Metro Weekly

Veteran Activist

As the new head of OutServe-SLDN, Allyson Robinson is opening new fronts in the fight for full equality in the military

I was one of those sort of annoying people in high school that lettered in three sports and was editor of the yearbook and all that kind of over-achieving stuff. And so I wanted to be an officer and applied for West Point — I was just sure I’d be a shoe-in because I was obviously so well prepared — and I got rejected. So I enlisted in the Reserves myself. I wanted to build up a little experience, so I enlisted as a combat medic. I finished high school and applied again and thought, ”Certainly now, I can’t imagine someone who’s better prepared than I am,” and I got turned down a second time. I’d been offered an ROTC scholarship, so I took that and went out to Arizona State University – but applied again. I’m pretty persistent that way when it’s something that I want.

Finally, I got accepted the third time around. I was so proud and so humbled every day to be there at West Point, to wear that uniform, to be apart of that history. And I carried that with me after I graduated and was commissioned. Military life has its ups and downs, but I never questioned that it was the right place for me to be. I loved it every single day.

I did leave it eventually, and I left it willingly to go into ministry, but it was just kind of one high calling for another. And our ministry always ended up being in places where there were a lot of people in uniform just off of military bases, so the connection was still very strong for us.

And Danyelle, my wife, was a West Point classmate of mine. We went to West Point together, graduated together, and served together for the five years we were on active duty.

MW: How did you two meet?

ROBINSON: We met on the very first day that new cadets arrive at West Point. It’s called Reception Day, or R-Day. It is kind of in West Point lore. It is just the most hellish day of your life. They really do sort of take away every sort of speck of individuality you have and begin to break you down so they can kind of remake you in this perfect Army image.

We like to joke that we’ve both seen one another at our absolute worst. It doesn’t get any worse than that day and that first summer. We didn’t date until our sophomore year. We had our first kiss at the Army-Navy game. I know, it’s actually really cheesy.

MW: When did you marry?

ROBINSON: We married in 1994. This isn’t completely the case, but generally speaking, marriages like ours fall into these neat little loopholes. There are a couple of very small jurisdictions around the country where that’s not been the case and there’s been moves to annul marriages when there’s a [gender] transition. Generally speaking though, marriages continue to be legal. So we were a same-sex couple married in New York years and years ago.

MW: When did you transition?

ROBINSON: I’m not equivocating, but I would be remiss if I didn’t make the point that it’s a process. It’s not like ”this moment” thing. Many of us dream that it’s going to be that way. When I allowed myself to dream dreams like that, that is what I dreamed and it’s not that way.

I began my transition in 2005 and I presented as male for the last time on the day I graduated from Baylor in 2007. So, shockingly recently when you stop and think about it for a minute. It’s not that long ago.

MW: What made you decide to go to divinity school at Baylor University in Waco, Texas?

ROBINSON: I had been a pastor for six years at that point. That’s kind of the way Baptist polity works in a lot of circles. You don’t have to have this full academic qualification to be credentialed for ministry, so I pastored a small church in the Portuguese Azores for six years just off of a U.S. Air Force base.

I’m a really curious person by nature. I love to study and to teach and I’d hoped that my career would eventually include some more of that, and maybe even at a professional level. So we left the island and moved back to the states so that I could start to get that set of education credentials that I needed to continue on that path.

MW: What was your coming-out experience like?

ROBINSON: By the time I had to start dealing with my issues, I was out of the military and had been for some time. I was, however, a Baptist preacher and a candidate for an advanced degree at the largest Baptist university in the world. I love to tell people that I came out in Waco, because they inevitably gasp. It always gives me the opportunity to sort of say, ”Well, actually, you can loosen the grip on the stereotype a little bit.” I actually had an amazing coming out experience in Waco. It was a very controlled and limited experience, because I knew that if I were outed in a big way that I would have lost my fellowship. I would have probably lost my job and not been able to support our family.

So we planned things very carefully to ensure that I could get the care that I needed and that we’d be okay. I found community and family there and they were very good to us. And believe it or not, I love to get back there. I spoke last year, almost exactly a year ago, at the Metropolitan Community Church in Waco. They had their very first community Transgender Day of Remembrance event and they asked me to come and speak. It was so amazing to get to do that and to have a chief of police and a city councilwoman from Waco who were there and who spoke at a Day of Remembrance event. So it was actually a very good experience.

