"You really need to meet with Allyson." By my third week on the job with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) as its military advisor, this reminder from my boss had become a daily ritual.
"I will when I'm not so busy," I promised. Which was true, but only conveniently.
I was avoiding her.
I'll send her an email, I decided. A quick, friendly message demonstrating a genuine desire to meet, but gosh, my schedule is just too packed, and would she be OK meeting when everything clears up?
By the time I arrived at my desk, I had the entire message composed in my head and ready to type out. I sat down and began to knock out the email, unaware of the tall blonde woman standing patiently in the next cubicle.
I jumped out of my chair and found Allyson's face beaming down at me. Shit.
"Oh! I didn't mean to frighten you," Allyson laughed.
"Oh, it's... uh... I just... I...." My mouth worked uselessly as my mind worked frantically to find a way out of the conversation.
"You've been here a few weeks now, right?" Allyson continued.
I slowly nodded.
"That's too long." She smiled. "I think it's about time we spoke. Don't you?"
"Yeah... yeah, sure," I hesitated. "But, I'm pretty busy, and--"
"And you still need to eat, right?"
"I do, but--"
"Let's do lunch today. Are you free?"
"I am," I worked out.
"OK, great!" Allyson clapped her hands. "I know this excellent Indian buffet right down the street that you'll love."
I left the gay military advocacy world a long time ago. Sometimes I find myself dragged back into it. It's not fun.
Any honest activist will tell you their job is stressful, petty, and often a struggle to push progress beyond the desire of a number of egos desperate to leave their mark on history.
It comes from a cynical belief that hard work isn't enough to gain recognition, and that often the true heroes are not the ones whose names are mentioned in reverence years later.
All this is true enough. But that's not why you do the work. Or at least it shouldn't be.
In any case, when the work you promised to do is finished, the mission you took on completed, it's time to close up shop. The "history" aspect becomes the only reason anyone really sticks around.
New missions require new ideas, new blood, and my blood is quite aged at this point.
Deciding when to step back is tough. Equally tough is deciding when to step forward, particularly when simply taking on an executive director position is considered so radical.
Yet to those of us who know her, Allyson Robinson's rise has been a long time coming.
"So you know I have no intention of adding trans veterans to the tour docket, right?" I tore off a piece of naan bread and dipped it in a plate full of curry. Allyson was right: The buffet was very excellent.
Many in the trans community had a hard time coming to terms with the idea that the movement to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) dealt strictly with just that: removing a law. Adding other requirements such as open trans service was confusing and not really the same fight. As Allyson also was transgender, I had presumed that she would have the same opinion, and that our subsequent discussion would be the painful slog I had been avoiding.
"I can't say I knew," Allyson replied, "but I can say I'm not surprised."
"How do you feel about that?"
"It's a different battle that requires different strategy." She shrugged. "'Don't ask, don't tell' is a legislative battle, trans service regulatory."
"So you agree with me."
"'Agree' is a little strong. 'Understand,' I think, is a better term. I'm just glad there's finally another veteran on staff."
I was glad too. "So...."
"So I'm not here to pressure you to include trans members on your panel. "
I laughed. "OK, why are we here, then?"
"To become friends."
Until I came into the picture, Allyson had been the only veteran on staff at HRC.
On an entirely different floor from the Legislative and Field departments, "don't ask, don't tell" was not part of her portfolio, and she usually wasn't invited to meetings on the issue. She went to those meetings anyway.
"I started inviting myself," Allyson recently revealed. "Prior to you getting there I felt, 'Well, jeez. Somebody with some military experience ought to be a part of these conversations.'"
And so when I began consulting both the Legislative and Field teams, Allyson knew we had to meet.
"It's been my experience," Allyson said, "even before I ever served, that those of us who have served share a special kind of a bond. I think it's because of shared experiences, but I also think it's because we share a code, and it's always meant a great deal to me. This is why I was so thrilled that you were there, and glad that we could become friends."
She was right. On the bond, and many, many other things.
Unfortunately, I didn't always listen.
