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Member & Activist Spotlight

Trailblazer for LGBTQ+ rights

Carol Watchler is a Retired high school teacher in Middlesex County, New Jersey
Carol Watchler
Published: October 6, 2023

The popular television shows of the 1950s featured stereotypical suburban families and suggested that life was good and only getting better. Those were the formative years of my youth. However, life was far from ideal for people who did not conform, including people like me, whose sexual orientation was at odds with what was considered mainstream.

We had two choices: Stay in the closet or face widespread discrimination. For me, it was a clear decision to try to change that, and I’m pleased and proud to have played a part. At the time, I was a high school math and science teacher, so the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) was one path to change.

In 1985, other LGBTQ+ members asked me to address the NJEA Delegate Assembly to make the case that sexual orientation should be included in existing anti-discrimination laws. As a non-delegate, I wondered how this “coming out” and taking a public stand would go over with my district and others who did not know my situation. With my knees shaking and my voice sometimes quavering, I explained why our union needed to take a leading role in what many deemed a highly controversial issue.

Enthusiastic applause and a voice vote followed my remarks. Finally, the chair announced: “The measure has been approved.” I can still hear it today. Some delegates challenged the vote, but when the chair asked for a standing vote, they backed down. It was a watershed moment for me and confirmed my future as an activist teacher.

After another six years of work and the support of NJEA, LGBTQ+ inclusion became part of our state’s anti-discrimination law. During this time, our community was losing friends and colleagues to the AIDS epidemic, and discrimination was rampant. Our LGBTQ+ students also felt threatened and insecure.

The LGBTQ+ community continued our fight to gain inclusion on a national scale. In 1987, we formed the NEA Gay and Lesbian (now LGBTQ) Caucus. I became a caucus co-chair with an ambitious agenda of electing progressive leaders, fighting against discriminatory practices, and developing training to meet the needs of gay and lesbian education employees and students. The NEA’s adoption of inclusion allowed much of this to become reality.

More action is still needed, including getting the federal Equality Act passed and ensuring that all students are safe and respected.

Along with my education advocacy, I also work for the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice, in Princeton, where I help LGBTQ+ students navigate their paths. I am grateful for NJEA and NEA and their part in the legacy I leave, and the opportunities for ordinary members to effect lasting change.

National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.