Two organizations dedicated to assisting LGBT service members have merged to take on the issues of the post-”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military and have designated a new leader who personifies a lingering inequity that remains for the armed forces.
OutServe-SLDN named as its new executive director Allyson Robinson — a 1994 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who, as an Army officer, commanded PATRIOT missile units in Europe and the Middle East — as it officially completed its merger last week at its International Leadership Conference in Orlando, Fla.
The Scranton, Pa., native is a transgender veteran and the only openly transgender head of a major national organization dedicated to serving the LGBT community.
Speaking to the Washington Blade from the conference last week, Robinson said she didn’t transition until she left active duty, but still felt like she had to “deny truths” about herself during her service.
“I came from a military family and had that value of service above self, or service to the country that has given me so much,” Robinson said. “I had that value ingrained in me from the time I was a child. To be in a position in order to carry out that value, I had to violate another value that I held very deeply — that value of honestly and integrity. It was an ugly thing.”
Robinson said she didn’t identify as transgender while in service during the 1990s because at that time, she wasn’t aware of the terminology to describe her gender identity, although she was aware of pioneering leaders in the movement.
“I didn’t have language for what I experienced, or what my identity was because much of the language that we use today didn’t exist,” Robinson said. “But clearly, to steer into the heart of your question, I knew who I was. And I knew that in order to keep my career, and to serve the country I love, that I had to deny who I was.”
Unlike “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which was a law passed by Congress in 1993 to prevent openly gay people from serving in the military, the prohibition on openly transgender service is administrative. Those who identify as transgender are forced to take a medical discharge.
Robinson emphasized the difficulties that transgender people experience in concealing their identity while serving in the military.
“And in many ways, it’s even worse than the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ military because there is no ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” Robinson added. “People in the chain of command are completely authorized to ask, and if you don’t respond truthfully — if you perjure yourself — then there are penalties for that.”
Much in the same way LGBT advocates pointed to allied nations that allowed openly gay service during the effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Robinson said several allied countries have implemented openly transgender service with no adverse impact, including the United Kingdom, Great Britain and Australia.
Most recently, Robinson was the deputy director for employee programs at the HRC Foundation and drove the curricula designed to improve LGBT cultural competence in the workplace. She and her wife of 18 years live with their four children in Gaithersburg, Md.
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said she doesn’t have “in-depth” experience working with Robinson, but engaged with her in a limited capacity during her tenure at HRC.
“I think it’s about time we had a trans person running a non-trans national LGBT organization,” Keisling said. “But I’m assuming they hired her because of her talents and her experience and not because she’s trans, and not because that’s suddenly going to be the only thing they work on.”
Keisling added she hopes the appointment of Robinson will bring greater attention to the issue of transgender people being barred from service.
“That’s a very important issue for them to get to,” Keisling said. “There hasn’t yet been a lot of work on it and we need there to start being support on it, so I’m really hopeful about that.”
Robinson said the issue of transgender service is receiving greater attention and she wants more openly transgender service members and veterans to tell their stories to help enact change.
“This is so crucial,” Robinson said. “We saw it during the fight to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ It’s part of the work that we’re doing at OutServe-SLDN right now — getting out the stories of gay and lesbian service members who are still not receiving the same benefits, the same privileges as their straight counterparts. The stories are so crucial to winning these fights.”
At the same conference where the appointment of Robinson was formally announced, OutServe-SLDN came into existence as a result of the merger between two organizations: Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which since 1993 has provided legal services to gay service members in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era, and OutServe, which was founded as a Facebook group and rose to prominence during the fight to repeal the law.
SLDN’s board and OutServe’s board voted unanimously to complete the merger, which was first announced in July. Retired Navy Captain April Heinze, who previously served as co-chair of the SLDN board of directors will take the helm alongside Josh Seefried, co-founder and previously co-director of OutServe.
In a statement, Seefried said the merger would enable the groups to serve as a “strong, unified voice” before the Pentagon and White House on policy matters affecting gay service members.
“What began as a simple effort to tell our stories has grown into something we could never have imagined, and this combination represents the next step in that evolution,” Seefried said. “Each organization brings its own strengths to the fight for full LGBT military equality, and we are stronger together.”
Openly transgender service is but one of many goals that Robinson has said she wants to pursue as head of OutServe-SLDN. Also on the docket: getting the Pentagon to make an administrative change so gay service members with same-sex partners can obtain certain benefits; repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act so gay service members can offer health and pension benefits to their same-sex spouses; growth of the network of service members formerly under OutServe; and continuing to provide legal services to gay service members.
Still, for the big ticket items like equal benefits for troops and openly transgender service, Robinson said she wasn’t immediately able to offer a plan publicly to achieve those goals.
“I’ve been part of the work there at HRC for some time; we’re going to continue to work together,” Robinson said. “But in terms of what the specific strategies are, I don’t know that it’s in the movement’s advantage for me to put too many details out there.”
But as part of the effect to provide partner benefits to gay service members, Robinson said she wants to sit down with Pentagon leaders to ask them why they haven’t yet been implemented. At the time “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted last year, the Pentagon said it was going to examine these benefits — which include joint duty assignments, issuance of IDs, use of the commissary and family housing — but hasn’t yet taken action.
“The lives of gay and lesbian service members could be significantly improved — it couple happen today with a stroke of a pen — and yet, for some unfathomable reason, there is a dire lack of will to make that happen among the people whose charge it is to take care of service members and their families,” Robinson said. “I’m very, very eager to sit down with some of those people and ask them that very question.”
Robinson also said SLDN’s lawsuit against DOMA — McLaughlin v. Panetta — will remain a priority for the organization, even though the case has been halted at the district court level pending the outcome of the DOMA cases before the Supreme Court. Because of DOMA, gay service members are denied major benefits that can’t be implemented administratively, like health and pension benefits.
“DOMA hurts military families,” Robinson said. “And because of that, DOMA is a national security issue. And so, we see the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act as something that is crucial not just to our members and their partners and their children, but that’s crucial to the security of this nation.”
And Robinson also said she plans to extend the network of LGBT service members under the organization from the more than 6,000 members in place and reach into the estimated 66,000 gay and lesbian troops that are currently in service.
“Just coming in from this chapter’s meeting that I’m in, I heard something from one of our leaders, our volunteer leaders that encouraged me,” Robinson said. “She said, ‘Our most important member is that young private, or young airmen out there — these are the lowest ranking soldiers in the U.S. military‚ who is gay, lesbian, bi or transgender and who doesn’t even know we exist and feels completely alone.’ As an organization, we exist for those people.”