Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

Victoria Kolakowski: A Judge, Or A Transgender Judge?

Filed By Dr. Jillian T. Weiss | November 05, 2010 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics, Politics
Tags: medicalization, transgender judge, Victoria Kolakowski

The New York Times reported yesterday that "Transgender Candidate Is New Judge."kolakowski.jpg

The The Oakland Tribune, a local paper, reported that "Alameda County has become home to the first transgender trial judge in the country as Victoria Kolakowski won the race to fill an empty seat on the county's Superior Court bench."

CNN put her on a website of "intriguiging people."

The San Francisco Chronicle ran the story a few days ago as "An Alameda County Superior Court election remained undecided Wednesday, with Victoria Kolakowski - who would become the nation's first transgender judge - holding a slight lead over John Creighton."

Is Judge Kolakowski a judge, or a transgender judge? Is Clarence Thomas a Supreme Court Justice, or a black judge? Is Ruth Bader Ginsburg a judge, or a lady judge?

I'm reminded of what Dr. Johnson reputedly said: ""Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

I both understand and appreciate the sentiments that motivated this reporting. I sense a desire to report on a first -- a successful transgender judicial candidate -- and to do so in a sensitive manner. Kudos for that. And Judge Kolakowski hasn't exactly discouraged that, with a special section on her election website entitled "Making History."

But at the same time, I cannot help but notice that there is a certain quality of looking at her as a specimen, what has been called, in other contexts, "exoticization" and "medicalization."

I'm not complaining. Just sayin'. I think it's a meme worth noting. By the way, Ms. Kolakowski has a heck of a resume. This woman has more degrees than a thermometer, and an incredible amount of high-quality legal experience. But few media stories are discussing that. This is the fate of a first. No one discussed Amanda Simpson's experience either.

Specimen: a portion or quantity of material for use in testing, examination, or study.

Hey, she got elected, and it's any port in a storm. But gosh, I look forward to the day when I'm old and gray, and tell some little teeny boppers about the days when the first transgender judge was elected, and how everyone made such a fuss. They'll look bored at this piece of ancient history, and talk about the latest flying cars, or whatever, and I will be left to my dreams of the old days.

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I'd say she's a judge but isn't she a "lady judge", too?

"Victoria Kolakowski, a lawyer who underwent gender reassignment surgery more than two decades ago"

If Bader Ginsburg had her tubes tied twenty years ago would we be reading from the New York Times "Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Supreme Court Judge who underwent tubal ligation surgery two decades ago." What does her GRS, SRS or tonsillectomy have to do with the price of beans? Is she or is she not qualified to be a judge? Yeah, "All the news that's fit to print" . . .

On second thought, I am interested in the fact that she is a first and that transgender (transsexual or whatever you want to call it) people have reached that level of acceptance. I just can't wait for the day it is so commonplace that it becomes a non-issue. I still think "Judge Kolakowski" would have sufficed and been more respectful. Yes, I know Bader Ginsberg's pancreatic cancer was written about extensively but SRS is a personal medical issue not a life or death health issue that would affect the course an entire nation might take.

"I just can't wait for the day it is so commonplace that it becomes a non-issue."

I couldn't agree more. However...,it isn't commonplace-not yet. Becoming mainstream, commonplace, a "non-issue", if you will, is not a comfortable process. Often, those who are "firsts" face an unwarranted level of scrutiny and unfortunate mischaracterization.

Let's face it; WE know we are lawyers, politicians, judges, mothers, partners, brothers - people first, gendered second and trans, somewhere far down the list in order of importance.

In just the last five years or so, I have noted less and less sideshow reporting about transpeople and more asides as in your quote, "Victoria Kolakowski, a lawyer who underwent gender reassignment surgery more than two decades ago". It is visibility in society at all points, personal, public, media, workplace, worship, which brings this about and will ultimately render our trans-ness unremarkable altogether.

And yes, sometimes it is hard. I've been the recipient of crank phone calls and threats; heckled at public forums, misrepresented in the media and a target of dual discrimination. Without martyring ourselves or indulging in self-promotion, we have the opportunity to pave the way for the generation to come.

"It is visibility in society at all points, personal, public, media, workplace, worship, which brings this about and will ultimately render our trans-ness unremarkable altogether."

I am thinking "visibility" is a sword that cuts both ways and also a heavy cross to carry. I am not mixing metaphors. It is both of those things. It's a cross many "trans" people don't carry. I can't say I blame them. Why would someone post anonymously to Bilerico if it weren't a cross someone saw no masochistic need to carry?

It is a sword that cuts both ways because if it is a cross you are forced to carry you are able to see the hypocrisy that exists. Then, you wish the sword would cut the other way and dash the smug illusions others carry around with them from day to day instead of allowing them to paralyze you with their accusations of delusion.

