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History-making gay judge set to retire
by Byron Flitsch
2010-01-06

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Fifteen years after making history as the first gay elected official in Illinois, Judge Tom Chiola is saying goodbye to the bench. Photo by Hal Baim


Thomas Chiola, the first openly gay elected individual in Illinois, has announced his retirement from his 16-year Cook County Circuit Court judicial position.

Chiola made history when he won his rigorous campaign for Cook County Circuit Court judge in 1994 in the eighth Judicial Subcircuit.

In a telephone interview, Chiola recounted the campaign as "exciting because of how we were running [ the campaign ] . The "i" in my name was dotted with a pink triangle that was sort of a badge of honor. People knew where it came from and it stood for not backing down. It reminded people that we'd never go back."

According to the Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame's Web site, his momentous win was not only a political landmark, but also offered hope and inspiration for the LGBT community while fueling a connection between a diverse population demographic ranging from citizens living in neighborhoods like Chinatown, the Gold Coast and Cabrini Green.

His campaign was heavily supported by some segments of the Democratic Party, and he was the first gay candidate to have support from a majority in his Democratic ward. Chiola said, "I've been nostalgic [ about retirement ] lately, and while going through old articles and photos I realized how many people helped me get to get this far. My supporters have been instrumental in helping me get to where I am today."

According to QRD.org, Chiola's career began shortly after graduating from University of Illinois-Champaign Law School in 1977. He moved from Springfield to Chicago, where his first position was as a prosecutor for the Illinois Attorney General's Environment Control Division, where he concentrated on pollution cases.

Shortly after, Chiola served as the chief administrative law judge for the General Council for the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation. In his six years as chief judge, Chiola deliberated various medical cases that were often highlighted in the media due to scandals associated with the malpractice lawsuits that were brought to his courtroom.

Chiola later pursued his candidacy for Cook County Judge. About the political run, Chiola recalled, "I remember this giant banner—to me, it looked as big as a football field—hanging in Sidetrack. It was a big deal for me to see that. It [ the campaign ] became very real and exciting."

Chiola's impact on the gay community has been just as influential. As an activist, he successfully aided in passing the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance in 1993—a measure designed to protect all people who live and work in the county from discrimination and sexual harassment based on a variety of instances including sexual orientation. "I knew I had a big opportunity [ to press bigger issues ] in my position and went with it," Chiola told Windy City Times. Before his judicial candidacy, Chiola was a board member for IMPACT ( a Chicago gay and lesbian political action committee ) where he continued to work for passing sexual orientation-based non-discrimination laws with the goal of adding "sexual orientation" to the Illinois Human Rights Act. He's also been celebrated for gaining the support of a variety of political representatives that pay attention to gay and lesbian issues because "people in our community wanted the opportunity to speak for themselves. It was important to be that voice and try to open more doors to more voices."

While volunteering as an attorney for Legal Clinic for the Disabled, Chiola learned HIV/AIDS patients were refused advice. According to QRD.org, in 1986 ( with the help of Howard Brown Health Center ) he organized a free legal project that allotted legal services for patients who would otherwise have no other option. His humanitarian efforts continued as an active participant in fundraising efforts for the Chicago office of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the NAMES Project and HIV/AIDS agency Vital Bridges ( previously known as Open Hand ) , where he also volunteers.

Chiola's enthusiasm also extends to sports. Not only has he been an active participant in the organizational aspect of gay and lesbian sporting events across the nation, but he is also an athlete. According to QRD.org, Chiola has been on the board of the Chicago Metropolitan Sports Association ( CMSA ) and Team Chicago; was a member of the Frontrunners; and a director of Proud to Run. He ran a marathon and competed in bowling in the 1990 Vancouver Gay Games. He completed a triathlon and multiple swimming events in the 1994 New York City Gay Games. He also participated in a triathlon in the 2006 Chicago Gay Games, and is preparing for another event in the 2010 Cologne Gay Games.

Chiola was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1998 for his unparalleled career and community efforts. He was honored with a Judicial Leadership Award in April of 2006 given by the Gay and Lesbian Legal Alliance ( GALLA ) from John Marshall Law School. In 2009, he became the president of AIJ ( Alliance of Illinois Judges ) , an organizational resource for fellow gay and lesbian judges.

When asked what was next, Chiola said, "I would like to get more involved in community organizations. Because of my previous position, I wasn't able to be a part of certain projects. Whether it's lobbying or working on state legislation … I'm looking forward to being active in the community again."

Chiola has been a devoted activist, an award-winning professional, an inspiration to gay youth and an avid athlete who continues to make an impact on the LGBT community. His generosity and professional strides will remain a permanent footprint in the history of Chicago public figures.

A private party will be held Jan. 8 to celebrate Chiola's success and retirement.


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