WASHINGTON — The new head of the country’s leading LGBT military organization is Allyson Robinson, a former commissioned officer in the Army who most recently worked at the Human Rights Campaign on workplace issues.
Robinson also is transgender — and her selection represents a huge breakthrough for a community that has received a level of respect in recent years but still faces overwhelming discrimination and high rates of violence, according to recent surveys by LGBT organizations. Following the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," however, she now faces the unusual challenge of persuading activist and donors that, in spite of that victory, the cause still needs their help.
"We disentangled America from this legalized discrimination against gay and lesbian servicemembers," Robinson said, acknowledging that the key aim of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network since its founding in 1993 was reached with the September 2011 repeal of the law.
The case she will make is the one that SLDN and OutServe, formed in 2010, have been making since the repeal: Troubling issues remain when it comes to LGBT military service. In addition to benefits issues for same-sex couples, open service for transgender people, whose own sense of their gender does not match the sex with which they were born, was not addressed in the repeal of the 1993 ban on open service and remains a reason to be discharged from the military today.
"We have not achieved full equality for LGBT servicemembers, and I think that’s something that Americans care about. I think they care about the way that our troops and their families are treated," she said.
Robinson will take the helm of both SLDN and OutServe, as the groups complete their merger as OutServe-SLDN this weekend at the combined group’s first board meeting in Florida.
A 1994 West Point graduate who was a commissioned Army officer and served overseas before resigning her commission to become a pastor-teacher to churches in the Portuguese Azores and central Texas, Robinson will be the first executive director of the combined organization. Robinson, who lives in Maryland with her wife and four children, most recently was the deputy director for employee programs with the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Workplace Project, where she worked to establish the LGBT organization’s corporate training curriculum to promote LGBT equality in the workplace.
Robinson also appears to be the first out transgender leader of a national organization representing the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Other prominent national organization leaders who are transgender, such as Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality and Masen Davis at the Transgender Law Center, work for organizations whose primary focus is transgender equality.
Transgender people have made significant advancements in recent years, most notably when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled six months ago that the Civil Rights Act’s prohibition of sex discrimination in employment includes discrimination against transgender people. Nonetheless, transgender issues often get less attention in public LGBT discussions, which have focused on marriage for same-sex couples and, as Robinson mentioned, ending the ban on gay, lesbian and bisexual service known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
But, now, Robinson will be leading OutServe-SLDN as it works to advance several goals to benefit lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. SLDN's executive director since 2007, Aubrey Sarvis, announced in January his intention to step down.
“This fight is not over,” Robinson told BuzzFeed in an extensive interview after 5 p.m. Oct. 22 at the offices of SLDN. Robinson and SLDN communications director Zeke Stokes talked with BuzzFeed for an hour, with Robinson already at ease discussing the groups' aims. “We’re in the middle of a fight, just as certainly as we were before ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was ever repealed. There have been some, many perhaps, who have been under this notion, ‘What’s left to do?’ There is so much left to do.”
The five priorities that Robinson discussed for the organization are: same-sex partner benefits for servicemembers and veterans, both those that could be offered by the Pentagon now and those that would first require the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act; out transgender service; inclusion of sexual orientation and, eventually, gender identity, in the military’s nondiscrimination policy; veterans’ equal treatment, including removing less-than-honorable discharge notations for those discharged under DADT; and growth of the organization as an association of LGBT servicemembers, which was OutServe’s primary purpose before the groups merged.
Noting her father’s service, her service academy days and her own service, Robinson added, “This is a fight that for me, is a very personal one. It’s an opportunity for me to give back to a family that gave me so much.”
Robinson's appointment won immediate praise from other advocates. Sue Fulton, another West Point graduate and a leader in both OutServe and Knights Out, a group of West Point graduates who fought DADT, called Robinson “the perfect choice” for the job.
"I’ve been fortunate to know and work with Allyson for the last several years, as a fellow West Point grad working for LGBT military rights, and she is one of my personal heroes," Fulton, who will serve on the board of OutServe-SLDN, told BuzzFeed. "She is an inspiring and compassionate leader with military experience, movement credibility, and political savvy."
She also cited Robinson’s status as a transgender leader in the community.
"It's an important moment for the LGBT movement because it reinforces our value that qualifications and character are what matter: a core value we share with the United States Armed Forces."
