Allison Woolbert is the initiator of the Transgender Violence Tracking Project which I wrote about in last week’s column. For even more details about the project please visit: http://www.transviolencetracker.com/. Although she will never receive a dime for her efforts, Allison has tirelessly worked to inform people about the transgender community and getting this incredibly important project off the ground. She was kind enough to spend another couple of hours with me on the phone for this interview.
Q. Have you received any responses from last week’s column?
Allison: Well, the article spread to many different websites and I received a number of supportive comments on the TVTP‘s Facebook page. Shockingly, I also received numerous requests for pictures of mutilated bodies and immolation victims. It had never crossed my mind that there were people who actually had a fetish for viewing dead members of our transgender community. I also received a personal threat on my life which scared the hell out of me. I banned the picture request people and FB did remove the member who sent the death threat.
Q. During our last conversation you mentioned that a transgender person is murdered about every three days.
Allison: That’s from information that we receive and really only includes reported murders. We actually think the rate is higher. This is why the TVTP is so important. We need accurate factual data in order to get basic protection.
Q. Was this your first encounter with threats?
Allison: I’ve been out now for five years and when I first came out as an affirmed woman I always felt frightened and did have a couple of threatening incidents. I remember one where a group of people in a car tried to run me into a “Jersey barrier” on the side of the highway. Still, this recent murder threat just so people might see my dead body really shook me up—despite all my knowledge about the hatred toward transgender people.
Q. No longer just statistics, huh?
Allison: Right, though there have been a number of murders and suicides that have blown me away. A boy in England, who was not allowed to wear make-up to school to be who she really was despite trying a number of times, finally hanged herself on the same day as my son’s birthday who was also the same exact age. It’s a suicide I’ll never forget. Another boy went to school in the US wearing lipstick and a fellow student just shot him to death. This is another reason why TVTP is so important. We need to know the facts about how many of our children are being murdered and beaten.
Q. You’ve been talking about kids. At what age did you first have an inkling about the war within yourself?
Allison: I remember when I was seven, waking up at night and going to my window and praying, “Please god, please god turn me into who I really am. My family were extremely devout Christians and I believed in miracles so I kept praying and waiting.
Q. Even at the age of seven you knew you were a girl.
Allison: What had solidified by then was that something was wrong. That I didn’t belong in this boy’s body. It really wasn’t me.
Q. You told me a story about putting on a dress and make-up, proudly showing your folks and your mom went ballistic.
Allison: She dragged me back into the bathroom, tore the clothes off and really hurt my face scrubbing the make-up away. It was pretty painful physically and psychologically.
Q. This was at age seven?
Allison: Actually earlier. Maybe five or six. I was always seeking my womanhood. I used to steal my grandmother’s girdle, take clothes from clotheslines, hide my sister’s dress and wig under my mattress. I couldn’t put any reasons to these things; I had to do it even though I felt horrible and guilty.
By the time I was around ten, I kind of accepted my behavior. I had women’s clothes in my tree fort, under my mattress, any place where I could hide them.
Q. Of course all this had to be secret.
Allison: Absolutely! I had to stay hidden in the closet or face violent reactions from my family. There was no choice. In my family, this was evil. Also, remember, at that time there was no language to explain what was happening with me. Transexual wasn’t a word most people even knew—much less understood as a medical issue. What I was, was simply wrong. In those days I was perceived as a gay effeminate boy and gay was a sin. I didn’t even know what I was because I knew I wasn’t gay since I was attracted to girls—though in fact—it turns out that I’m bisexual.
But back then, if I wore women’s clothes I experienced a feeling of normalcy and actually relaxed. Then when I took them off it was “Oh my god, I’ve sinned.” In some ways it was a self-perpetuating punishment.
Q. Elementary school must have been tough.
Allison: Oh yes. I had ADHD, plus I was effeminate. I was regularly paddled in the principal’s office or in front of my class. You see, I grew up in a copper mining community that had very concrete gender roles. Women could be secretaries but never work in the mine. So you can imagine how I was seen.
