Few county judges command standing ovations before they say a word, nor do they compel hate mail from strangers halfway around the world.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Victoria Kolakowski has received both. She is the first transgender person elected as a trial judge and one of the very few elected to any office. She will be sworn in Tuesday at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. Then she will begin her assignment hearing criminal cases at the Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse.
"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.
Anyone looking for a resemblance to the drag queen caricatures associated with people who were one sex and became another would be disappointed in Kolakowski. The New York native is a carefully groomed, mildly spoken brunette of average build who usually appears wearing glasses, modest makeup, dark pantsuits and pumps. In other words, she looks a lot like a conservatively dressed judge who might have gained a few pounds with middle age.
Kolakowski said she has never "had problems," using a euphemism for violent incidents aimed against transgender people, including 426 murders worldwide since mid-2008, according to Trans Murder Monitoring Project. But she came close the first time she appeared in public as "Vicky," short for Victoria, a name she came up with in high school. The name sounded elegant and positive, she said. And by adding a "y" it could be shortened.
"I thought it was a more serious looking spelling," she said, "and I was, after all, a nerd."
She was a college student on summer break when she sneaked away at night from her parents' house on Staten Island. She was heading for a bus stop when a man drove up to her. "Hey, he-she. Come here," he kept calling. He assumed that she must've been working the street just because she was obviously a man dressed as a woman. She had to cross a freeway to get away from him. Looking back, she said she was lucky to have escaped being raped. Kolakowski rushed back home and didn't mention that night again until years later.
Back then, the Internet did not exist, and information about transsexuals was unavailable to minors, Kolakowski said. At Louisiana State University, she finally found some books in the college library about transsexuality and realized that she was not alone. But when she told her parents, they took Kolakowski to the emergency room of the hospital. This started an on-again, off-again series of counseling and therapy that lasted for a decade.
Kolakowski eventually married, came out with her wife during law school and began her transition to becoming a woman on April 1, 1989. It was her last semester at LSU. She was 27. Three years later she underwent surgery to complete her transition to a woman.
Resilient despite rejections
She was a 30-year old lawyer with five degrees on her resume. So she had no problem attracting job offers - only to be rejected when she walked into the interview.
Rejection is one of the commonalities that transgender women and men share, and the pain can run deep. Some of the transgender lawyers Kolakowski knew killed themselves.
Kolakowski attributes her resilience to her faith - she also holds a master's degree in divinity - and the support of "some very loving people." That includes her parents and her second wife, Cynthia Laird, the news editor of the Bay Area Reporter newspaper. The couple wed in 2006.
By then Kolakowski had become an administrative law judge for the California Public Utilities Commission. It wasn't long before she met with a group of gay attorneys in San Francisco to discuss her possible future as a superior court judge. But she wanted to run for office in Alameda County, where she has lived for 20 years and is among the 500 to 2,000 transgender people living in the county.
"We needed it more than San Francisco," Kolakowski said.
Her chance to run for the Superior Court bench came in 2008. Araujo's mother gave her the butterfly pin she wore at her daughter's murder trials and asked Kolakowski to wear it if elected to the bench.
Kolakowski didn't win but tried again in 2010. "This time things were different, and in June I came in first," she said. It suddenly became clear that she could become the first transgender person elected to an office.
The spotlight turned in her direction because she became a symbol of success for the transgender community. She also has become a target. The more successful you are, the more backlash you are likely to get, she said, "and that backlash can be violent."
During the November postelection event, she had only to mention that two transgender women were killed in Houston this year even though voters there elected a transgender municipal judge in November. Just as telling was the fact that the event, the Transgender Day of Remembrance, is a memorial instead of a celebration. "We're dealing with people who don't know us and don't really understand who we are," she said.
Kolakowski is also mindful that she has to be sensitive to the dignity of the office voters elected her to. Some people, she predicted, will accuse her of "acting inappropriately." But she said, "This is what it is. I was elected based on my qualifications. It just happens to be historic."