Dads Against the Divorce Industry

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Homosexual judges open eyes in judiciary

April 28, 2003

BY ABDON M. PALLASCH Legal Affairs Reporter

A lawyer told Cook County Judge Nancy Katz that his client beat up his wife because the client was upset that the wife was having a lesbian affair.

"As a judge, it's not good to say the first thing that comes to mind, which is: 'Good for her,' " said Judge Katz, a lesbian herself. "I said, 'Why do you feel compelled to tell me that? That is not a defense to domestic violence.' I think he was trying to dirty her up in my mind."

Katz and five other openly gay judges on the Cook County bench held an unprecedented panel discussion last week at the Chicago Bar Association, talking about the challenges of being a gay judge and about how their increasing numbers on the bench are helping open the minds of the Cook County judiciary.

"I'd been in Traffic Court about five months when a judge came up to me and said, 'You know, a few months ago, I would have said I wasn't prejudiced against lesbians and gays but that would have been a lie. I didn't even know any. But you made me see things in a different way,' " Katz said. "For him, now I'm the person next door. There are six of us now and our little tentacles are all over the court system, just doing what we do, meeting people, forging relationships with people."

It was just nine years ago that Tom Chiola was elected the first openly gay jurist in Illinois. He was joined two years later by Sebastian Patti, a rising star on the court who has already attained the status of presiding judge. Four others have joined in the last few years. They are still trying to get their fellow gay judges who have spent their careers in the closet to "come out."

"I know three or four--when they see me, they run from me," Patti said. "Not coming out, not being honest, exacts such an enormous toll on us. We're in a stressful environment. [Coming out] sets you free to affirm one's total self. The downside [of staying closeted] is . . . internalized homophobia is a wicked, wicked thing and it makes us do crazy things."

Judge Colleen Sheehan said she had just recently come out professionally, and she could understand the reluctance of other gay and lesbian judges to do so.

"I was scared," Sheehan admitted. "After four months on the bench, the other gay judges on the bench asked me to go to breakfast and I said, 'No.' I was at a time where I was just integrating that whole role into my life."

Sheehan's friends, family and business acquaintances knew she was a lesbian, but she had not run for office declaring that. She went to the breakfast.

"It was very traumatic, because, at the breakfast, Tom had asked me if I would be part of the gay and lesbian judges who were signing a letter to members of the Illinois Supreme Court asking them to amend their rules, which would have identified me in a professional way as a lesbian and I . . . [Sheehan began contorting her face, to laughter in the audience] ... it isn't that often in your life where you have to say 'yes' or 'no'--am I going to be this type of a person or am I going to be this type of a person? After having been on the bench only four months . . . I did it. I think I got fever blisters worrying. I didn't know how people would react."

Six years after Chiola and Patti began asking the Supreme Court to change its rules to prohibit discrimination against people based on sexual orientation in Illinois courts, the justices, including the new members who took office in 2001 led by newly inaugurated Chief Justice Moses Harrison, agreed to change their rules after reading the petition signed by Sheehan and the other openly gay judges.

Chiola admitted it was a bit strange speaking on the panel at the Chicago Bar Association just nine years after he had a rough interview with them when he first sought the bench.

"The Chicago Bar Association was not a friendly place at that time for someone who had the audacity to say they were openly gay and running for judge," Chiola said. "One of the jokes I heard at the time was, 'Well, where are they going to put him? Juvenile Court?' "

A lot has changed in just nine years. Now, all lawyers running for judge in Cook County are expected to appear before the Lesbian and Gay Bar Association, which evaluates candidates for judge based in part on their sensitivity to handling cases that involve lesbian and gay litigants. The International Association of Lesbian and Gay Judges now has more than 100 members, Chiola said.

Judge Lori Wolfson said she tried keeping her sexual preference private in her last job as an assistant Cook County state's attorney, until she realized after eight years that "everybody knew--I hadn't had a date in eight years." Now she is out and comfortable with it.

So why do gay and lesbian judges have to publicly announce their sexuality, divorce lawyer Richard A. Wilson, the evening's emcee, asked rhetorically, noting some straight people say, "I don't go around announcing my sexuality. Why do you?"

Katz responded, "Most people declare their sexual orientation all the time. They have pictures of their spouses in their chambers. They talk about their wives. They use analogies and talk about their families. We're doing nothing but what everybody does--live our lives in a public and open way. If I want to talk about my partner, I'll talk about my partner."

Chiola handles many of his hearings in-chambers, where lawyers can see pictures of him and his partner training for the triathlon.

"They can ask about the triathlon stuff or the marathon stuff or me and my partner or my biological family or all that is my life."

Katz likewise keeps awards on her bench from the Chicago-Kent College of Law alumnae association and from the Lesbian/Gay hall of fame.

Judge Noreen Valeria Love said none of the judges wake up and put on their robes in the morning thinking they want to be a gay judge, just a good judge. Chiola said the reputation he seeks among lawyers is not as the gay judge but as a fair and tough judge, as in, "He's a son-of-a-bitch, you better be prepared."

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