Q. I’d guess things grew even worse as you moved through junior high and high school.
Allison: Yes, they did. I can’t put an exact time frame on it anymore, but I remember being stuffed into lockers—no small thing since I was already at least six feet tall. I was pushed, shoved, and beaten up. During high school there was one kid who basically smacked me around every day. Throwing basketballs at the back of my head or breaking my glasses. Essentially I was seen as gay. But I couldn’t fight back because my family kept preaching that fighting was evil and a sin.
Q. You’ve taught me the difference between “sexual orientation” and being a transgender person so you were attracted to girls/women.
Allison: Sure, sure. I’m bisexual so I’ve been attracted to both men and women my whole life. For me there’s no disparity between my sexual attractions and my sexual identity.
Q. During all of those school years was there anyone you could talk to about all this?
Allison: About my sexual identity? Not a single one. I was over twenty before I had that discussion. See, I was caught in a corner. I didn’t know what I was. Gay? Straight, but effeminate? In my own mind I just thought I was a freak.
My mother was unrelenting, overbearing and continually insisted the cure for me was to attend a strict Christian college to be “saved.” During second semester I met a woman and married her ten days later, dropped out of school, and a year later had a child. But when I first got married I began to cross-dress in the house. She thought it was kinda kinky and willing to have fun with it. Of course, at that point in my life I never went outside in women’s clothes or makeup. It was sex play, which was very different than my real issue.
Despite her semi-acceptance of my cross-dressing and our having a child, the marriage was a disaster. I spent a year being unable to keep a job and scrambled from one to another adding to the misery.
Q. Was that when you enlisted?
Allison: Yes, I went into the Air Force. Someone suggested it was a way to at least have a solid job.
Q. You were how old?
Allison: I was 19 ½. I’d just had my little boy. Actually, the military was okay for me. It enabled me to get my feet on the ground and find my way out of adolescence. I thought I’d be traveling, but after training I ended up back home in Tucson for my entire tour of duty.
Q. And it was the Air Force that initiated your computer expertise?
Allison: Yes, but it wasn’t what I wanted at the time. I really wanted a woman’s job. I aspired to be a secretary—though I knew the male twist would mean becoming a clerk. I took a typing test but they told me they were going to make me a statistical analyst and computer programmer—despite my incredible struggles with both algebra and geometry. But during the four years I was in the Air Force I worked hard at it, learned to love it, and that’s how my career evolved to where I’ve become quite good at all things computer. Otherwise I’d never initiate the TVTP. My transgender community means too much to me.
Q. Four years, huh? You’ve described yourself as effeminate. How did you deal with that in the military?
Allison: With mixed emotions. On one hand I was married with a small child and trying to suppress my real identity. Also, the Air Force demands specific postures for standing, sitting, everything really. So it actually helped in presenting as male. At the same time it was extraordinarily painful to keep who I really was in check. I just wasn’t who I was trying so hard to be. You can’t see gender identity but you can see gender expression. How you stand, haircuts, hold your hands. Most of the bias comes as a reaction to expression. For example, a masculine butch woman catches bias because of her gender expression.
Q. What happened after you left the military?
Allison: By the time I left I knew I wanted to devote my life to computer programming and analysis and got supervisory work as such. But after 6½ years my first marriage ended in a divorce. I then remarried and that marriage lasted for 6 years as well, though for half that time we were separated.
In the beginning of the marriage I began thinking about actually transitioning and before the separation my wife actually urged me to go public with my cross-dressing. But after our separation I stopped, buried who I really was, and started dating yet again. I still had my mother’s voice in my head telling me I’d meet a religious Christian woman and become “normal.”
