The Trans Woman Who Is Taking on the Military

By Sunnivie Brydum

Originally published on Advocate.com January 25 2013 4:00 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.”

When it comes to changing the policy barring transgender Americans from serving in the military openly, Robinson says that fight is very different from the one to repeal DADT. According to the Department of Defense regulations, transgender people are unfit to serve, based on military standards that categorize transgender identity or any gender-reassignment surgeries as indicative of a “personality disorder.”

“Repeal was a legislative fight, and the path to victory was very clear for all of our organizations that were working to that end,” says Robinson. “Transgender people are barred from service not by legislation but by a set of medical policies — readiness policies — some of which are held across the Department of Defense, others of which are controlled by specific services, and so the path to getting there is much more challenging.”

But that doesn’t mean Robinson thinks open service by transgender people is impossible. Robinson points to the 2013 renaming of “gender identity disorder” as “gender dysphoria” in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders, the book of record for psychiatric conditions, lessening the implication that being transgender is a mental illness.

“We have a tremendous opportunity over the coming months,” Robinson says. “I think that [DSM] revision will highlight, for the armed forces, just how out of date and out of touch their regulations are. I think we’ll be able to use that as some leverage to help make some change happen there.”

But Robinson is adamant that OutServe-SLDN is not a single-issue organization. Among her top priorities for the group, Robinson lists increasing support for LGBT veterans discharged under DADT, who are often saddled with discharge paperwork that lists their reason for severance as “homosexual admission” or, for those discharged for being transgender, “personality disorder” — an involuntary outing that can affect future employment opportunities and access to veterans’ services.

Robinson also happens to be legally married to a woman. Robinson, 42, met her wife of 18 years, Danyelle, when both were cadets at West Point, and they served together following their graduation. Today, the women have four children, and live in Montgomery Village, Md., just north of Washington, D.C.

Ever goal-oriented, when asked whether she feels a responsibility to live up to the historic nature of being the nation’s first transgender leader of a major LGBT organization, Robinson shifts the focus to the work at hand.

“It’s not hard to get picked to do something,” says Robinson. “It’s harder to do something. I feel as though we will have made some history when we … look back over the past several years and feel that we have accomplished many of our goals, that we really have brought about full LGBT equality for the U.S. military. That’s something that will be historic, and that’s really where my focus is.”