By Monica F. Helms, Angela Brightfeather and Allyson Robinson
Monica Helms: A few months back, the Transgender American Veterans Association’s Organizational Liaison, Paula Dee Wright, received a communication from Dr. Judy Rosenstein, civilian instructor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Dr. Rosenstein teaches Social Inequality, a sociology elective, and she asked to have a transgender veteran come and speak to her class.
You can imagine how we felt being presented with the opportunity to speak at the oldest military academy in the United States. Some of our most famous military figures in this country’s history have walked its halls. Never in its 206-year history has an openly transgender person been invited to speak to the cadets, so the invitation to TAVA was a first.
The discussion between board members on how we should proceed focused primarily on finding the perfect person to take on this historical task. We had many in our community who have also spent time in the halls of West Point, but only a few would be able to represent our part of the community in the way that would not only respect West Point and their long traditions, but respect the transgender community. Angela Brightfeather, TAVA’s VP, had the right person in mind.
We asked Allyson Robinson, who graduated from West Point in 1994, to take on this “mission,” and she proudly accepted. However, we made one big request of her. Allyson currently works for HRC as the Associate Director of Diversity and we asked that in this situation, she represent TAVA when she arrived at West Point, even though she was not part of our board. We made the request only because Dr. Rosenstein made the initial contact to us. Because of how important this visit would be, Allyson and HRC had no problem with that.
Angela Brightfeather: I make no bones about my dislike of the way HRC has acted towards the transgender community over the last 18 months. While I feel that we do not need them as a part of the Transgender Movement and that we are far better of either ignoring them or just telling them not to do us any favors, that would probably contribute to the schism that has already occurred. I cannot find it in my heart to simply dismiss those transgender people who are associated with them and their commitment to change HRC and the way it does business with our community.
As misguided as some people may seem, there is merit in working for change inside of HRC if at all possible.
The purpose of Allyson Robinson representing TAVA during her visit back to her Alma Mater at West Point, clearly as an example that, as a community, being transgender is much more important than our affiliations with organizations. There is a point where we have to admit that we are involved and activists because we feel we must be part of something larger than ourselves or any one organization. Allyson’s visit proves exactly that point. TAVA and Allyson Robinson allied together, one for the purpose of knowingly and purposefully creating history, and the other, to have a transgender person ready as the best individual to be a part of that history.
In today’s new age of creating unity, new beginnings, changes and reaching across the aisle, TAVA and Allyson decided that West Point needed to learn about our community, which was far more important and painted a far larger picture. This need overshadowed any obstacles regarding group affiliations or things that might have happened in the past, most gratefully sacrificed for new and loftier beginnings.
While some of us can never agree with who Allyson Robinson works for, we all have to admit that she is a transgender person first and foremost, who understands the big picture of our community and will reach across the aisle to help. To us on the outside and who take exception to HRC and the way they treat us, at least we know that transgender people on the outside and on the inside can still respect and work with each other, one, committing to change, and the other communicating what those changes need to be. That is a hopeful situation for all of us that gives little credit for political causes, but gives great credit to being transgender and creating community.
A native of Scranton, Pa., Allyson Robinson is a 1994 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, where she majored in engineering physics. After an internship at Los Alamos National Laboratory, she was commissioned as an officer in the Army and served with PATRIOT missile units in the United States, Germany and Saudi Arabia. She also worked for NATO as an air defense evaluator and advised the Royal Saudi Air Force on missile defense tactics, techniques and procedures.
Robinson resigned her commission in 1999 to pursue a calling to Christian ministry. After her ordination, she served as pastor-teacher to churches in the Portuguese Azores and in central Texas. Her ministry work focused on raising awareness of systemic poverty and the intersecting systems of oppression that create and sustain it, while working to organize responses to poverty at the local, regional, national and international levels. She earned a master of divinity degree in theology, with a capstone emphasis in social justice, from Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary in 2007.
