Breaking Free: The Inspiring Journey of a Gay Federal Agent

by | Jun 6, 2023 | MAGAZINES & BOOKS, QUEER RVA

Cory Allen has spent his life navigating the complex intersections of identity, law enforcement, and federal service. From his early years living in Western Pennsylvania, to his turbulent experiences with domestic violence in Hanover, Henrico, he has forged a unique and challenging path. Now a supervisory federal agent based in California, he’s anticipating his impending retirement while also embarking on a new journey: becoming an author. His debut memoir, Breaking Free: A Saga of Self-Discovery by a Gay Secret Service Agent offers an introspective look into his experiences and struggles as a gay man in the law enforcement world. In this candid interview, we’ll discuss his career, his unexpected foray into writing, and his perspectives on LGBTQ rights and representation within federal institutions

Who are you and what do you do?

So, I am still in a federal agent supervisory position out here in California. I have a few more years to go before I can retire, but now writing is my hobby. Breaking Free is the first published work that I’ve had. I’m trying to find the transitional point between being able to tell my story but also setting myself up for retirement and having something to focus on when the kids come along. I’m also in the Richmond area a lot to see my family and friends.

Are you from Richmond?

I’m originally from Western PA, but from age seven up until 30, I lived in Hanover, Henrico.

How did you start out working in the Secret Service?

It wasn’t planned, it kind of occurred by happenstance. After I graduated from Lee Davis, I floundered around a bit, as I think many of us do. I enlisted in the Air National Guard in Richmond and found that I thrived in the military environment. It gave me the structure that I needed. And then I came back from the training for that and felt that policing might be a good fit due to the paramilitary environment. 

I had a lot of interactions with the Hanover County Sheriff’s Office as a kid. I had to call them multiple times because of domestic violence in the home. I felt a pull to that profession after having so many interactions with them from a young age. So that began my policing career. I was there for six years. And then once I finished my bachelor’s degree, I knew that I wanted to go into federal law enforcement, not only for professional advancement and travel, but also to feel more comfortable in my own skin as a gay law enforcement officer. I was the only one and certainly was not out for fear of being fired. At the local level back then, that was the climate when you were working in a political environment like that. You could be fired for something as simple as that.

Cory Allen, author Breaking Free
 Breaking Free: A Saga of Self-Discovery by a Gay Secret Service Agent 

So at the time, would you say the federal government was generally more accepting? Would they not fire you for being gay?

Oh, you could be. I was a little bit naive about it. And I expected, once I went federal, that it would be peachy keen, and the grass would be greener. I thought I wouldn’t have to deal with that nearly as much compared to the fear I was living with at the local level.

Okay, I see. What inspired you to turn your story into a novel? You said writing was a hobby, but is it something you have any formal training in?

I had been on the run from myself for a really long time, probably 15 years, and I was not addressing things in my past and my present. I needed a way to organize my thoughts and process everything that had transpired in my life. Because the work tempo was so high for so long, and I was traveling 60% of the time, I just never allowed myself the opportunity to sit down and be still. It began as a note on my iPhone. And then once I moved to California in 2019, I sat down and just started to write it out.

The process took me all the way back to domestic violence in the home, to societal expectations, divorce, and world travels. I was trying to figure out after all of that, through a lot of introspection, who I really was and what I wanted in the future. With nods to the powerful women in my life who have gotten me to where I’m at today– like my mom and my sister and female supervisors in the federal government. I was trying to figure out how to process all of that. And that came out in the form of a memoir.

Writing can be a great way to process things. It can be very therapeutic. 

I had no idea how cathartic it was, like, literally crying multiple times while I’m writing this thing. And of course, recognizing, “Oh, wow, there’s a lot in here that still needs to be flushed out.” And my editor really helped with that. There was stuff that I was glossing over and didn’t even realize it. 

There was also the fact that I followed Michelle Obama around the world on her Becoming book tour– I was assigned to her. So I was also inspired to see the impact that she was having and I can’t deny that was in the back of my mind. Thinking how awesome it would be if one person could benefit from my story. Then it would definitely be worth it, in addition to helping myself.

For sure. What is so great about writing is that it’s both cathartic for yourself, but also has the ability to impact so many other people that might resonate with your story. Getting a response to something you’ve labored over and something that’s personal to you is a very special feeling.

I’m still new to it. I’m processing how to handle that. But the other part is, no, I’ve not really been a writer, I’ve always been a clever and witty storyteller at best. Writing wasn’t something I thought I would ever do. But people are liking it. So I think there is intent to write a couple more in the future.

