The Trans Woman Who Is Taking on the Military

Decorated Army veteran Allyson Robinson has some major plans for the country’s only organization dedicated to serving LGBT people in uniform.

BY Sunnivie Brydum

January 25 2013 5:00 AM ET

Allyson Robinson is a decorated veteran, a wife, a mother, an ordained Baptist minister, and the executive director of the recently combined advocacy organization for LGBT people in uniform, OutServe-Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. The Army veteran was tapped to lead the 6,000-member organization in October, and her appointment is noteworthy not only because she is one of the few women leading a military group but also because she is the first transgender person to lead a national LGBT organization.

Robinson’s appointment is anything but an affirmative-action hire, said retired Navy captain April Heinze, cochair of OutServe-SLDN’s Board of Directors in a statement announcing the hire. “Allyson Robinson is exactly the right person at the right time to be our leader and voice in Washington in the fight to achieve full LGBT equality in the military,” said Heinze.

Indeed, Robinson is exceedingly qualified for her new position. A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Robinson served as a commissioned Army officer commanding Patriot missiles in Europe and the Middle East, a senior trainer for NATO, and an adviser to the armed forces of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar.

Now Robinson is ready to engage in a different kind of battle — one of words instead of weapons.

Robinson says the 2011 repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which paved the way for open military service by gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans, was an important first step toward true equality in the military for LGBT people. And while she celebrates heartfelt stories from LGB soldiers who were finally able to introduce commanding officers to their families after repeal, Robinson is clear that OutServe-SLDN’s work is far from complete.

For Robinson, who was the deputy director for employee programs at the Human Rights Campaign before she signed on to lead OutServe-SLDN, the top priority is supporting those LGB people currently serving — a number the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, estimates at 65,000. OutServe-SLDN considers that number conservative, and points out that the estimate does not take into account those service members’ spouses and dependents. Also, it does not include transgender military personnel, who can still be kicked out if their transgender status is revealed.

Not that LGB troops have full equality yet either. Same-sex spouses and partners are not automatically notified if their loved one is injured in combat, are ineligible for military health care and pension benefits, and are not allowed to live in military housing—all privileges readily offered to families of straight soldiers. It’s a serious inequity OutServe-SLDN is committed to rectifying, and Robinson has a distinctive perspective on it.

“I served prior to coming out [as trans],” explains Robinson. “And when I deployed to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, when I was flying with the Air Force over Iraqi airspace, I knew that, if anything happened to me … my family was going to be very well taken care of. If you are a gay or lesbian service member today, you do not have that certainty. In fact, you can have almost certainty that [your family] will not be [cared for.] And that impacts a person’s ability to perform at the very highest levels, in the most stressful circumstances. It has an impact on unit cohesion. And it’s a national security issue.”

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