Of course, there is plenty of analysis going around which asserts that insistence that one become visible is nothing more than attention seeking. We're a long way from Lile Elbe, Michael Dillon and Roberta Crowell. I favor making visible everyone else's pretensions. We have nothing to prove.

Kolakwoski is a transgender judge in much the same way that Kye Williams is not a Division I basketball player but a "Division I transgender basketball player."


The Oakland Tribute wrote about Kolakowski and her opponent this way:

"OAKLAND -- Alameda County has become home to the first transgender trial judge in the country as Victoria Kolakowski won the race to fill an empty seat on the county's Superior Court bench... The race gave voters a distinct choice between a candidate with unquestionable experience and one who would have brought a new level of diversity to a bench populated by prosecutors and men."

They categorized her opponent as someone with "unquestionable experience" while Judge-elect Kolakowski was basically about "diversity". In point of fact, Ms. Kolakowski was also incredibly experienced for the job, on virtually every level (as was Amanda Simpson). This is a typical way of demeaning groups without power... that they basically are no more than the beneficiaries of affirmative action while those who've gotten their positions at least partly through privilege and connections (and I'm not saying that about her opponent) never have their qualifications questioned. How about John McCain... the Admiral's boy who was pretty much a fuck up until he became a POW?

Unfortunately, Kolakowski will be a transgender judge. For groups which want to demean us, they will return endlessly to her gender history as a way of diminishing her accomplishments. If Jonas Salk were trans, he'd be the known as the "tranny scientist." If Hitler were trans, he'd be known forever as the transgender who was a dictator... it supersedes all else.

Ya know, once you've hung around Trans people a bit. They just become people. To me.....

Well, looking at the photo, ....it’s kind of eerie. She’s the spittin image of my mom when I was a kid…right before she blistered my butt!

So, Jillian, when are YOU gonna make judge?
*push* *push* *nudge* *nudge*

To become a judge, one must cozy up to the people in power. In that I have little interest. Frankly, being a professor is a lot more enjoyable.

I want to address the issue of my having a page on my campaign website about being transgender, because this has been mentioned in most of the daily newspaper coverage of my campaign.

I have eight pages on my website other than the main (index) page and the various pages to sign up, donate etc. I devoted one page to discussing my gender identity which, if I hadn't discussed it, I would be accused of avoiding or hiding. In that page I explain why there are real impacts of electing a transgender person as a judge. That page is last on the list. Yet people say that I am making this a major issue in my campaign.

My opponent, on the other hand, devoted a significant portion of his campaign website and literature to highlighting his wife and children (roughly a quarter of his mailer was a photo of his family). Not even a single press account has argued that he was making an issue of his heterosexuality, or questioned how this was relevant to his qualifications to be a judge.

(I am not mentioning this to criticize his pride in sharing about his lovely family, but to make a point about public perceptions.)

I devoted a smaller portion of my resources, time on the campaign trail, etc. to discussing transgender issues and it is universally considered noteworthy, even in this blog post. This demonstrates that there is still something qualitatively different about public perception of these characteristics of our identities.

However, until people are open about their gender identity as confortably as others are about being happily straight and married with children, we will never move beyond this being considered newsworthy. This is why I talked about my wife on the website, and explained why electing a transgender person to be a judge would be positive.

Vicky Kolakowski

Judge (elect) Kolakowski, your right. Recently I assisted a coworker who came out at work so they could transition in the workplace. 80%+ were actually obviously OK with the transition, a few however either had negative body language or actually voice negative comments.
Until I explained that I too was Transgender and that the corporation has nearly 300 other employees who are Transgender. That we are not the smallest or most unique minority group in the corporation and that the corporation does understand the issues and does support those employees that transition…which is where the meeting came in at.
Being the first sucks, it draws attention to every fault. Every minor mistake is conflated to a major issue. You have to be beyond perfect, you have to be mythical.

To quote Lt. Kara Hultgreen “No one remembers you if you’re the second for anything. You don’t even get a foot note in the history books! I wanna make history!” (said when she was notified she was the second female pilot chosen for the US Navy F-14 Tomcat school)

Well done, Judge Kolakowski, and congratulations on your election. I think your point is an excellent one. One can neither avoid it nor hide it, nor should avoiding or hiding be necessary, just as it is not for those of heterosexual orientation and traditional gender identity. Your campaign hit just the right note -- you correctly argued that your gender identity is a positive attribute, and you didn't overemphasize it. And it is also inevitable that this "first" would be noted by the media, and perhaps, as some commenters here have noted, that's a positive thing too. I suppose I wanted to put an asterisk on all this and say that your legal qualifications and experience are worthy of note at the top of the column, rather than the bottom.