That’s exciting. Do you think it would be a continuation of your memoir or would you delve into fiction?

One will pick up where this book ended, basically at the end of 2019 because so much has occurred and changed since then. We’re also in the surrogacy process right now, and there’s so much that’s not known about it, that I feel can help people as well. Once our children are born, that’s a story that I do want to tell. I’d like to write a children’s book to help explain to our future children– this is how you came about. I feel like there’s a void in that space. So I would like to fill it.

I’m really curious if you could talk about some of the difficulties you faced in your career in policing and government. 

Yeah. So, with the Secret Service, the first few years were definitely fragile. I was on probation for three years and 120 days– that was standard for all new agents. So I could be fired for anything, including my sexuality. I hid my true self from my classmates and my peers. I was married, but I was using vague descriptions of my husband, never discussing weekends, and presenting the most masculine version of myself possible to avoid discovery.

Working in a hypermasculine career field like policing and federal law enforcement, that was, unfortunately, the culture. Those of us who didn’t align with that were definitely a tiny minority. I was seeking the approval of my peers and bosses, ensuring that they knew that I also deserved to be there. And I was a hard worker, but I was always cognizant of my sexuality. I was diversifying myself as much as possible to become indispensable in the event that my sexuality came to light. It was an added layer of complexity and pressure.

Cory Allen, author Breaking Free
Cory Allen, author of Breaking Free: A Saga of Self-Discovery by a Gay Secret Service Agent 

Was there anyone that you were working with that was aware of your sexuality?

No. I hid it from everyone, but there are no secrets in the Secret Service. So I learned that they knew before I even arrived at the office.

Oh, really?

And there was blatant discrimination that occurred that I described in the book. And I just had to figure out, “Okay, how am I gonna go about this? I can’t say anything because I’d be fired.” So you just bite the bullet and keep your mouth shut. But people chattered and gossiped. And I was, again, a little bit naive to it, but yeah, they knew before I ever stepped foot in the office that I was gay.

So they knew, but if you were to acknowledge it in any way you would be fired?

You could be. I didn’t want to rock the boat. I was new, I wanted this job, I wanted this career, and we had just moved to Miami. It was my future and you just do what you have to do to survive and get through it. That was how things worked until I obtained career status and came off probation. That was at the same time as the US v. Windsor SCOTUS decision, which granted my husband at the time insurance and other federal benefits. So I felt empowered by that. 

I was the first agent to demand these benefits and to get my husband on my health insurance and dental and vision and all this stuff that everybody else enjoyed, that we were always denied. Things changed. I was more comfortable then because they could no longer just outwardly fire me now that I had passed that three years and 120 days. But there were continuing instances of discrimination, whether it was the denial of additional benefits, or relocating– they were canceling my ex-husband’s flights and denying the mortgage in our names. It was just discrimination. It takes time for laws and policies to change. And we actually relocated to Washington DC in 2014, just so we’d have a little bit more protection from the District of Columbia because they recognized our marriage.

It was in 2015 when SCOTUS ruled that same-sex couples could finally marry in all 50 states. That was really when I started to reveal my true identity to my peers. Slowly, because it’s still a hypermasculine environment. And then once I was assigned to the Obamas, that’s when I really felt truly comfortable with who I was. And that was because I was surrounded by really great and supportive colleagues. So that was when I came into my own.

When were you assigned to the Obamas?

It was from the end of 2016, through April of 2019.

And what does being assigned to them entail exactly? 

It just depends on the assignment. We had foreign advances where I’d have to travel to Finland and arrive a week ahead of the Obamas. Then we would begin doing the advanced work to ensure that from the moment they set foot on the ground, they are safe, they’re protected, and there’s a plan. Whether we were mapping routes that the motorcade was going to take, or ensuring the safety of coliseums for Michelle Obama’s Becoming book tour– before they stepped foot in any of those places, there was a plan in place. There were people on the ground to make sure that they were as safe as can be. 

It’s a holistic approach to security. So really high tempo. Depending on the assignment, some days, it’s just a 10-hour day. Some days, it’s 12. Some days, it’s 16. You know, protection is such a fluid beast. And the demands of the Service are unlike anything else that I’ve ever experienced. And that is common. Even now, when I run into agents, there’s just a special bond between them. Only those of us who’ve done it can relate. I love the work, I love my coworkers, the tempo, the no-fail mission, and the accompanying adrenaline. But I also came to despise it because I was unknowingly marrying my career instead of being there for my husband.

