On Jan. 4, Vicky Kolalowski was sworn in as a Superior Court Judge for Alameda County. The final tally of her hard-fought election revealed that she won by 9,535 votes, 50.98% to Alameda County Deputy District Attorney John Creighton’s 47.98%. Most race watchers believe she won on her merits and experience – having practiced law for 21 years and served as an administrative law judge with California Public Utilities Commission for the last four years. But Kolalowski’s campaign and election was historic: she is the nation’s first openly transgender trial court judge.
Ye Tian reported for Oakland North that Kolakowski received sustained applause Tuesday night in Oakland’s Asian Cultural Center during a special session of the California Superior Court.
“It’s a very powerful and deeply healing experience,” Shannon Minter, the transgender Legal Director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights told Oakland North. “It makes us feel not just that we’re entitled to quality, that we also have something important to offer and to contribute.”
Kolakowski’s acceptance remarks projected hope (see the full transcript below):
“Much has been made in the press, and this evening, about the historic nature of this event, and I do not wish to understate its significance. There would not be such attention to this evening if we weren’t making history. To this very day, if you read comments on the Internet about my election, you’ll find a few misguided people who say that I am unfit for this great responsibility because I am transgender.
However, to me the real news of my being here tonight is not that a transgender person was elected as judge, but that it was never an issue in the campaign. My opponents ran honorable and respectful campaigns, and a majority of the voters of this county reviewed my qualifications and character and selected me for this office.”
Five days before her induction, InsideBayArea.com wrote an inspiring story about Kolalowski’s journey of personal liberation.
“No, I am not going to be able to get you out of things,” she said jokingly to an audience of transgender advocates on the Transgender Day of Remembrance, two weeks after her upset victory over deputy district attorney John Creighton in November.
“But if you come into court and they call you names or the wrong pronoun, then that’s something we can take a look at,” she told the crowd, brushing a lock of brown hair back from her round face. “I’m not trying to turn this into a political statement or promote an agenda.”
Instead, she said she finally found the opportunity she had been waiting for. “I had a chance to serve. If my being visible helps a community that is often ignored and looked down upon, then I am happy. If not me, then who?”
But it took years of rejection and perseverance to get from Michael Kolakowski to 49-year-old Judge Victoria Kolakowski, even though as a child she hoped and prayed to wake up in a female body.
“I guess the prayer was answered,” she said. “But not for a long time afterward.”
And the fact that she was elected in the same county as transgender teen Gwen Araujo, who was brutally murdered in 2002, sends a chilling reminder of how dangerous being visible can be.
Kolakowski’s spouse Cynthia Laird, news editor at the Bay Area Reporter, participated in the enrobement ceremony before the actual induction, according to Oakland North. The couple, who met in 1994, married first in 2004 and then legally married in 2008 at Oakland City Hall, with former mayor Ron Dellums officiating.
In an email Wednesday, Laird told me:
“I am incredibly proud of the winning coalition Vicky put together for her successful campaign. She
brings with her to the bench her unique life experience that will serve Alameda County well.
The campaign, which ran almost all of 2010, was grueling, with countless forums, meetings with voters, and appearances. At every point, her being transgender was not an issue. We are both proud to live in a county that, faced with the chance to elect a judge (most are appointed by the governor), most voters evaluated the candidates and selected Vicky for this position.
It was an incredible ceremony last night – she received sustained applause and standing ovations (two or three, I can’t remember exactly). Not sure of the attendance, probably close to 200, including about two-dozen of her fellow judges, who also stood to recognize her.”
Here is the full transcript of Kolakowski’s remarks, as prepared for delivery:
“Thank you, all of you, for coming here tonight to share this special occasion with me, with my family, and with my colleagues on the bench.
