Gay judge gavels his way into TV history
by Matthew S. Bajko
With a snap of his fingers, Judge David Young is about to make television history this fall. He is the first out gay man to have his own daytime show on television.
The 48-year-old Young, a successful judicial candidate in his hometown of Miami, stepped down from the bench in May to star in his own eponymously named half-hour courtroom series. Promos for the show promise "justice with a snap" and a "fresh perspective" on legal issues.
"People will view me the way they want to view me but I am a judge who happens to be gay," said Young, who promised that he would be "the best dressed judge on TV."
Young's effervescent personality was on full display during a lunch interview with the Bay Area Reporter on Labor Day while in San Francisco promoting his new show.
He said viewers can expect to hear him talk about his partner of 12 years, Judge Scott Bernstein, from the bench, sing show tunes, and crack jokes with those standing before him. In one episode he warns a gay hip-hop group that there will only be "one queen" in his courtroom and "that will be me."
But his flamboyance will only go so far, said Young.
"I am not a flaming queen in real life and I am not one on the bench. It would not be professional," said Young. "I will break into show tunes during the show. My favorite is 'Momma's Turn' from Gypsy ."
He said he doesn't see the plethora of court shows as demeaning to the legal profession. Instead he views them as educational tools so the public can learn about court proceedings.
"They are entertainment but the lessons on the show reach a far greater audience than what happens in courtrooms in this country," he said. "It teaches the public not to be taken advantage of by contractors, landlords, or family members."
A graduate of the University of Miami law school, Young went on to work for then-Florida State Attorney Janet Reno from 1984 through 1987 as an assistant state attorney. He left to open his own firm then ran to be a county court judge in 1992. In 2000, he was elected Circuit Court judge in Miami-Dade County.
A registered Republican during the 1990s, Young was not publicly out of the closet when he first ran for office. He would travel north to Fort Lauderdale to go out to gay bars. But his secret would hardly be classified as such. One night a man stopped him at the bar to tell him he was voting for him back in Miami.
"After I got elected I read the book Coming Out Conservative by Marvin Liebman. It had a profound impact on me," said Young. "I didn't want to be 75 years old and not find love, so I came out."
He tried to push the local Republican Party to be more supportive of gay issues. He was approached by national party leaders to run for Congress in 2004, and was assured there would be no problem with his being gay. But the GOP's anti-gay campaign tactics turned him off. He opted not to run and switched his registration to the Democratic Party.
He instead ran successfully to retain his circuit court seat in 2006, while he was secretly in negotiations with Sony Pictures Television about doing the TV show.
"It all had to be confidential otherwise I would get an opponent," he said. "I am not known for keeping my mouth shut."
Two months after his election night victory in September, Young learned that his show had been picked up for national distribution. It will be seen in 91 percent of the country, including the top 50 television markets.
Young said he isn't afraid to be pegged as the gay judge, since he sees himself as being a role model for young LGBT people just coming out of the closet or struggling with their sexual orientation.
"I want to encourage our young people to strive even harder because they can be lawyers or doctors or judges," said Young. "I want to encourage them to improve themselves as best they can, to stay in school and stay off drugs so they can be the best they can be."
Friends are not surprised to see Young be given a national platform to bring his courtroom antics, as well as compassionate approach to justice, to television.
"I think what will be really cool about the show is people will have a chance to see that all kinds of personality types can make good lawyers. You don't necessarily need to be stuffy and boring," said San Francisco resident Jeffrey Orr, a tax attorney, who met Young through his partner of six years, neurosurgeon Atul Patel.
Patel performed brain surgery on Young's father while in residence at a Pennsylvania hospital. The two men struck up a friendship, and over the years the couples have remained close. On a visit to Miami, Orr observed Young in action in his courtroom.
"They brought in the detainees from county jail, and they were all shackled together with their orange jumpsuits on. David said, 'Look everybody, my fan club is here.' He has all these little one liners which are awesome," said Orr.
AIDS Emergency Fund Executive Director Mike Smith has known Young since the two first met at a Harvard training program for elected officials and community activists in 2002. Two of four openly gay people among a group of 60 attendees, Smith said he quickly formed a bond with Young.
Asked to describe his friend, Smith said, "irreverent, effervescent, sharp as a tack, and an extraordinary networker. I am not surprised at all to find he is on television five years later."
More than just being pleased with his friend's success, Smith said he sees having an out gay man with his own TV show as progress that will impact the entire LGBT community.
"I think it is exciting just because it is great for the rest of the country to get exposed to David as a person. For young kids out there looking for a gay role model, it will be nice to see someone who is going to be a little more pushy about it, so to say," said Smith. "As a movement we need a lot more gay people being themselves instead of being whatever they think people want to see."
Others believe the show will have a positive impact on recruiting more out LGBT people to the legal profession.
"Ultimately, for him to be an openly gay man talking about his partner from the bench is great for those interested in a legal career because they can see him as a role model and see you can be openly gay and be a judge; you can be openly gay and be a lawyer," said Rebecca Prozan, co-chair of Bay Area Lawyers for Individual Freedom, an LGBT lawyers group. "These legal shows have been around for a long time so it is about time an openly gay person took to the bench."
Young's show will debut September 10. In the Bay Area it can be seen at 9 a.m. and again at 9:30 a.m. weekdays on the CW Network, channel 44 and cable channel 12.