Out Profile: New Jersey LGBTQ activist and social justice leader Carol Watchler

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Carol Watchler packing up her Roosevelt, NJ home
Carol Watchler packing up her Roosevelt, NJ home before moving. Photo by Lana Leonard

Carol Watchler teleported me to the mid-1980s. She was still teaching at the time, and already an activist with her soon-to-be wife, Ann Baker. Both Baker and Watchler were fighting for reproductive justice and legislative justice for women, students, and LGBTQ communities. They worked with the New Jersey National Organization for Women and the New Jersey Gay and Lesbian Coalition.

At the time the NJGLC was considering advocating for the addition of sexual orientation into the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination for perhaps the first time. “I believe [the advocacy began] in the 1984-85 state legislative session,” said Watchler.

Watchler was asked to advocate to the New Jersey Education Association why LGB inclusion in the LAD was important to pen on the agenda as a “new business item.” In a way, she was also publicly speaking on behalf of herself to people that may have not known she was a lesbian and a teacher. “My knees were shaking,” Watchler recalled.

Back in the 1980s Watchler was a public school teacher at South Brunswick High School. She knew that there was a delegate from her school district on the floor where she would make her argument as a lesbian school teacher. At that moment, she had no idea how speaking out for the LGB protective measure would give need for her own protection, but she argued on the floor anyway.

The NJEA amendment for sexual orientation protections did make it onto the agenda that day. Watchler believes that Edith “Edie” Fulton, then president of the NJEA, is to thank for that effort. She also commended many other speakers. “That business item came up, but the people who were on the Women and Education Committee were so good. They got up and spoke to this. They really advocated for that element to be passed,” Watchler said.

Nevertheless, the amendment didn’t become law in New Jersey until 1991. And the Law Against Discrimination didn’t add gender identity until 15 years later, in 2006.

The Beginning

Watchler’s family moved to Cleveland, where she was born in 1942. She lived near her grandparents’ house in Rocky River with three sisters and a younger brother. Growing up, Watchler’s parents invested in her future. When she was 12 years old, she tested out of seventh grade into her final year of middle school. In this, the Watchler family gave their full support.

As she matured into adulthood, independence looked like joining a convent and engaging in ministry work after graduating high school in 1959. This was not unusual for the time, but Watchler’s parents didn’t fully understand. “My parents didn’t grow up Catholic, so they weren’t in that mode of, ‘Oh, yay! We’ve got somebody who’s going to be a priest; we’ve got somebody who’s going to be a nun in our family.’ That just didn’t exist,” Watchler said.

Her parents did their best. “My mother, I think, had a lot of conversations with my high school principals,” Watchler said. “That probably helped my mother understand what it meant for me to enter the convent.” However, Watchler recalls her father thinking she’d be better off going to college first. Nonetheless, a determined young Carol Watchler had already made up her mind. “I knew that’s what I was called to do at that point.”

Carol Watchler with hands raised
Carol Watchler photo courtesy of Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice

Soon enough, she entered Sisters of the Humility of Mary and took some college courses for three years before going to Cleveland’s Notre Dame College. “This was just a community that was run by the Notre Dame sisters,” said Watchler.

She received a degree to teach physics, chemistry, and math. Watchler was teaching after three and a half years of college. Then in 1966 Watchler began teaching at an all-girls Catholic high school. “In that first year, I was only teaching math and religion, and that was a delightful thing,” she said.

There was a need for her to have these skills, as many nuns taught grade school. However, the young activist chose to reinforce her trade with the sciences. “What did they expect of women in the church? To be teachers and nurses, and all that kind of thing. And it took a little while for, I think, some people in the clergy to get beyond that, and know that women could be partners in parish ministry.

“Women, they could be partners in Catholic campus ministry,” said Watchler when mentioning Ann Baker. They met in the convent and she says she remembers Baker as an “angelic troublemaker.” Watchler said Baker was a person in a constant mode of “deep questioning” unexpected for a woman in the convent. The Church didn’t exactly take to “angelic troublemaking.”

”Angelic Trouble” is a quote from Bayard Rustin, the famous organizer of the first March on Washington in 1963. Rustin would have a huge impact on Watchler’s life. She said that people’s resentment for Baker grew in places where she was working to enact social justice, and eventually that kind of moved her forward. “Women in unusual ministries in the Catholic Church were not the most welcome,” she said. “And so [Ann’s] angelic troublemaking, at that point, meant that she didn’t have that position anymore.”

Baker grew up with social justice woven into the fabric of her being, according to Watchler, as she describes Baker as an unpaid lobbyist for justice. Eventually Baker would move to the East Coast, while Watchler taught for another 10 years in Ohio. She would eventually leave Ohio to merge her life and love with Baker. “As we move[d] forward, we learned that there was this thing called ‘patriarchy,’ and that it existed in so many cultures and societies, but it was just rampant within the Catholic Church,” Watchler recalls. “And so, we stepped away.”

The Garden State, Watchler, and community

In 1973 Baker and Watchler moved in together. Their move would inspire much of Watchler’s present and future in activism and advocacy. ​​“‘I didn’t want to push you,’” Watchler recalls Baker saying in a 2020 interview.

Carol Watchler and Ann Baker story in print publication.
Carol Watchler and Ann Baker story in print publication.

“I knew that being with Ann was the right thing to do,” said Watchler.

