Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Interview with Allison Woolbert

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Allison Woolbert, a transgender activist from the USA, Air Force veteran, founder of The Transgender Violence Tracking Portal - a database to track crimes targeting transgender people, and the Executive Director of the Transgender Human Rights Institute. Hello Allison!
Allison: Hi Monika- First, thank you so much for selecting me for being a heroine. It is truly an honor to be able to do an interview with you.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Allison: Well, I grew up in Silver Bell, Arizona, a remote copper mining community (now a ghost town) where I never quite fit in. I ended up in the Air Force where I absolutely didn’t fit in, and in 2008, I began the process of transition. I finally feel whole as a person, and feel that I truly fit into myself. I’m the CEO of Phoenix Consultants Group, a software development company. I’m also the Founder of the Transgender Violence Tracking Portal and the new Executive Director of the Transgender Human Rights Institute.
Monika: What is the goal of The Trans Violence Tracking Portal?
Allison: Our primary goal with the Transgender Violence Tracking Portal was to provide a central data repository for the world to send reports of anti-transgender violence that occur. By having a database and an accessible website, advocates internationally have free access to the latest information and latest reports to utilize in their advocacy work towards a safer, more equal world, for our community.
The TVTP has been designed to collect the most extensive data of facts concerning the anti-transgender violence that has become an epidemic in our community. By collecting extensive amounts of information on the victim, perpetrators, and circumstances, we are able to gather the data necessary for use by advocates and allies to change the world.
Monika: Regardless of all the organizational limitations, your work is excellent. You even managed to convince Kristin Beck to become your National Spokeswoman…
Allison: Kristin has become a dream come true for the TVTP. She is a fantastic speaker, and a tireless worker for human rights. I am thrilled that she has become our Spokeswoman. Her heart, her story, and her genuine compassion and sacrifices to bring about awareness and equality, leave me awestruck. We are very privileged to be able to have Kristin and we are looking forward to working even more closely with her in the next few years to raise awareness and gain human rights for our community.

With Kristin Beck.

Monika: How rampant is trans violence in the USA and other countries?
Allison: Trans violence is an epidemic that is continuing to plague our community. Each year we have Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) and International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia. (IDAHOT). Each year we read the names, remember those we have lost, but in reality, we’ve been unable to harness that day of mourning to bring greater awareness to the public.
The amount of information in both of these memorial vigils however is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to anti-transgender violence. We only receive the report if it is in the media, or if someone comes and reports the incident into our website. People are slowly learning about reporting, but there are untold numbers of anti-transgender violence incidents that are not being reported.
When our community is able to fully report to us the incidents, and we are able to fully gain larger percentages of incident reports, we will know fully the epidemic that we are facing and can provide solid evidences to use for policy changes, court decisions and human rights.
Monika: Recently I have read one article stating that transgender people in the USA struggle with some of the lowest rates of acceptance, even within the LGBT community. In addition, only 2 percent of transgender Americans can boast a full-time job and benefits…
Allison: This is a truly important question when it comes to equality and equity within our community here in the USA. I’m not certain of the 2 percent figure, but I can tell you everyone I know who is transgender struggles heavily to find acceptance both inside the LGBTQQI community and outside.
There is a struggle for the LGBTQQI movement to truly understand what gender identity really means. The binary genders that have been foundational in the architecture of our culture have proved to be a distinct barrier for the USA and the sexual orientation movement in particular. I would say over the past 3 to 4 years, we have seen substantial transgender civil rights positively move forward as well as changes that are slowly started here in the US in attitudes and understandings.
Monika: Transgender persons lose nearly everything in the process of claiming their gender identity: marriages, jobs, homes. How do you find courage to tackle all these challenges?
Allison: One of the most difficult decisions of my life was coming out and transitioning. I unequivocally knew that when I transitioned, I was going to lose all the things that were the most important and dear to me. Family, jobs, marriage, children were all vaporized with the words “I’m transgender and I have to transition to be myself; a gender affirmed woman”. To this day, the impact of requesting and receiving the proper treatment for my dysphoria continues to ripple across the pond in my relationships and those I knew pre-transition.
I honestly don’t know of a more painful decision that I’ve ever had to make concerning my own life, and my own medical needs. In so many ways, courage was a matter of taking each challenge, asking for support from new friends and allies and stepping forward into the risks that presented themselves. I relied heavily upon my supporters and friends and have had thousands of hours where individuals have worked with me and been there for the times that continue to manifest given I am transgender.
Transition is not for the faint of heart by any means. But having good support, a clear goal of what is attainable and what is reasonable, and a determination to see it through helped me tackle the most difficult transition aspects and challenges.

