A first for Illinois: An openly transgender judicial candidate

Jill Rose Quinn campaign

Jill Rose Quinn speaks in her video response to gubernatorial candidate Jeanne Ives’s controversial campaign

When Jill Rose Quinn saw a recent political ad widely criticized as mocking transgender people, she knew what she had to do.

“I thought, ‘You know what, I’ve got to say something,’” said Quinn, a Democratic candidate running for the Cook County Circuit judicial seat in the 10th subcircuit who is making history as Illinois’s first openly transgender judicial candidate.

The commercial, supporting Republican state Rep. Jeanne Ives’ primary challenge to Gov. Bruce Rauner, features a deep-voiced man wearing a dress who thanks Rauner for “passing legislation that lets me use the girls’ bathroom.”

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Quinn, a Northwest Side attorney, said at first she feared that responding would bring more attention to the commercial and Ives’s candidacy. And, of course, Quinn is running in an entirely different race. But, she said, the bigotry unleashed by President Donald Trump’s campaign compelled her to offer a counter perspective.

She reached out to a videographer to create her own campaign ad, gently parodying Ives. “We would try to do it with love in our hearts,” said Quinn, 63. “Without inspiring any kind of hatred or finger pointing or anything like that. I tried to school Jeanne Ives, as well as perhaps remind the public, that political campaigns are not supposed to be about, ‘Let’s find a group to pick on.’ Political campaigns are supposed to be about discussing issues and encouraging debate.”

In Quinn’s ad, which was posted to YouTube on Feb. 6, a diverse group of actors sarcastically thank Ives for “reminding us that the battle for equality continues.” At the end, Quinn faces the camera and introduces herself as “Democratic candidate for Circuit Court judge and transgender citizen.”

A representative of Ives’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Beginning on February 21, Cook County voters will start heading to the polls to winnow down the field of 110 judicial primary candidates vying to fill 39 vacancies on the bench. For the majority of races in which there is no partisan contest, the primary elections serve as the final word in who will become a judge in Cook County. This article is part of Injustice Watch‘s continuing coverage prior to the March elections.

If elected to the seat, she would be the third known openly transgender judge in the country and one of a handful of openly transgender elected officials. Quinn would also be the second known transgender-identified political candidate in the state, said Mike Ziri, the director of public policy at Equality Illinois; Dr. Kathleen Robbins ran for a Parkland College board of trustees position in Champaign last year.

In 2010, Victoria Kolakowski of California’s Alameda County became the first openly transgender person in the country to be elected judge, according to the LGBT Bar Association. The same year, Phyllis Frye was appointed to be a judge in Houston’s municipal courts.

“The National LGBT Bar Association is encouraged by the increasing number of LGBT individuals running for office this year,” LGBT Bar Association representative Mari Nemec wrote in an emailed statement. “A wealth of diverse candidates reflects the reality of America’s population and ensures all voices are heard.”

Quinn is running for judge at a time when transgender rights are being prominently litigated in courthouses across the country, from Trump’s ban on transgender troops in the military to the use of public school locker rooms and the treatment of transgender prisoners in Illinois. Most of those cases are being heard in federal courts, and Quinn said she believes the law is clear on the civil rights afforded to transgender people.

Since 1997, Quinn has run a private law practice in Forest Glen, near Chicago’s northwest border, assisting clients with financial challenges, family law, small business operations, probate, and estate planning. She lives in Norwood Park, is engaged to her partner, and has a daughter.

“My perspective is valuable. There are trans people in court,” she said. “There are kids out there hanging themselves from shower rods because they think that they’re going to be failures; they’re going to be ridiculed. And I want them to have a role model.”

In Cook County, Quinn said she hopes to be a resource for judges who are unfamiliar with working with transgender people in the court system. Domestic relations and counseling services are areas in which transgender parties in court face unique difficulties and lack outreach, she said.

“There is training and there is sensitivity and there is awareness,” she said. “But in my position I can be an on-the-spot resource for the chief judges and division head.”

Quinn faces a crowded race in the 10th subcircuit which includes neighborhoods in Chicago’s far North and Northwest Sides, and portions of the suburbs Niles, Norwood Park, Northfield, and Maine. In the upcoming Democratic primary for the judicial vacancy of retired judge Donald H. Suriano, she has four opponents: Gerald V. Cleary, who was appointed to the seat in December, 2016; private attorney Noreen P. Connolly; former prosecutor Colleen R. Daly; and personal injury attorney Thomas J. Gabryzewski.

Quinn said of her campaign: So far, so good. “I don’t think I’ve gotten a single unfavorable response to the video,” Quinn said. “The more I see the video and the more I think about what I did, if I do nothing else in my political career this is a worthwhile thing to do.”