MW: Did that surprise you at all?

ROBINSON: Yes. It shocked me, because I had a pretty tight grip on the stereotypes. And, frankly, I’d lived a pretty sheltered life as a graduate student in a small university community and as a preacher in that same community. I didn’t spend a lot of time at either of the two gay bars in Waco. So I didn’t really even realize how much community was just sort of waiting there to embrace me and us, and walk with us through that really interesting time in our lives.

MW: I’m very intrigued by this Baptist preacher thing.

ROBINSON: It’s always been more interesting for folks when I tell them I didn’t grow up in a very religious family. That was something that I didn’t really come into or own for myself until I was at West Point.

It was my first year there. Like I said, I thought I was all that, I thought I could do this thing. I’d prepared for it for years. I knew more about the kind of stuff we were learning than most of the cadre did, and was kind of shocked to find about three weeks in to this beast-barracks summer indoctrination program that I was done. I wanted nothing do with this. I’d worked my whole life for it and I was ready to walk away.

But I had a moment of realizing that it was okay to need help, that help was there for me if I would be willing to call on it. That was kind of the beginning of a faith journey for me that led into some really weird places, honestly.

I think it’s safe to say that when I started that journey I was a pretty conservative person, in just about every sense of the word. A lot of that was just running away from what – in my heart of hearts – I knew was going on in my life.

Getting to live all over the world in the military and then in ministry, particularly during our time in the Azores; living outside of one of the poorest communities in Western Europe, and seeing that community sit on the edge of a U.S. military base, which was ridiculously affluent relative to it; it really started to make me question some of those very conservative faith tenets that I’d held onto. I very quickly began to focus the work I was doing there on finding the causes of the injustice that people were experiencing in those communities and being a part of the solution and not a part of the problem. Once you’ve had your eyes opened to one kind of privilege, you know it’s like a house of cards. It just comes tumbling down.

I realized how privileged I was as an American, as a white man who is well educated, who grew up in the middle class. When the time came that I transitioned, my eyes were already open to injustice. So I found that my faith was what drove me into activism and into advocacy. Again, it was really just changing one calling for another.

MW: When were you first approached to lead the newly combined OutServe-SLDN?

ROBINSON: Oh, gosh, that’s a good question. I don’t remember exactly. It would have been over the summer of this year. It began with a very dear friend of mine, Sue Fulton, who’s a member of our board of directors. Sue and I have served together on the board of Knights Out, which is the LGBT alum organization at West Point. It was how we met. She was here in D.C. with her partner, Penny, and they asked me if I’d join them for brunch one day, so I came down.

We did what we always do, kind of filling one another in on what was going on in our lives. She shared a little bit about the process of what was going on with the merger and that there was a search going on. I knew it because I’d received some recruiting letters and so forth. I knew it was something I was very interested in, but I didn’t believe I was a very strong candidate — ironically — for the position.

MW: Why not?

ROBINSON: I don’t know. Most people who know me would call me ambitious, I think. What’s more likely the true story is that I’m just weirdly drawn to doing things the hard way: West Point three times to get in. When I came out it was in Waco, Texas, while I was at divinity school.

I think it was just not looking closely enough at where I’d been.

I was very, very satisfied with the work I was doing at HRC. I had been asked to start and create a completely new program in organizational learning and development, kind of from whole cloth. As I said earlier, teaching and learning are things I’m very passionate about and I felt like I was doing the very best work of my life.

So I was sitting there with Sue and we were just kind of chatting about things and she was telling me about the fact that the search was going on. I said, ”You know, I’ve been thinking that maybe I would toss my hat into the ring just as a professional development opportunity. Someday I see myself in this kind of a leadership position and this will be good experience to work through the process and see how it goes.” And she got this look on her face and said, ”I think that would be a great idea. I think you should do that.” So over that weekend, I did. Brushed up the résumé a little bit and made a couple of phone calls, and here we are.

Justin Snow is Metro Weekly's former political editor and White House correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @JustinCSnow.