"What do you see as the long-term strategy for trans service?" I had just arrived back in D.C. from the first leg of a series of speaking events. Allyson had already become an invaluable resource for both bouncing new ideas and releasing pent-up frustration toward movement politics, as well as an invaluable friend. Lunch with her was at the top of my agenda.
"We're doing it now."
I leaned in conspiratorially. "Oh?"
Allyson waved me away with a sigh. "We do still need to establish at least the outline of a strategy to get from here to there. But I see the repeal of DADT as an important part of that strategy."
"Because of the education work?"
"Because of the education work. What you all are doing," she motioned toward me, "is laying the ground for the education work that will need to be done for the trans military movement to be successful."
"Sure," I acknowledged. "But education work takes time. When do you think we should start?"
I coughed. "Pardon?"
"Focusing on DADT is the right near-term strategy, but we need to be thinking about the trans military service now. We should be devoting resources to it so that when DADT is repealed, we can hit the ground running."
"Honestly," I diverted, "I'm really glad you're around, because I couldn't even begin to explain how trans service would work."
"There are those Palm Center studies I told you about. Did you read them?"
I grinned sheepishly. "No. I'm sorry. I know I told you I would, but I just haven't had the time. But, OK, give me the nitty-gritty. If you don't mind, of course."
"I don't mind," she smiled. "First, all of the logistics issues are kind of solved with the knowledge that some of our strongest and effective allies have been doing this for a while. And they've figured out how to solve all of these problems, and by and large they've done so effectively."
"Fair enough," I conceded. "But are they in combat positions?"
"They are. I guess you could go into the issue of who's going to pay for medical care. Those countries have socialized medicine or other ways to pay for it. And that's true. There are clearly details that need to be worked out."
"Right," I nodded.
"But the fact that those forces have figured out how to do this in a relatively short period of time very effectively, the arguments that it leaves are the ones that the opposition is failing to make in the fight to repeal DADT: that the U.S. military is fundamentally different from the military of those countries; that American culture is fundamentally different from the culture of those countries."
I paused, wanting to give her words careful consideration before responding. Finally I shook my head. "This is all very enlightening, and I want so bad to agree with you. I just--"
"You don't think it's time."
"I really don't. I may change my mind over time, but not today."
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to catch up with Allyson over Skype before she packed her office. It was her last day as Executive Director of Outserve-SLDN.
"I was wrong, you know," I began.
"Oh? About what?"
"About not starting the education work on trans service all those years ago," I sighed. "I was wrong. The nature of education grassroots is to be under the radar. It wouldn't have mixed messaging. There was a way to integrate trans education, and we didn't do it."
"I really appreciate you saying that," she acknowledged. "I think this speaks a lot to your character, which is one of the many reasons we're friends."
"Well, you're still one of my favorite people, obviously, but I think it would have spoken more to my character had I listened to you all those years ago."
"There is a tremendous amount of groundwork to be laid and education to be done, it's true." She paused. "I think, though, maybe we're closer than folks might imagine."
I was intrigued. "How so?"
"I think the repeal of DADT and the successful implementation of open service says a lot." I could hear her ticking off fingers. "The rapidly increasing awareness of our society of the existence of trans people and the tearing down of the stereotypes as part of that certainly helps. I know there are people in the administration, people in the Pentagon, who agree that that issue is an important issue and one that we should be pursuing, and they are taking steps to pursue it."
"Wow. Ok. This is... wow." I then asked the next obvious question. "Obviously this is something in which you can play a part, with or without Outserve-SLDN. What will your role be in all of this?"
She laughed. "Oh, you know I can't answer that just yet."
"But there are opportunities."
"There are always opportunities," she demurred. "On an entirely different topic, did you remember that Indian buffet we always went to?"
"Of course I remember."
"It's an Italian restaurant now," she sighed. "And not a particularly good one."
I shook my head. "I suppose that removes any reason to come back to D.C."
"I hope you're joking."
"I am. I mean, that can't be the only Indian buffet in town."
"No, I don't imagine it is," she murmured.
Follow Jarrod S. Chlapowski on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Chlapowski