Army assistant Amanda Simpson, nation’s 1st transgender presidential appointee, quietly fights for equality in the halls of the Pentagon
When “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed, gays, lesbians and bisexuals became eligible to serve openly in the military. Transgender people still cannot. But since 2011, trans woman Amanda Simpson has served as special assistant to the assistant secretary of the Army.
In 2009, when President Barack Obama named Simpson to a position in the Commerce Department, she became the first trans presidential appointee.
While some accused Obama of filling quotas, those Simpson had worked with during her career at Raytheon touted her experience as a test pilot, an engineer and as deputy director in the company’s advanced missiles and unmanned systems product line.
But it’s Simpson’s work on trans issues and her care for the LGBT community that endeared her to her Raytheon co-workers.
Louise Young, who founded Raytheon’s LGBT employee resource group, credited Simpson with getting gender identity and expression added to the company’s equal opportunity policy.
“It’s a delightful irony she’s working with the Army,” Young said. “Amanda is a real trailblazer in many ways.”
Young said Simpson broke barriers by courageously sharing her story with upper management at the company. For that work, she won the company’s Louise Young Award.
On April 6, Simpson will speak at Resource Center Dallas during the annual awards reception for RCD’s trans program, Gender Education, Advocacy and Resources, or GEAR.
GEAR coordinator Blair High said, “We need role models for our community.”
High said with a high unemployment rate and a high suicide rate, the transgender community needs to see people who are successful.
“For our events, we invite speakers who are mavericks,” High said. “You can aspire to be something great. And Amanda Simpson is at the top of the food chain.”
Dallas Voice spoke to Simpson earlier this week by phone from her Pentagon office:
Dallas Voice: Since transgender people still can’t serve in the Armed Forces, has your gender identity been an issue at the Pentagon?
Amanda Simpson: It hasn’t been an issue.
I was fortunate to be in the back of the room when Secretary Panetta and Admiral Mullins certified the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and nothing really changed. I got to go to a couple of meetings and I got to say: “So I can ask. Now you can tell.”
In all my time at the government, my gender identity has never been an issue. A lot of people aren’t aware [of my gender identity], but at one point or another, it comes up in a conversation.
DV: What was it like to watch DADT repeal go through, when it didn’t include transgender people?
A.S.: Certainly when [Defense] Secretary [Leon] Panetta was here, we had some conversations on how to move forward on this. Whether that’s going to happen long term or short term, I don’t know.
We know what the impediments are. They’re not imposed by Congress as “don’t ask, don’t tell” was. They’re self-imposed by the military. There’s still some growing pains involved with the recency of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I think we have to wait while things are still being absorbed.
We had a Pride event here in the Pentagon last year. We’re planning another one this year. I think that’s pretty big movement. Just last month we formed an LGBT organization in the capital region. There hadn’t been one in the military in this area before. There’s a unified voice now.
There’s a lot of movement happening. There’s going to be progress. Whether it’s going to happen tomorrow or next month or next year, I don’t know. But there’s going to be progress.
It certainly didn’t hurt when Alyson Robinson became executive director of the combined [Servicemembers Legal Defense Network/Outserve]. While that’s not that organization’s focus, it highlights that here is a retired officer, West Point graduate who, while she didn’t leave specifically because of gender identity issues, if she were to pull up her service record, it’s in her old name and old gender and cannot be changed. If someone like her wanted to re-enter the service, she couldn’t, even with her experience.
Even after you leave the service, you can’t have your records changed, so there you are going after private employment and, say you’re a military officer, but once you show your records, you’re outing yourself.
There are things going on, but it’s all very backroom at this point because I’m afraid if it goes too public, certain people will say, “Well, we’ve got to stop it before that happens.” I certainly don’t want to see legislation thrown in the face of potential progress.
If a person who is gay cross-dresses, that is conduct unbecoming and is a dischargeable offense. Just because they repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell,” there are things that are transgender and cross the line even for LGB people that can get them kicked out of the military. There are still some issues around gender identity.
DV: GEAR invited you to speak because you serve as a role model. How important is it for trans people to have role models?
A.S.: It’s always important to have role models. Transgender people are often shown in the media to be extremists, or working and living on the streets, unemployable or weirdos.
To have real life success stories, people can say, “Here’s someone who works for the president of the United States,” or “Here’s someone who is an executive in a major corporation,” or “Here’s someone at the top of their field in medicine, law or education.” They can say, “They can do it, I can do it, too.” There doesn’t have to be a concrete ceiling just because I used to present myself differently than I do now.
DV: You were instrumental in getting Raytheon to add inclusive policies. How did you convince a conservative company to change?
A.S.: The business case is that if you draw from a larger talent pool, you draw better talent. When Raytheon was the first aerospace company to do that, others were starting to feel they were losing people to Raytheon. Now all of them have reasonably inclusive policies.
DV: The gay and lesbian movement is fixated on marriage equality. How does that relate to the needs of the transgender community?
A.S.: Marriage is important as much to trans people as it is to LGB people. However, you’re talking about spiritual satisfaction — hitting those higher points on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — whereas in the trans community, we’re worried about where we work, where we’re allowed to sleep, where we’re allowed to pee — just the basic bottom of the pyramid that says I need to have some security in my life. As wonderful as it is and is bringing attention to the LGBT cause, I think sometimes they forget that there are people out there who are literally struggling to survive.
I don’t turn a blind eye to those who are struggling.
DV: How did your run for the Arizona House in 2004 lead to your current position?
A.S.: During that run, even though I lost that election, I won the respect of many people in the Democratic Party in the state of Arizona. Even though I didn’t run the following cycle, I assisted with other people’s campaigns. So when the ’08 election came around, I ran for a spot as a delegate. I won that spot, not because I was trans, but because I was a strong contributor of my time, energy and knowledge to the party.
When I was a delegate, I met a lot of people in the Obama campaign, and those connections led to them asking me to come serve. I didn’t seek an appointment. They came looking for me because they were looking for someone who had specific technical knowledge.
When you get a call from the White House asking you for your assistance, I just couldn’t say no.
Sometimes the greater good is more important. Not only am I an example or role model for the trans community, but I’m making sure that our men and women in uniform do have the right tools they need to do the job to protect our freedoms and our liberties and be able to come home at the end of their tours safely. That’s my job and what I’m very serious about.
Amanda Simpson at GEAR
Amanda Simpson, special assistant to the Army acquisition executive, will speak at the GEAR awards reception, from 6:30-8 p.m. Saturday, April 6, at Resource Center Dallas, 2701 Reagan St. Free and open to the public.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 5, 2013.