The first openly gay judge to be appointed to the Seventh Circuit Court Hon. Staci M. Yandle traded the bench for a podium July 26 when she delivered the keynote address at the Equality Illinois Raising the Bar breakfast held at downtown Chicago's Intercontinental Hotel.
According to Equality Illinois CEO Brian C. Johnson, Raising the Bar recognizes and honors "law firms that are leading the way with regard to creating a welcoming and affirming workplace for LGBT employees."
The event was the culmination of a process that began in the spring when Equality Illinois distributed surveys to more than "200 firms, of all sizes, doing business in the state of Illinois" and "scored the firms based on how welcoming and equitable their policies are to LGBT employees."
Some of the office activities and policies noted by Equality Illinois as in use among firms which were rated as "highly scoring" included implementing "a non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity and expression," publicizing the policy "to law students, prospective and current employees, clients and the public" and respecting "transgender and gender-transitioning employees by using appropriate names and personal pronouns and having a gender-neutral dress code."
Equality Illinois noted that the numbers of firms requiring contractors to have a nondiscrimination policy in place that includes sexual orientation and gender identity was at 47 percent this yearup from 31 percent in 2015 and 21 percent in 2014.
The top 40 law firms are as follows: Arnstein & Lehr, Baker & McKenzie, Chapman and Cutler, Clark Hill, Dentons, DLA Piper, Drinker Biddle & Reath, Foley & Lardner, Franczek Radelet, Goldberg Kohn, Greenberg Traurig, Hinshaw & Culbertson, Holland & Knight, Jenner & Block, K&L Gates, Katten Muchin Rosenman, Kaye Scholer, Kirkland & Ellis, Latham & Watkins, and Marshall, Gerstein & Borun.
They also include Mayer Brown, McDermott Will & Emery, McGuireWoods, Michael Best & Friedrich, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg, Nixon Peabody, Perkins Coie, Polsinelli, Quarles & Brady, Reed Smith, Schiff Hardin, Sedgwick, Seyfarth Shaw, Shook, Hardy & Bacon, Sidley Austin, Skadden, SmithAmundsen, Thompson Coburn, and Winston & Strawn.
Yandle began her remarks by commending the 40 firms recognized. "Without question, your commitment to providing a welcoming, fair and inclusive workplace to LGBT employees contributes greatly to the cause of equality," she said.
As a result, Yandle noted that a speech emphasizing the importance of diversity in the workplace would be "preaching to the choir."
Instead, she opened up the story of her own life to the assembled "champions of equality and LGBT inclusion."
"When I began my practice of law in 1987, diversity in law firms, the courts and in the legal profession in general simply did not exist," Yandle recalled. "There were no such things as firms or courts or agencies that had equal opportunity or nondiscrimination policies. So, for many years, as I evolved personally to accept, embrace and celebrate my authentic self, I didn't have the ability to do that professionally. I lived a 'don't ask, don't tell existence.' I needed that to survive professionally."
Because of that, Yandle acknowledged that she passed up many an opportunity and declined to engage in professional activities. "After so many years of going to the holiday parties and cookouts alone, I wouldn't show up and I didn't hire a date," she said. "As time went on, things began to change in terms of public opinion and acceptance. There just came a point where I evolved and I came out to my firm partners."
In 2012, a vacancy for federal judgeship in the Seventh District became open. Yandle noted that, if it had been five years earlier, "I'm not so sure whether or not whether or not I would have pursued it. I think I would have been concerned."
Nevertheless, she made the unplanned decision to apply.
"I understood what I had to go through," Yandle said before listing off the prolonged series of interviews, background checks and meetings with White House staff that were involved. "Low and behold I made it through somehow. The night before the President was going to announce the nomination, I received a call. They said 'We want to make sure that you're comfortable because, when we make the announcement, we are going to mention your orientation.' I said I was OK with that."
The day President Obama announced her nomination, Yandle's phone began to light up.
"One of the texts I got was for a story that appeared in the Huffington Post," she recalled. "There was no picture, no name. All it said was 'President Obama nominates Black lesbian.' There were all these other publications nationally and locally and, not once, did I see my name. The local media never mentioned my orientation. Nationally, I was a Black lesbian."
Yandle added that her friends were concerned and unhappy about the media's narrative.
"They said, "Wait a minute. What about your qualifications? What does this have to do with you being Black and a lesbian?'" Yandle remembered. "I quickly figured out that there is a big difference between being openly gay and publically gay."
Yandle called the national story surrounding her nomination "unfortunate."
"Because, in 2013, I was the first openly gay judge in the Seventh Circuit and I was only the second openly gay African-American federal judge in history," she said. "I could deal with the narrative. I could deal with not being referred to by my name if, three years from now, the next time someone from our community is nominated, affirmed and appointed it is not historic."
She concluded with a fervent belief that it would not be.
"In a very short period of time, I would not at all be shocked if we got out first transgender federal judge," she said.
The level of applause from the assembled law firm representatives seemed to echo that belief.
For more information about Equality Illinois, visit: EqualityIllinois.us .