I would like to extend a special recognition and greeting to: INSERT
Alameda County has been served for decades by some of the best and brightest legal minds and distinguished jurists. From our former District Attorney, the late U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, to the late California Supreme Court Justice Wiley Manuel, after whom the courthouse in which I am to be assigned was named, to present California Supreme Court Justices Carol Corrigan and Ming Chin, and so many others, the legal history of our county is rich and varied. I am truly honored and humbled to be joining the company of these jurists and my new colleagues assembled here this evening, as well as many who have sent their regards and regrets for not being able to join us.
Our judicial elections for open seats always attract outstanding attorneys who dedicate enormous amounts of time, their own resources, and disrupt their lives and those of their families for the honor of serving the people of this county. I have sought election to this bench twice, and in that time ran against extraordinarily qualified attorneys. These include my colleague on the bench, Judge Dennis Hayashi, outstanding prosecutors John Creighton and Phil Daly, and the distinguished criminal attorney Louis Goodman, who are all graciously with us this evening. Thank you for your dedication to the people of this county in your respective roles in our legal system.
I want to thank the many people who endorsed me, made phone calls, distributed literature, donated money and their talents, gave me encouragement, and did so much more to help us get to this evening. I couldn’t have done this without all of your support.
Most importantly, nothing that I have accomplished in my life, including this, would have happened without the sacrifices and support that I received from my family – first from my parents, June and Martin Kolakowski, and my spouse Cynthia Laird and her family, all of whom I am so fortunate to have with me this evening. Each of them gave all that they had, and then more, and I appreciate it more than I ever show.
Much has been made in the press, and this evening, about the historic nature of this event, and I do not wish to understate its significance. There would not be such attention to this evening if we weren’t making history. To this very day, if you read comments on the Internet about my election, you’ll find a few misguided people who say that I am unfit for this great responsibility because I am transgender.
However, to me the real news of my being here tonight is not that a transgender person was elected as judge, but that it was never an issue in the campaign. My opponents ran honorable and respectful campaigns, and a majority of the voters of this county reviewed my qualifications and character and selected me for this office.
Throughout my career, once my colleagues found out that I am transgender, it was a curiosity for a day or two at most, and then I just become “Vicky.” I am confident that soon I will just be “Judge Kolakowski” to my colleagues and to those appearing before me.
Last year, many people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, in response to a number of suicides by young people, began posting to the Internet videos with the theme “It Gets Better.” While I believe that isn’t always the case, I do think that life often can get better with hard work and perseverance. Here is my version.
When I started out as an attorney over two decades ago, I encountered a lot of discomfort, subtle and sometimes even invidious discrimination. I could have given up, but instead I started my own practice, I did overflow work for other attorneys, I kept plugging along, and I never gave up. I became an administrative law judge, and today I stand before you as a judge of this Court.
I hope to continue to be a role model and an inspiration. Over the past year, people have visited my campaign website from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and over 1,000 people visited the website from 88 other countries. I have received congratulatory e-mails from all over the world. It is very inspiring to me to see how much this evening means to people in places where it isn’t even safe to say that you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
However, it isn’t even always safe to be an out transgender person in Alameda County. Just eight years ago, a teenager, Gwen Araujo, was murdered here in Alameda County for being transgender. Her family has been so supportive of my campaign, and Gwen’s mother Sylvia was supposed to be with us this evening. Sylvia gave me a butterfly pin that she wore to trials of Gwen’s murderers, and I wore it tonight. One of the lessons that we learned from the trial of her murderers is that the legal system in Alameda County handled this extraordinary case with dignity and respect for the humanity of everyone involved.
One of the reasons that Gwen’s murder means so much to me personally is that I know that something like that could easily have happened to me as well. It was my good fortune, as well as my hard work, that has kept me going.
My success has been a gift that I believe is meant to be shared for the benefit of others. I never forget the words of the wise Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?” These thoughts inspired me to seek this office.
Soon the cameras will be gone and the press will move on to another story, but I promise that I will always do my best to serve the people of this great county with honor and a persistent dedication to the law and to justice. During my campaign I made as my motto that I would be a judge for all of us, and that will remain my commitment to you throughout my career on the bench.