Baker and Watchler often worked side by side, but also in coalition with many organizations. The couple didn’t stop fighting for feminist and LGBTQ causes, and both were active and helped in the political trenches for LGBTQ protections in the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

Watchler and Baker moved to the small enclave of Roosevelt. There, they also celebrated their 25th anniversary with many of Watchler’s family (chosen and biological) present. Watchler will never forget how her father showed up for her that day. At first, Watchler’s father didn’t fully understand his daughter’s life and relationship with Baker, but at this celebration, he made a toast in celebration and acceptance of them both.

“‘I’ve known this person longer than any of you’ — of course referring to me — and he said, ‘I’ve come to be happy with this relationship,’” Watchler reminisces.

“I’ll tell you that was just the most phenomenal gift,” Watchler said. “I don’t think he was happy initially, and it just took quite a lot to see that we were happy together, and eventually that made him know that he could say that statement. It’s a gift that I carry in my heart forever. My dad has passed, but that’s still with me.”

Baker and Watchler spent decades together. Their love persevered through all kinds of triumphs and storms. On Aug. 25, 2016, Baker died at the University Medical Center of Princeton.

“Born and raised in Salem, Ohio, Ann spent some years in the Sisters of the Humility of Mary congregation and spent some years teaching history in Ohio and New York. She was an advocate for women’s rights, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, social justice, and political activist over the entire course of her life,” her obituary in Out In Jersey says. For Watchler, Baker is with her, and always will be.

Carol Watchler is  Outreach Coordinator (on right) with Robt Seda-Schreiber Chief Activist
Carol Watchler is Outreach Coordinator (on right) with Robt Seda-Schreiber Chief Activist at the Bayard Rustin Center For Social Justice in Princeton

About 13 years prior, Watchler retired from teaching, but her ability to change students’ lives continued. It was around this time that Watchler began working with Christine Hamlett. Hamlett has been “an assistant, confidante, and friend” to Watchler for over 20 years.

In 2004, Watchler chose Hamlett to organize an inclusion workshop for staff at the Newark Public School District. Hamlett taught in Newark schools and later retired as an administrator.

“I was so thrilled to work with this kind and informative person. Carol helped to bring me from shyness to openness. I slowly moved forward developing greater assertiveness in the struggle to bring light and personal growth to the lives of transgender and gender-diverse people,” Hamlett said. “Our work was not limited, but went beyond the boundaries which have oppressed and denigrated the lived experiences of LGBTQ people in New Jersey.”

Together they would instruct school administrators through NJ Excel, and would speak before the New Jersey Board of Education Committee Hearings on Inclusive Curriculum. Hamlett also became a GLSEN Central New Jersey board member to advance LGBTQ student’s rights.
“I am so proud to know Carol and to have worked with [her] as we continue advocating for equality and equity for all people regardless of gender identity, race, or economic status. New Jersey has a leading star, and that is Carol Watchler,” Hamlett said.

Watchler received numerous awards for her more than 37 years of teaching. Some awards include the NEA Virginia Uribe Award for Creative Leadership in Human Rights and the NJEA Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Award.

“Carol has a wonderful devotion to creating a safe learning environment for not just LGBTQ students, but for all students,” said Sue Henderson, former Ocean Township High School counselor and board member of GLSEN Central New Jersey. Every year the GSA Forum would bring hundreds of students from schools all over the state. Students attended workshops that focused on education. Participants learned about their own community, made friends, and some met other LGBTQ students for the first time in their lives.

“The first time I met Carol Watchler was when my GSA club [at Ocean Township High School] attended a GLSEN Youth Forum at West Windsor High School. I was very impressed by how organized the event was,” remembers Henderson. Before the former school counselor knew it, she was active in organizing for GLSEN Central New Jersey herself.

The annual GSA Forum began with a student who knew Watchler more than 20 years ago. The youth introduced Watchler and Corrine O’Hara, the HiTOPS LGBTQ coordinator and health educator at the time. The trans youth forum would also manifest over these years, but only after hundreds upon hundreds of LGBTQ students, educators, allies, and parents from all over the state came together with a focus to make change and build community.

Carol’s life in the present

In 2017, Carol stepped down from her role as co-chair of GLSEN Central New Jersey to become, at 78 years old, the Community Outreach Coordinator of the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice in Princeton. She was the first sitting member on the board of directors of BRCSJ. Watchler also served in her outreach coordinator role for BRCSJ before the Center had even opened.

“She is my personal north star, my extraordinary inspiration, and indeed a chosen mother to oh-so-many of us! Carol is the OG queer education pioneer, workin’ her entire career and indeed her whole life, to ensure that every kid in every classroom is seen and is heard, is recognized and is respected, and most importantly is safe and is LOVED!” said Robt Martin Seda-Schreiber, chief activist at the BRCSJ.

Seda-Schreiber and Watchler have since worked together to help students organize GSA clubs in many schools. “There are many folks who wouldn’t be here, both literally and figuratively, without Carol. She not only saves lives on a daily freakin’ basis, but she makes sure those lives are well spent and well lived, and we are all the better for it!” said Seda-Schreiber.

Watchler has since moved out of Roosevelt. She now lives in a senior living community where she continues to advocate for LGBTQ equality and racial justice and works with the BRCSJ staff regularly.

rustincenter.org

Lana Leonard
Lana Leonard (they/them) is a graduate from The College of New Jersey with a degree in journalism and professional writing. They work at the GLAAD Media institute and freelance for publications like LGBTQ Nation while working on their journalistic theory of change project: Late Nights with Lana, a talk show based out of 10PRL film studios in Long Branch, NJ. Lana's mission, in all their work, is to focus on people, their collective truths and how those truths form a community of knowledge towards change.