Then I met a good woman who seemed to believe in me. Plus I was older and had better repression tools, telling myself I don’t have to be what I really was. I loved her and during our thirteen years together had two children. When I again began to accept my transsexuality, she thought it was simply a phase and told me to get over it and keep the money coming. I think she believed my transexualism was something I was using to escape the kids. Nothing was farther from the truth. Despite ongoing problems with some of my children, I love them all dearly.
Q. At the point of this break-up, where were you at gender identity-wise?
Allison: At that time I’d really begun transitioning, using black market hormones, even though I was still resisting. I had two psychologists who finally identified that I had PTSD from my upbringing and marriages, that I was a transsexual, and if I didn’t deal with that I was going to die. Kill myself.
At forty five years of age I finally accepted my transsexuality despite having a tremendous amount of anxiety. I had fully transitioned by October 2008 and never turned back. Everything I knew, everyone I knew—including my two older children were gone. I was living fully as a woman though I never thought I could get my surgery because of the cost. Truthfully, there was limited relief at that point in time. For six months I worked through the trauma of living a new life. I did have a coming out party where I wore a beautiful purple gown and, for the first time, there were people celebrating who I was. But it was extremely difficult after living as I had. Terribly painful, despite the deep internal knowledge that I finally was who I was meant to be.
Q. So when did things begin to settle down?
Allison: Soon, I hope. (laughter)
Q. When did the surgery occur?
Allison: I discovered my insurance would cover the cost, but I had to pay upfront. So my friends did fundraising and I took out enough loans to be able to pay. I had my surgery in 2010.Truth is, it’s just been this last year that I’ve felt completely comfortable with who I am physiologically. It really does time for the body and mind’s neurotransmitters to align.
(At this point Allison and I talked about some of the fissures between the LGB community and the T. Rather than include it in this interview I’m posting her open letter, which has been published in a number of places, to her LGB sisters and brothers on my web site’s Happenings page—http://zacharykleinonline.com/happenings/
Q. So what do you perceive as the highest political priority for the transgender community?
Allison: Jobs and safety. If you don’t have a job, you can’t get health insurance, you end up on government assistance, and frequently become homeless. As a transgender person it’s difficult to get into a shelter, and often end up assaulted. Not a pretty picture.
We know that homeless people are assaulted more than others. Which means that transgender people are, as I’ve said before, disproportionally the victims of violence. But our knowing this does nothing for our protection, which is why the TVTP is so important. My community needs the power to present verified data in a way that doesn’t raise more violence upon us, but rather protects us. We can slow down the victimization that happens to our community with actual facts and data. Right now, that information is virtually impossible to get. The core of the TVTP is to create statistical evidence that can’t be disputed.
TVTP has the potential to deliver a number of things. One, to provide information to specific cities about specific violence perpetrated upon our community in those cities. Two, validate information as factual. This will give our community the opportunity to take this information and present it to the appropriate authorities—police, congress, and courts—as indisputable facts and not conjecture. And to finally force prosecutors to utilize the hate crime laws for the transgender community.
Q. Is there anything you’d like to add to what I’ve asked? No doubt I missed something.
Allison: We’re not even counted in the census. The choice is “male” or “female.” The government doesn’t want to change this because if we are counted we’ll have political legitimacy. Something very few politicians want. Let’s face it, how hard would it be to add a T to an M and an F?
This concluded the interview with my newly discovered friend. I want to thank her for the amazing willingness to open her life story. I also want to plead with people who read this interview to pledge anything you possibly can to the project. (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1280267427/transgender-murder-violence-and-suicide-website) Even a dollar will help. We have a very limited amount of time to make this happen.
What we have here is an invisible oppression that creates poverty, unemployment, suicides and incredibly brutal murders—to say nothing of the internal pain and trauma of a transgender person who, in the eyes of the government, doesn’t exist—despite the recognition of the medical and psychiatric community that this is a medical condition. We need less than $1,800 dollars to be pledged in the next 22 days or TVTP is dead in the water. Dig deeper my friends, please dig deeper.