The following is Allyson Robinson’s report to TAVA on her historical return to West Point:
I arrived at West Point on the evening of November 4, just as election returns were beginning to come in from the states on the eastern seaboard. The timing seemed portentous to me; I felt a bit as though I was riding the leading edge of the wave of change sweeping our nation. But paradoxically, I also felt like I was coming home. I had been back to West Point many times since I graduated in 1994, but not since my transition. To return not as a prodigal, but rather as an honored guest, was meaningful to me in ways that are difficult to put into words. So many transgender people are (formally or informally) disavowed by organizations and institutions that had once embraced them. To know that my alma mater, my “Rockbound Highland Home,” was calling me back with honor was profoundly moving for me.
I arrived on post on the morning of November 5 and presented my identification to the guard at the gate. He asked me what my business was and I replied that I would be guest lecturing in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership. “Do you know your way to Thayer Hall,” he asked as he returned my license to me. “I’m a grad,” I said, “so I know my way around.” He smiled. “Well then, welcome home, Ms. Robinson,” he said, waving me through the gate. I fought back tears as I drove toward the Cadet Area.
It was a beautiful fall morning–sunny, cool, and crisp, with the autumn leaves just past their prime–and so I parked about a mile from Thayer Hall and walked. On my way, I stopped by the post cemetery, as has been my custom for almost 15 years. I couldn’t help but notice how much fuller it has become in just the last few years, with graves of young men and women killed in battle far outnumbering those of older veterans in the newer areas of the cemetery.
I also stopped for a moment at the grave of my West Point roommate, my best friend, who was killed in an accident less than a year after we graduated. After having come out to so many old friends over the last few years, I was so glad that time and fate had conspired to give me the opportunity finally to tell Mark the truth. I know he would have been one of the first to offer me his love and support had he lived–as it was, I felt his love and support as I continued on to the academic area.
I met Dr. Judy Rosenstein in her office about fifteen minutes before my first class was to begin. One of the cadre of civilian instructors in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, Judy is a great friend to our community and a bold advocate. We had spent a couple of hours on the phone the night before, discussing the ways her cadets had responded to the news I would be coming and brainstorming about what we might expect from them, and so I felt very well prepared as we made our way to the room where the lecture was to be held. When we arrived, much of the class was waiting for us, along with several other faculty who had asked to participate. The chairs were set up in a wide circle, and so I found a seat and waited for the Cadet Section Leader to bring the class to order.
This first section I was teaching was Social Inequality, a sociology elective, and most of the class were Firsties (seniors). One thing that stood out to me immediately as I looked around the room was the ethnic diversity of the cadets, which seemed to be much greater than during my time. The percentage of women also seemed to be a little higher. (Later discussions with faculty confirmed these perceptions as accurate.) After a brief introduction by Judy, I began my lecture.
The cadets were very respectful and engaged, as I expected them to be. There were some who were clearly uncomfortable with the topic, but my teaching style is very conversational and by the time I worked my way through my notes and opened it up for questions, nearly everyone in the room seemed to have gotten over their discomfort.
Their questions ran the gamut of the transgender experience and were very well thought out. That said, they seemed particularly interested in two topics: how my wife and I had preserved our marriage through transition, and how I had been able to justify my transition in light of my faith. (This interest carried over into the second group I taught as well.)
The first focus, on my marriage, seemed natural enough coming from this particular audience; the second, however, seemed out of place. While many cadets in my day were people of faith, far fewer practiced their faith regularly, and I can’t recall a single time that an issue of faith was raised in the classroom.
When I mentioned later this to Colonel Tom Kolditz, the department chair, he shared with me how the spiritual face of the Corps had changed in the fifteen years since I graduated. As our culture has shifted toward tolerance and celebration of diversity, many prospective cadets and their parents have come to see West Point as a bastion of conservative social values–a place where they can be assured of experiencing the kind of social-moral environment they desire.
