at Philadelphia LGBTQ Bar Association has been part of a journey culminating in that election. He told PGN, “I’m honored to have received the number of votes I did in both the primary and general election, and if you voted for me I again thank you. I owe so much of this win to my husband, my kids, and a close circle of friends who supported me.”

Yet many would argue Yorgey-Girdy owes that win primarily to the work he has done over years in Philadelphia — work that has helped make the community a safer space to be someone like himself: a Black gay man with a husband and children.

Yorgey-Girdy said, “As a board member and current Secretary, it has been my privilege to help the Philadelphia LGBTQ Bar Association grow as a highly respected voice in the legal community. It is an incredible responsibility to help lead our organization in achieving its goals and purpose.”

As Legal and Public Policy Director for the Mazzoni Center, Thomas Ude, Jr., Vice-Chair of the Philadelphia LGBTQ Bar Association, is dealing with the healthcare aspects of LGBTQ discrimination that have impacted the community since the inception of then-PAHR. Ude told PGN, “I have been excited to see the Bar Association continue to grow and develop programs to help attorneys and law students across Philadelphia’s LGBTQ+ communities connect with one another.”

Ude said, “I have been excited to work with Stephen, Becca [Levin Navak, Treasurer] and Greg on the executive board this year.”

Yorgey-Girdy echoed Ude, noting, “Our Chair, Stephen Kulp, has inspired folks to believe in the power our community holds and the limitless potential in the sum of us.”

Kulp has taken that dictate very seriously and is, with the help of the executive board, propelling the organization forward. He said, “When my peers elected me to lead this organization, I promised to advance diversity and inclusion in the profession — to promote and celebrate our members so that everyone is valued and has equal opportunity to participate and succeed as LGBTQ+ law students, lawyers and judges.”

Kulp asserted that his work and that of the organization has also been to create access for growth. He notes, “Our organization provided our members access to diverse CLE (Continuing Legal Education) programs focusing on policy, advocacy, health and wellness, and DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) in the past year at no charge.”

Among the things Kulp says the organization has done this year is create an atmosphere of support by “supporting newly admitted LGBTQ+ lawyers at a ceremonial swearing-in ceremony with Hon. Idee Fox, presiding and Hon. Ann Butchart, Hon. Abbe Fletman and Hon. Daniel Anders celebrating these young lawyers from the bench.”

Kulp said making people aware of the organization and its myriad goals is also key. Kulp said, “We hosted town halls to hear from candidates running for Municipal Court, Court of Common Pleas and District Attorney. We are expanding new legal pathways for LGBTQ+ rights that honor the trailblazers that formed our organization in 1986. We have collaborated with the other affinity bar associations in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania and expanded our work with National Bar Associations to ensure LGBTQ voices had a seat at the table.”

For Yorgey-Girdy, there is yet more to accomplish. He notes that “less than a year ago I wasn’t seriously considering a run for public office. But with the encouragement of my family, friends and the grace of God, I decided that I’d launch a campaign.”

Now Yorgey-Girdy represents another achievement of the organization by being elected a judge. He said, “I look forward to serving all Philadelphians as a judge, and I will uphold my campaign promise of doing what I can internally within the First Judicial District to be an agent of change from within.”

Kulp says, “Our diversity makes our organization unique. We give back to our community through pro bono initiatives that seek to protect those at the intersection of sexuality, race, age and gender.”

He adds that it is essential to “ensure we speak on behalf of the minorities within a minority. All of this is building blocks towards advocacy.”

To learn more about the Philadelphia LGBTQ Bar Association visit: philalgbtqbar.org/.

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