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By Nona Tepper
When Joanie Rae Wimmer was in elementary school, she estimates she was the most unpopular student, disliked by all her classmates in Gary, Indiana because they could tell she was different. In second grade, her parents sent her to a child psychiatrist because she couldn't stop identifying as a woman. After that experience, she decided, "I'm not talking anymore." More than 60 years later, Wimmer, 63, now lives as a trans woman and successful attorney in Oak Park, operating a private practice on Lake Street. She said she is one of three practicing transgender attorneys in Illinois.
After coming out in 2008, Wimmer lost her wife Alison and many paying customers at her private law practice. But she never expected to gain the attention of Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeanne Ives. Last week, Ives released a campaign commercial that featured a male actor wearing a dress, who thanked Governor Bruce Rauner for "signing legislation that lets me use the girl's bathroom." Ives told the Chicago Tribune the actor was based on Wimmer, who once served the conservative state representative a subpoena at her home in Wheaton. Ives did not respond to interview requests.
"I'm not running for governor and it bothered me that she felt it necessary to bring me personally into the race, but what bothered me more was that she is continuing to demonize minority people for political advantage," Wimmer said, comparing Ives' political strategy to that of 1930s Germany, when fascists blamed the Jews for the economic and social problems of the post-WWI state. She said she believes Ives is trying to appeal to the extreme conservative wing of the Republican Party.
"It's like when you went to high school; there were the cool kids and the not-cool kids. I think it's human nature to try and build yourself up at the expense of other people," Wimmer said. "Anytime you have a group that's different, there's a potential for that, and I think it's probably more common now just because gay people and transgender people are seeking equal rights, so we're more visible and it's controversial."
In her younger years, Wimmer focused her energy on developing a tough-guy persona, walking with her shoulders out, talking in the lowest register of her voice and constantly looking to others for validation. She loved watching Perry Mason on TV, a legal series that always ended with the guilty party confessing at the hour's close. She abandoned her "feminine" love of music, and pursued a "macho" career that her father said would allow Wimmer to support a family: Law.
In 1990, Wimmer opened a private law practice, following the advice she always gave her kids Benjamin, Jeremy and Sarah: "follow your dreams." Wimmer wanted more of a choice in what cases she picked, and "I wanted to be in control of my life a little bit," she said.
But by the time she was 40 years old, Wimmer was losing control of her carefully curated identity. She started buying women's clothing and wearing it under her suits. She began shaving her legs. Every March, her wife Alison would have to remind her to stop, so her leg hair would be grown out by the time they made their annual summer trip to the beaches in Michigan. Wimmer felt sad watching the hair return.
"It's important to be who we are," Wimmer realized. "As someone who lived for 53 years being someone I'm not, I think it's really important to be who one is. I think that when people deny who they are because they're afraid they won't be accepted or they won't get a job, they're killing a part of themselves."
When Wimmer realized she was a trans woman, the revelation made her remember her painful school years. She thought about killing herself, and had a recurring fantasy where she'd die, go up to see St. Peter and say, "Look I know I got a lot of things wrong the first time through, but I've learned from my mistakes. Now send me back and I'll get it right."
In her dream, St. Peter would reply, "Sorry, you only had one chance."
Wimmer decided to make the transition to woman in 2008 and started hormone therapy, which caused her to develop breasts, softer skin and longer hair. Her physical changes led her wife to file divorce papers, after nearly 30 years of marriage. "I always thought our marriage was going to survive," Wimmer said. "You like to say you love the person and not their body, but I respect my ex-spouse's decision because physical intimacy's important."
After years of pretending to be someone she wasn't, Wimmer also started seeing a therapist in Oak Park to help her break the cycle of seeking approval from others. One day a week, Wimmer avoided speaking to anyone she knew. Then she would lie down, meditate and reflect on her feelings.
She realized her identity was split between John Robert, the calculating part of herself, and Joanie Rae, her emotional gut. She worked to integrate the two selves by studying liberal bishop John Shelby Spong's philosophy, which basically advises people to live without limits, love wastefully and act as your most genuine self without being affected by society.
When Wimmer first transitioned, she wore a wig to hide her male pattern baldness. But summer temperatures that soared to 100 degrees made the style uncomfortable. From then on, Wimmer went without a wig.
"It just rankles them so much. I want to be in the face of the Ives of the world," Wimmer said of her bare head.
She had her first encounter with Ives in 2013, while defending Stephen Bona, a gay man who was convicted of leaving threatening messages on Ives' voice mail after Ives described gay marriage as "disordered" in a radio interview and said gay couples were trying to "weasel their way into acceptability." Wimmer recalls going to Ives' home and Ives' husband coming to the door with a "big dog."
Eventually, Wimmer dropped Bona's case, although she continued to focus on federal civil rights and employment discrimination suits, representing those who can't afford to hire a lawyer. She said being a transgender lawyer actually helps in these cases since it throws off the power dynamic in the courtroom.
"If you have a dispute between a homeless person and a wealthy person or corporation, I think most people would want to side with the wealthy person or the wealthy corporation because they want to be in the in-crowd too," Wimmer said. "But when you have a trans lawyer come into the courtroom, it kind of throws everything upside down. It's like, 'OK, now we're going to have a free-for-all, and it's going to be about the facts and the law.'"
She said word-of-mouth referrals drive most of her business. But "I still don't have as many paying customers as I used to," she admits. Her bread and butter is winning cases and forcing defendants to pay her attorney's fees. After nearly 40 years of practicing law, she recognizes a shift in what the federal government is fighting for. She said in the 1950s and '60s the federal government fought to promote racial equality — now, the government has banned transgender people from serving in the military and is ostensibly protecting religious freedom by allowing people to discriminate against queer people. With this mentality, she said, it's no surprise crimes against queer people are on the rise.
Wimmer was born in the 1950s, she said, an era of conformity where society demanded that women be homemakers and men work to provide for the family. During the 1960s, she said the Civil Rights Movement empowered people to be themselves.
But now, "there's been this backlash, and now we're in a time where a lot of people like Ms. Ives and Mr. Trump are trying to require people to go back and conform and be who they're not and that's just so wrong. When you're done, you're done," she said of life.
Answer Book 2019
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