So it’s a catch-22. Overtime was unlimited. The travel was just unparalleled. And the proximity to the most powerful and influential people in the world was intoxicating.

Were you assigned to anything specific that really stood out?

We just did so much. Like being with Michelle in Paris when France won the World Cup. We were in the stadium, where Beyonce and Jay Z’s concert is about to occur, but they were showing the World Cup Final on the big screen for people who were coming to the show. And then, you know, the Jay Z and Beyonce show kicks off and you just have to stop and pinch yourself and be like, “Is this actually occurring right in front of me?”

There was also the Pope when he was in Washington, DC in 2015. I was part of the advanced team and I had a section of the parade route that was my responsibility. And the media was there, and I had friends texting pictures of me on the news. You get to witness these massive, fundamental historical events– and you’re not a part of it– but you’re certainly there.

How have you been impacted by the release of Breaking Free and the response that it has generated?

It’s still early. But as we touched on earlier, it’s surreal to hear that it’s resonating with readers. And a common response has been that they can’t put it down. That it’s relatable and it’s easy to read. So it’s a little odd, because I don’t think of myself as an author, but technically I guess I am because it’s published.

Seeing my book as a number one new release on Amazon and a number two best seller all within the first couple of weeks of it coming out– I don’t know how to fully comprehend that quite yet. I deflect easily. My go-to is to deflect and downplay. But I’m thrilled that even my mom, my sister, and my aunt– like I’m getting amazing feedback from people who I never thought would even read it. I go into great detail, and I’m very candid in the book, so it’s been amazing to hear the great feedback, especially from those so close to me.

To pivot a little bit, where do you feel the future of LGBT and gay rights in legislation is headed? 

Personally, I’m not feeling very optimistic. Look at what we’re seeing with book bans– over 40% of the books that are being banned are LGBTQ books. Look at the bans on drag races, the blatant attacks on our community, and elected officials labeling us as “groomers.” And hearing the same words and sentiments being repeated recently from a member of my own family.

It’s pathetic, it’s maddening, and it’s unfortunate. We still deal with it on a regular basis. Now we’re processing, “Okay, how do I handle this?” How do you try and educate people who aren’t open to listening? And this stuff has a very real effect on LGBTQ youth. It can sow self-doubt, self-loathing, denial, stymie social growth, or worse yet, cause physical harm. All for being nothing more than themselves.

As we venture into parenthood, it breaks my heart to see this going on. And I can’t fathom how these younger members of our community must feel. They need to know that they’re accepted, they’re normal, and they’re loved. That’s all they need to know. And all this is going to hinder that. Yeah, we have a long way to go, especially in terms of family building. Our community is denied benefits when it comes to family building– I work for the largest employer in the United States, and my fiancée works for a large and renowned hospital system in California yet we are not eligible for any fertility or surrogacy assistance at all. 

We have to work extra hours to try and make our dreams a reality when our heterosexual peers are granted these benefits from the start. So as far as rights, we have some work to do there. We just have to hope that common sense prevails, and we learn to talk to each other again. I feel like that’s part of the problem with social media and people retreating behind their phones and their keyboards– we’re not having face-to-face conversations. That is the best way to find common ground. 

Do you ever have any reservations about your work in government?

I have seen some things over the past few years that have definitely left me feeling conflicted and horrified and embarrassed. So absolutely, it makes me angry and it pisses me off, just as much as anybody else. This is my 20th year in my profession. And now I’m leading agents, ensuring that they understand the implications of our work and how we can do our jobs justly. 

There are absolutely moments of hesitation and conflict. Without question. There is an organization  called Out to Protect that goes out and educates law enforcement agencies about the needs of the LGBTQ community. They’ve actually reached out, and I’m interested in helping them to try to attack social injustices from that front. I see an avenue where I can take something like my book and my experience, and turn it into something even more positive. And I’m not saying they’re all narrow-minded or ignorant, but I think it’s helpful to be able to stand in front of people and say, “You can be gay in this profession, and you can also be sensitive to the needs of our community and know how to talk to members of our community.” Because especially in the trans community, they’re afraid to call law enforcement. And that is awful. We just can’t have that. That’s an avenue there that I can hopefully impact. Or do some good in that category.

ou can connect with Cory Allen on FacebookInstagram, his personal InstagramTwitter, and TikTok.

Audrey McGovern

Audrey McGovern

Audrey McGovern is a former creative writing student who studied at Virginia Tech. She likes telling stories.

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