Stonewall Girl Stonewall Girl | November 6, 2010 11:07 PM

Congrats to you, Vicky!

And I agree with and congratulate you on your statement, "However, until people are open about their gender identity as comfortably as others are about being happily straight and married with children, we will never move beyond this being considered newsworthy. This is why I talked about my wife on the website, and explained why electing a transgender person to be a judge would be positive."

I believe that our closets are our biggest enemy and as much as I value my privacy and wish to keep my history to myself and my loved ones, it is only by presenting one's self as a transperson in the most positive manner than people can universally relate with, can we truly break down the barriers of ignorance and fear that lead to the bias, discrimination and lack of respect that plague transgender people as a group.

I think you've become the "Transgender judge" like the first "female supreme court justice," etc. The novelty will soon wear off and people will be back to "oh, her? That's Judge Vicky" soon enough.

Contests on pulling out a win in your election. Brava!

Stupid iPhone autocorrect haiku!

That should be "congrats on pulling out a win" not "contests on..."


Les Addison | November 6, 2010 1:16 AM

Judge-elect Kolakowski is remarkable for a number of things-- her civil law experience, her blue collar parents who eloped as teenagers, the fact that she's a renter rather than a homeowner, that she's accustomed to dealing with people for whom affording a lawyer is a big issue and who can't get one for free as a constitutional right. She's brilliant and incredibly well-educated. She has judicial experience.

The reasons to vote for her have nothing to do with her being trans. A lot of the reasons why people didn't vote for her have everything to do with her being trans, and the fears that people have. It has been about twenty-one years since she had to write a brief arguing her right to take the bar exam and demonstrating that being trans doesn't mean that she's too mentally imbalanced to be a lawyer.

Les Addison (formerly Leslie Kolakowski)

She had to write a brief to argue her right to take the bar exam? Can you say more? And thank you for pointing up these other attributes. The more I hear about her, the more I am impressed.

Les Addison | January 18, 2011 7:40 PM

When she applied to take the Louisiana bar exam, someone expressed an opinion that she was not "of sound mind" because she's trans. She had to submit written argument that she's sane enough to be a lawyer.

I doubt either of us will live to see the day when this is all so normal it's unremarkable (referring to minorities in high office). People have mentioned about 600 million times that Barack Obama is the first black president, and they don't plan on stopping.

In a book I'm reading about gay teens, written when I had just stopped being a teen so I'm close enough to be counted in the group being discussed, the author talks about how today's (2004's) gay teens no longer identify as gay, how they don't care about such words, how it's so boring and normalized that everyone's just sexual and does their own thing. I can't help but laugh at that assessment, because here we are. One day no one will care about these identities, but that day is a long ways off.

I disagree that diversity inherently means "undeserved merit" since there is actual value in diversity. And, honestly, even if we whittled it all down to merit and experience, are those really ever deserved either? Does being recipient of great intelligence genes really mean someone is better than others? Does having a decent upbringing and education that opened up doors, even if someone wasn't born to Harvard grads, mean that someone is much more deserving than others who didn't even get half a chance? And if we were to only focus on hard work and drive, I seems like luck too in terms of people getting a personality, birth order place, or upbringing that instills those characters while some other people don't.

Not to take away from Kolakowski's achievement, but I'm just saying that diversity is a substantive qualifier, not an instant insult. The fact that many Americans believe there's no value in having different experiences caused by a different identity (instead of an adventurous personality) doesn't mean there is no value.

On another note, why are we still voting for judges? Ugh. It just seems that if people are really worried about politicizing the interpretation of the law, that they would avoid these people actually campaigning.

Alex, I agree with you 'diversity' shouldn't be a loaded word... it's one reasons our planet continues to exist. What I'm saying is that 'diversity' as used in this situation is loaded with a coding by conservatives, and is used as a synonym for 'politically correct' (one of my all-time least favorite terms) and even 'entitlement'... which, as I was pointing out, is the pot calling the kettle black, since this country was founded on and continues to be controlled largely through entitlement.

Congratulations Judge-elect Kolakowski! No one, including me, should underestimate what you have achieved. You are an inspiration and example of what possibilities exist for us all. I am equally impressed with the fact that you are joined in a same sex marriage. I think that is very significant for transsexual people, as well, especially in light of your position and visibility and in spite of any dark brooding about visibility on my part.

Do we need a transgendered judge? Aren't they judged enough nalready?

Totally off topic and I don't mind being pulled for such BUT...This word: transgendered, seems to be showing up in posts and comments frequently of late.

Pardon my snobbishness, BUT...Judge-Elect Kolakowski isn't -ered anything. Neither am I. Transgender? Yes, specifically transsexual and more accurately, a fully transistioned woman.