New federal law would end discrimination against GLBT people in the workplace.
Allison Woolbert, 46, is one of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s most vocal advocates for passage of a bill guaranteeing the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in the workplace. Her activism is based on her own experience as a transgender person who nearly lost everything in the process of claiming her gender identity.
As a young boy growing up in rural Arizona, Woolbert prayed to God, asking to be transformed into a girl. Instead, Woolbert endured years of gender confusion with a growing awareness that things weren’t as they should be. Conservative fundamentalist church teachings only made things worse.
Woolbert went to college, intending to study for the ministry, but stayed only one semester. He served in the Air Force as a male and was married three times, trying to pretend everything was normal.
Able to endure the charade no longer, Woolbert came out in 2008, ending a 15-year marriage. When she began transitioning to female a year-and-a-half ago she lost her house and her successful computer programming business as contracts, many with Fortune 500 corporations, were not renewed. She became homeless and estranged from three of her five children.
That’s when the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Jersey Shore in Pomona, N.J., stepped up.
A therapist had recommended Unitarian Universalism to Woolbert, even though she had sworn off all religion. She went, and found the life-saving message that she’d been looking for since she was a child. “I went to the first couple of services and it was very open, no dogma, very welcoming,” she said. “And I was soon invited to sing in the choir even as I was transitioning.”
“They gave me housing and work so I could feed myself,” she continued. “While I was there I was suicidal a couple of times, and people came to my rescue. The people at South Jersey Shore really saved my life.”
Which is how Woolbert came to be a prominent activist for ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that is working its way through Congress. ENDA would prevent discrimination in the workplace against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.
Woolbert immersed herself in the UU Principles, then jumped with both feet into the push to get ENDA passed. In August she moved to Princeton, N.J., joining the UU Congregation of Princeton, and has continued her work for ENDA there.
“I went to the social justice group at Princeton and said I needed some help with ENDA,” she said. “I wanted to create a coalition of UUs and others so we could pass it.”
Members of the Princeton congregation and the UU Church at Washington Crossing in Titusville, N.J., quickly formed a team that began calling UUs across the country. They’ve made several hundred calls. On Wednesday, May 19 an ENDA rally was held at the Washington Crossing congregation, which included training for UU and interfaith volunteers who will make even more calls. “We’re training people of faith to stand up and refute the distortions that opponents of ENDA are making,” said Woolbert. “The response to my requests for help has been utterly amazing.”
The Princeton congregation is supporting Woolbert’s trips to General Assembly in June and Washington, D.C., in July and August to lobby for ENDA.
Orelia Busch, legislative assistant for women’s issues and the UU Women’s Federation Clara Barton intern in the UUA Washington Office for Advocacy and Witness, said Woolbert’s help has been invaluable on ENDA.
“It’s been a huge boon to have her volunteers doing more legwork and making more phone calls than I could ever make alone,” she said. “Her work has brought the resources that our office created to so many people who have been able to use them. And it’s been so valuable to work with someone who understands deeply why this legislation is so important and is willing to fight for it with everything she has.”
Busch said ENDA is likely to pass in the House, hopefully this spring. She added, “ENDA has a fighting chance to gain a majority of votes in the Senate as well, but only if public pressure and support stay strong. Legislators so often hear from people of faith who are opposed to ENDA. That’s why it’s so important for us to let them know that many people of faith do support ENDA. It gives members of Congress a whole other point of view.”
Woolbert said she is hopeful a Senate vote on ENDA can come before the November national election. “It takes two to three calls or visits to educate people on what ENDA really means,” she said. “But people do get it.”
Right now is the time to get involved, said Woolbert. “We want people everywhere to be reaching out to their representatives in the House this month to urge them to put ENDA up for a vote.”
She added, “When my whole life was being destroyed around me, Unitarian Universalist congregations helped me survive and showed me a tremendous amount about living a truly spiritual life of love, versus the hatred that I was indoctrinated in by other faiths. At the same time the UU Principles allowed me to grow spiritually. I’m hoping now that other UUs will see how important it is to end discrimination and will join with us.”
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.