In Colonel Kolditz’s words, “In previous years, when you’d ask cadets what other schools they had to choose from, you’d hear, ‘Yale, Harvard, and West Point,’ or ‘MIT, CalTech, and West Point.’ Today, you’re just as likely to hear, ‘Liberty University, Wheaton College, and West Point.’” This represents a change that is worrisome to me, but I’m comforted to know that Colonel Kolditz’s department is dedicating itself to exposing cadets to the diverse face of America as it is, rather than allowing them to exist in a cocoon of America as they wish it was.
About half a dozen cadets lingered after our class to ask questions, and after speaking with them, Judy and I made our way to Colonel Kolditz’s office for the meeting I just alluded to. When I entered his office, he got up to greet me, extended his hand, and said, “Welcome home,” the second time I’d heard those words that day.
Our meeting, originally scheduled for 15 minutes, lasted an hour. He was interested in my impression of the cadets and I wanted to hear from his perspective why I was there and what he hoped his students would gain from having met me. I was incredibly impressed with the colonel. He struck me as a leader with his finger on the Army’s pulse and his eyes on the national horizon. He expressed interest in having me return to speak to future classes, thanked me profusely, and as our time was drawing to a close, asked me a question that surprised me. “What can we do for you?” I had prepared to make an ask of Colonel Kolditz, but didn’t expect to be offered such a clear opening.
I asked him to begin considering how the Army should treat transgender soldiers and dependents in light of the imminent repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” With the story a dear friend, currently serving in the cabinet of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, as my launch pad, I suggested that this issue would soon present itself to the Army and that the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership was naturally positioned to lead the way in making the Army fully inclusive of transgender service members. He committed to considering the issue, and I urged him to seek the advice and counsel of TAVA at the earliest opportunity. As I left, he gave me a Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership coin–a special honor for me as my wife majored in that department and doesn’t have a coin!–and asked me to stay in touch.
I’m sure by this point that my fond remembrances and nostalgia are beginning to bore you, so I’ll only note here that I was able to visit a cadet barracks with the Firstie who served as my escort and then had lunch with the Corps in the Cadet Mess–the first time I had been in those areas since my graduation fifteen years ago.
After lunch I lectured to a second group of cadets, this time in an Introduction to Sociology class for junior sociology, psychology, and leadership majors. While they were less engaged than my first class–which I chalked up to the greater diversity of academic backgrounds in the room, as well as the fact that it was the hour immediately following lunch–they were still very respectful of me and of our community, and seemed eager to learn more.
There were many faculty members in attendance as well, and I spent an hour after the lecture speaking with them and getting their perspective on the issues. They echoed Colonel Kolditz’s assessment of the Corps’ conservative shift and expressed concern that it seemed to be a tremendous challenge for them to discuss an issue like the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” objectively and dispassionately. I share their concern.
I dined that evening with Judy and two other faculty members, Major Darcy Schnack (professor of one of the sections of Introduction to Sociology I had taught) and her husband, Major Troy Schnack of the Department of History. We had a wonderful discussion of our shared experience with my lectures and of future opportunities.
I’d like to close by thanking you, and every member of TAVA, for allowing me the opportunity to represent us at West Point. Words fail me as I seek to express my gratitude, so I will say simply that I count it as one of the very highest honors I have ever received, or ever could. I am deeply, deeply grateful.
Please let me know if my report raises any questions for you or if you’d like more details on any part of my visit. Of course, if I can serve TAVA in any capacity in the future, I hope you won’t hesitate to call on me.
Duty, Honor, Country,
As the President of TAVA, I cannot express how proud I am of Allyson and her commitment to our community. She won’t be at HRC for many years, and when she does decide to move on, I see her as one of our future leaders. She is another example of how the military veterans in our community can step up when the need arises. She made history, but there are more moments like these waiting for us in the future. After all, there is the Naval Academy in Annapolis and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Is someone out there able to open these doors for us?