Robinson, too, pressed that point when asked about her selection.
"I think it says a lot about these two organizations that are coming together now. I think it says that OutServe-SLDN is an organization that puts its money where its mouth is. That it believes in and that it practices full equality for the community," she said. "Honestly though, to me, I think it’s more than even that. I think it’s an acknowledgement that there’s a fight that still needs to be fought, and that what I bring to this organization, as a veteran and as a veteran of this movement, is something that the organization needs to help lead it forward.”
Just how hard to press transgender equality has divided the LGBT community in the past. Just five years ago, the community faced one of its most difficult internal struggles when congressional leaders, with the eventual support of the Human Rights Campaign, allowed a vote on a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the bill to ban private employers from discriminating, that only included sexual orientation — leaving out transgender protections based on gender identity. Although those who pushed the vote gave reasons, including that the vote was really a head-counting measure because then-President George W. Bush would have vetoed either version of the bill, the fallout from the vote created significant soul-searching within the leadership of the LGBT community on its approach to such issues moving forward.
Now, HRC’s new president, Chad Griffin, praised the selection of his former employee for the to job at OutServe-SLDN, telling BuzzFeed, "The LGBT rights movement is made stronger by the inspired appointment of Allyson Robinson as head of a critically important organization."
Robinson acknowledged the changed landscape.
"I think that what has changed is awareness and understanding. Awareness gives transgender people a seat at the table; understanding gives us a voice in the conversation. We need a whole lot more of both, but this movement is very different today from what it was five years ago. I’m proud of that," she said.
Of her selection, she said, "I’m proud of what that says about OutServe-SLDN, I’m proud of what it says about us as a movement. I’m grateful for the accomplishments, not just of trans people and allies of the past five years who have helped get us here, but for people for the 35 or 40 years before that who got us just to that point."
She added, "It’s amazing to be a part of a movement that is growing to embody its most deeply held values."
One of the first movement issues in which Robinson will now play a key role is the way the military handles benefits for same-sex couples in the military. Although the Defense of Marriage Act bans some benefits, SLDN has been pushing since before DADT repeal to get the Pentagon to extend those benefits now that could be extended to same-sex couples and their families without violating DOMA.
"DOD has been sitting on [those issues] for some time," Robinson said. "We will continue — this organization has pressed hard for these changes and we will continue to do so. The great thing about our merger is I think it amplifies our voice. It allows me, as a leader, to walk into those meetings and say, 'I'm speaking here today on behalf of 6,000 gay and lesbian servicemembers and their families, and they need these benefits. They need them now.'"
SLDN also has a pending lawsuit challenging DOMA's application to same-sex couples' military benefits, as well as two laws limiting veterans’ benefits on a similar basis.
Robinson declined to detail her new organization's strategy for winning out trans service, but suggested that the visibility of active duty trans servicemembers and former servicemembers like her would be a part of that push, just as the public faces of gay and lesbian veterans and war heroes and those still serving played a key role in winning public support for the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
"I think a crucial part of that strategy is ensuring that the stories of transgender servicemembers and veterans are being told," Robinson said. "Trans people have served from our nation’s founding, just as LGB people have. Because of the state of medical and readiness regulations, they continue to be forced into silence. Having an organization like ours, that can help to elevate those stories and make them a part of the conversation, is very, very important. The more we tell those stories, the closer we are to winning that fight."
As Air Force First Lt. Josh Seefried, a co-founder of OutServe and board member of the combined OutServe-SLDN, told BuzzFeed, "Allyson gets what this next phase of the LGBT military movement. The military is the United States’ largest employer. That means we can't just focus on what's going on in Washington, D.C. — we have to focus what's happening across our military bases worldwide, including on the battlefield. She understands this and will connect with our actively serving members like no one else could."
Talking about how her selection itself is a marker in the rapidly moving story of the fight for LGBT equality, Robinson, well aware of the difficulties inherent in leading an LGBT organization, acknowledged that marker but was — days before starting the job — already focused on the task ahead.
"I've learned not to think too much about that," she said. "I've got a lot of other things to think about right now. I have a lot of people, a lot of very specific concerns to think about, and they’re people who mean a lot to me. I've used this word before: They're my family. That's really where my thoughts are and where my heart is right now. And I know that if I can keep the focus there, then a lot of the rest of the stuff takes care of itself."