UU Staten Island.

Monika: You were very active in the promotion of ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that was supposed to prevent discrimination in the workplace against the LGBT community...
Allison: Sadly, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act never passed the Congress here in the US for the past 20 plus years. The efforts that I was involved with in 2010 were to bring awareness to our legislators and the public of the deep impact that lack of employment causes to the transgender community. In many ways, politics were ultimately what caused the liberal politicians to ignore the bill when we could have had equality for all LGBT in 2010.
Over the course of the past 4 years however, we have had significant court cases where gender identity has been recognized as being protected under the Civil Rights Act. We could not ask for better protection for transgender people throughout this country than the Civil Rights Act. The shift that has been happening over the past few years appears to be making a difference.
More individuals are filing complaints concerning discrimination and it appears that the US Govt. and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission who oversees the civil rights complaints are holding companies responsible when they do discriminate against us. This is a long process and I would expect that over the next many years that employers will begin to understand that discrimination based on gender identity is not going to be tolerated here within the United States.
Monika: Your story could be regarded as a success story. Which elements of your personal experience could be relevant for other transgender women?
Allison: The single most important element that I encourage those transitioning to do, is to be completely honest and true to yourself. If something doesn’t feel right in transition, don’t do it. Always have trusted friends who are brutally honest with you and will tell you when they see something that doesn’t quite seem right. Think outside the box. Many elements to transition are not in a book or a film.
Although we can find some elements in everyone who transitions, each path is unique and different. Don’t be afraid to try something on (clothing, attitude, voice, experience) and then decide if it was right and healthy for you. Transition is a time where you give yourself the greatest gift of your lifetime- the gift of self-discovery and self-realization to empower you to be your authentic and wonderful self.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Allison: I have to admit that I didn’t really have any transgender role models as I transitioned. I don’t really remember ever thinking that if I was like ‘so and so’ and she made it so could I. The key for my transition was to be as truly authentic in who I was, rather than putting others on pedestals.

Allison in NYC.

Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Allison: There were several “hardest things” about coming out for me. The first was coming out was to myself and accepting that I was trans. That was very difficult and I spent many years avoiding and denying it.
I didn’t really have a grasp of exactly who I was, and even though I had spent years working on myself, the transgender piece didn’t really come into focus until I was in my mid 40’s. I would have to say that losing the relationships with some of my children was the hardest. That coupled with the loss of my relationship with my ex was traumatizing.
Monika: Did Unitarian Universalism help you in those difficult times?
Allison: Part of my journey was the discovery of the Unitarian Universalists. I can say without reservation that the UU congregations, members and friends were instrumental in my being able to fully transition.
There were times when I can recall some very dark moments, surgical obstacles, financial obstacles, homelessness and more, when my friends at UU stood by me, held me when I was destroyed, and walked hand in hand with me through some of the toughest times in my life. Their willingness to accept me, and allow me the time to grow and understand was paramount in my successful transition and my ability to grow in self-awareness. 
Unitarian Universalism is one of the most welcoming of all spiritual worship communities, and I highly recommend all those who transition to consider becoming a part of a worldwide community such as the UU. Today, most of my close friends are in UU and I will never forget the love they constantly show me.
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far?
Allison: By far, Kristin Beck's Lady Valor film has been inspirational to me. I was fortunate to see a viewing of the film in New York City, and get together with Kristin in May of this year. The film left me awestruck. I had so many connections that it took me several days to work through the emotions that had been brought up. Her journey in many respects validated the feelings, thoughts, actions, and circumstances that many of us go through when we transition. Her honesty and forthrightness about who she is, and how her family journeyed through some of her very personal transition process, are a testament to her honor and commitment to transgender people everywhere.
By far, the most significant book that impacted my life was Whipping Girl by Julia Serano. Julia was able to give me clear concise answers to questions I simply could not even ask. Although I had some understandings of why transgender bias and transphobia existed, Julia’s book gave me an even greater capability to build awareness with individuals who are cisgender (non transgender) and needed a basic and concrete answer to gender identity.
The second book that was helpful in my initial understanding of what I was going through was Jennifer Boylans’ book She’s Not There. I didn’t feel so alone in my transition when I was able to read her book. I think I read the book cover to cover in the first few months after I came out.

During campaigning.

Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities? Being the last letter in this acronym, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Allison: Often times, there has been oppression by our allies within the LGBT community here in the US. While our issues differ vastly from the sexual orientation community, many within the sexual orientation community do not have a grasp as to what gender identity is, and more importantly how it intersects with sexual orientation on the sphere of equal rights. A good example would be the marriage equality rights that have been a mainly sexual orientation issue here within the United States.
Although there are transgender people that will be affected concerning marriage equality, it was a low priority for the T. Jobs, health care, homelessness and other much more daily living issues were considered second rate and were not considered a priority within the sexual orientation movement. Additionally, given it was framed as a sexual orientation issue (“GAY Marriage”) versus a gender identity issue (“Same Sex Marriage”) I believe those who made the decisions to use sexual orientation as the basis for the legal arguments lengthened a battle that would have been much easier concerning the courts by utilizing gender identity as the foundation.
One of the more interesting facts of the movement over the past few years is that in the United States, transgender rights have increased even more than sexual orientation rights in many ways. Transgender individuals now have full civil rights protection on the job. As time goes by, most of our rights have been won through courts, not civil rights movements. Policies continue to change quickly here, in that transgender individuals are just now being able to stand on our own with the sexual orientation movement being allies while having our own voice.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Allison: I became active in politics when I began working at the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office as the first Transgender Advocate in 2009. That was my first introduction into politics, and subsequently, I began working on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2010.
Politically it was a very painful time given so many ego’s, with little cooperation, and such unhealthy lateral competition in the advocacy political sphere. It truly was a discouraging time and I found that working within the political organizations amounted at times to being used as a pawn to forward someone else’s agenda unrelated to transgender equality. Politics are critical to the movement. We need individuals who are savvy and able to work within a highly ego charged environment and come away with a good partnership and outcome.

Allison's gender ceremony.

One of the most powerful political efforts that I felt I was qualified to accomplish was to speak about my life story. Our stories and the journey of transition are one the most powerful tools for changing hearts and minds that exist. For the first several years of transition, I spent the majority of my time telling my story, and then teaching what gender identity is. 
Every person who learned, who listened and understood a little more about gender identity, was able to then go make an impact with their friends, families and coworkers. The downstream ripple effect is still continuing as others share my story, their own stories, and the quest for our equality.
In my mind, politics doesn’t necessarily mean spending time in the political world or marching in a parade. Politics can simply be teaching others through your story and your life about those who are transgender, and help change their hearts and minds to be more accepting of our lives.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Allison: There was a long time when I was alone after transition started that I wondered if anyone could ever love a person who was transgender. I spent many dark and tough nights wondering if there are genuine people out there that want to have a deep, intimate honest relationship with transgender women.
I have been very fortunate to have two great individuals who deeply love me in my life. Both of these individuals have held me when my heart has broken, supported me through some very hard decisions, and were there after my surgeries and my extensive time recovering. They are truly some of the people I admire the most in the world, and I am grateful for those relationships.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Allison: Several years ago, I began writing my memoir. I’m in the process of working with an editor and published author to consider what the next steps are. There are several chapters left that I would like to write, and there are many adventures that I can share with the community and the world concerning my life. Each time I think I may be ready, I think of something new that may be a good idea to include. Hopefully in the next year or so I will come to a point where I can publish my story.

With her friend.

Monika: Are you working on any new project now?
Allison: The Transgender Violence Tracking Portal has been my core focus since last year. The amount of work and data within the project has substantially taken over most of my time.
Recently, I helped create the TERF Tracker project that will be coming online at soon. We needed a quick registry to track individuals that do harm to our community such as Transgender Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERF) through misgendering, dead naming, slandering, and distorting who transgender people are.
I’ve also become a co-host with the TheBiCast bisexual network weekly podcast program where I speak about bisexual and transsexual issues. You can hear that at website or download our podcasts on iTunes. 
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Allison: First and foremost be authentic and true to yourself. Try to not buy into the masks of what you ‘should be’ or as a gender that is portrayed in the media or by friends, family or the public. We spent years living inside a false mask that hid our true beautiful nature and self. Above all, be true to yourself, even in the face of adversity.
We are a uniquely beautiful and talented group of individuals and even though it may seem that the struggle can overwhelm us, we are some of the strongest people I have ever met. Gender dysphoria is serious condition and with the right support, treatment and self-care, you can get through it and become one of the most amazing people who have ever lived. NEVER doubt yourself!
Seek out support wherever you can safely locate it. This journey is one of many people supporting the steps required to gain self-acceptance, self-awareness and freedom be who you really are.
Monika: Allison, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Allison Woolbert.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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