Victoria Kolakowski, the first trans person to reach the post of judge in the United States, would like to advance to higher positions in the bench, but believes she has little chance of doing so. For her, her pioneering role is to inspire others and pave the way for new generations to go further.
“It can be my role: to help others get there and not have to face the challenges that I have been faced with. It is difficult to build a CV when the doors are closed throughout my career”, she confides, in an interview with Folha, by video call. Kolakowski, 59, was elected a judge in Alameda County, Calif., In 2010, and has served since. There, some of the judges are chosen by popular vote.
The magistrate is participating, this Wednesday (30), in a virtual debate at the OAB-SP (Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil) on the role of the judiciary in the protection of the LGBT population. In the following interview, she recalls the challenges she has faced in her career, discusses how to expand access to justice, and comments on the challenge of balancing religious freedom with other rights, such as the pursuit of happiness.
You attended colleges in several fields, such as biomedicine, electrical engineering, law, and Bible studies. What made you choose a legal career? I wanted to make positive changes in the world and felt that a good path would be to be a lawyer, because of the role of justice in the defense of human rights. I like to be in a position where I can be neutral, listen to both sides and help people come to terms. I am a big supporter of alternative resolutions. Part of what I do as a judge is to try to help the parties resolve themselves. I have a technical background in other areas, which were very interesting intellectually, but I felt distant from people, to be able to do them good.
Being in the justice system, I have the opportunity to help people see things they didn’t know. It is important that decision makers represent everyone in a community. We don’t have anyone like me in such a position, and I aim to be a benchmark so people can see that we transgender people can be successful and be happy.
What challenges have you encountered in the legal world as a result of being trans? There’s a ubiquitous question when you’re a minority: if someone has a problem with you, is it me or just because I’m transgender? People often think negatively about trans people, question your abilities, make you doubt yourself. I made the transition in 1989, in the last semester of law school. After that, I was “me” full time. Then I applied for the bar exam. [equivalente à OAB no Brasil] and I was prevented from taking the test to be trans. I questioned the decision, passed the test, passed, and became a lawyer. And I had gender confirmation surgery in 1992. But thinking about it makes me feel old.
In general, has being an LGBT judge just got easier? Probably yes. In a lot of places it’s getting easier and easier, and I’m sure there are places where it’s still very uncomfortable. We see more people abroad [do armário] – and comfortable being outside. And we see a lot of non-LGBT people publicly supporting their LGBT peers. There have always been LGBT judges, but often they didn’t talk about it. Many judges are uncomfortable talking about their personal lives. But through the Internet, we can connect. I was president of the International Association of LGBT Judges. Whenever we discover an LGBT judge in the world, we contact him and ask him if he wishes to join our association. We have people from 15 countries on our list, but unfortunately none from Brazil at the moment.
There are groups in the United States that are trying to change the laws on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. How do you see these processes? Religious freedom is like the DNA of the United States. On the other hand, we also believe in rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These noble goals are not always achieved. Sometimes over time the view of them was narrow. Over time, we come to see things that we’ve never seen before, like LGBT rights.
We need to figure out how to maintain respect for the dignity of everyone, including LGBT people and people whose religious views make them uncomfortable with people like me. The big challenge we face in the United States, and I believe in Brazil as well, is figuring out how to live together in a modern society. How to allow people to freely practice their religion and to treat others with dignity. I hope we can resolve these issues with respect for individual autonomy and integrity, without interfering with beliefs or forcing anyone to act contrary to what they believe.
How can courts improve access to justice? In California, we are working on the language issue, putting out notices in different languages. In criminal matters, we offer public defenders in most places, but not always the same in civil matters. We are working hard to train volunteer mediators to help the parties negotiate solutions. Volunteers also help people find forms, fill them out, and point out where to get more help. I am part of a help group. We’ve put together a website with all kinds of resources on a map so people can quickly see what’s in their area.
Do you intend to seek vacancies in higher courts? It’s a complicated process. In federal courts, positions are appointed by the president and confirmed by the United States Senate. Our politicians would make it difficult for someone like me. I’m hopeful I’m definitely interested, but I think progress for transgender people in court is slow. The courts are the end of a long journey in an elusive profession that has been transgender in the past. I haven’t necessarily had the same opportunities as others to gain experience in certain areas, which puts me at a bit of a disadvantage. It’s hard to create a resume when the doors have already been closed. So I may not be able to take the next step. This morning my wife told me that sometimes being a pioneer means paving the way for the next generation to succeed. This can be my role: to help others get there and not have to face the challenges that I have been facing. But if anyone wants to refer me to a higher court, I’m available.
Do you have any advice for a young trans who dreams of being a judge? Believe in yourself. I had to be honest about who I was. I felt like I was lying every time I walked into a room before [de mudar de gênero], because I was pretending to be someone else. It was liberating to be able to be myself. And I may have closed some doors doing this, but still I was happier. It’s not an easy journey, even now, for transgender people. One of the reasons for my success was to be around people who love and care about me. I suggest people find other people nearby and supportive. It can be a partner, it can be friends, family, colleagues. Find people who will be there when it gets tough, because it’s going to get tough. This is not a trip to be done alone.
Victoria Kolakowski, 59
Born in New York, she graduated from the Paul M. Hebert Law Center in Louisiana in 1989 and worked for two decades as a lawyer. In 2010, she was elected a judge in Alameda County, California, with 51% of the vote. He was president of the International Association of LGBT Judges between 2015 and 2017. Currently he also teaches law at the University of San Francisco.