By Sarah Bricker Hunt
Photos courtesy of Cory Allen
Growing up, Cory Allen found inspiration for what his adult life would become in an unexpected place: the police officers who frequently visited his childhood home in rural Pennsylvania to resolve domestic disputes between his mother and stepfather. “Due to the frequent interactions with the sheriff’s office, I grew to admire what they did, and I realized that I wanted to make a difference for victims like they did for us,” he recalls in his anew memoir, “Breaking Free: A Saga of Self-Discovery,” available now.
Allen’s career in law enforcement and the Air Force would eventually lead him to a Secret Service detail protecting Michelle Obama for two years starting in 2016. In the book, Allen focuses on his path from a sometimes tumultuous childhood to his early experiences in law enforcement, when he kept his homosexuality hidden while in the Secret Service, which he described to BTL as a “front seat to history” in a recent interview.
Allen detailed Michelle Obama toward the end of President Obama’s second term through her book tour in 2018. “To be able to experience things like the Supreme Court cases that had such a big impact on the fight for LGBTQ+ progress, to know that jubilation and immediate impact on my life — it was incredible,” he recalls. “To see the Obamas come out of office and become so much more after that, especially when I was with Michelle on her ‘Becoming’ book tour, I got to see firsthand how that positive impact affected people.”
While Allen speaks highly of his time as an active Secret Service agent, he says that after Trump’s 2016 win, the mood shifted. “It’s been heartbreaking at times for so many of us — really, it’s been a recalibration for me personally,” he says. “It’s been quite the journey to watch all that take place, like Obama getting on Air Force One for the last time; to literally be there to watch that was surreal and humbling.”
Today, Allen has planted roots in California, where he still works with the Secret Service as a supervisory special agent and is planning his wedding to fiancé Johnny, a physician. At some point, he envisions becoming a father. It’s hard to imagine that it was only a few years ago when Allen came out as gay in the professional setting. For many years, he kept his homosexuality under wraps, including a stretch when, as a police officer, he got married and divorced a few years later.
Working in law enforcement might seem like an unlikely fit for a queer person, but Allen says an argument can be made that it’s actually relatively common for LGBTQ+ people who grew up in conservative areas that are neither safe nor affirming. “We tend to steer hard to the right, career-wise,” he explains. “A lot of us end up in the military or law enforcement because we’re trying to fight our true identity and present the most active, masculine vision of ourselves to the world.”
For Allen, the choice to steer right was a good one. “I thrived in it,” he says. “Law enforcement had such a critical impact on my life as a kid, so that kind of came full circle when I went in to work for that very same agency we used to call on for help at home.”
Still, living “two separate lives” took its toll at times, Allen recalls. “I was deeply closeted, growing up outside Richmond, Virginia, which is deeply conservative. I didn’t have role models. I didn’t have visible LGBT people I could relate to or connect with. I just had to forge ahead and figure it out on my own.”
For a long time, Allen dated women. “I was 26 or 27 before I had my first experience with a man,” he says. “But… it was the light bulb: ‘This is what it should be and this is what feels normal and natural.’” Like so many LGBTQ+ people before him, once he began living life in a more honest, authentic way, there was no going back.
In “Breaking Free,” Allen details several times when he has been discriminated against. For example, in the Secret Service, he was assigned to the airport squad outside the main office and other agents because the supervisor “didn’t want that faggot” in the office. Later, when he became the first Secret Service agent to demand benefits for his then-husband after the 2013 Supreme Court ruling overturning the federal benefits section of Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), he got pushback. “We don’t have a policy for that,” he was told. Microaggressions were a daily occurrence at times, and the pressure and intense feelings of shame could have easily led Allen to retreat from a career where he’s under constant scrutiny and continuing risk of harassment. Instead, he’s become the role model for others that he never found as a kid.
As a supervisory agent, Allen often consults with fellow law enforcement officers and agents in a mentorship role, which includes giving talks about vulnerability, authenticity and leadership. At a class a few months ago, he says, “I talked about my vulnerability and my fear in being in this position as a gay man, about the struggles I’ve had. And the outpouring of support was admittedly unexpected, and then that night one of the agents in the class came out to me at dinner, someone who’s been in the career for 18 years and still doesn’t feel safe.”
Allen has found that being authentic in public can open the door for other people living in the closet, even outside law enforcement. During a recent stop on his book tour, his conversation with the crowd seemingly inspired a worker there to come out to her manager. “She’s probably 21,” he recalls. “And she raises her hand and asks what it looked like when I came out — what resource did I use to help me become comfortable in my own skin. And it turned into this beautiful moment where she’s in her place of employment and in front of her manager. Eventually, everybody just starts supporting her and offering suggestions and support. Just beautiful.” A few days later, the manager emailed Allen to thank him and mentioned how much of a change she’s seen in the employee.
Recently, Allen says, a US Navy mom sent him a DM and called him her “new hero.” “She said, ‘My son is a naval officer, and he’s able to live his life out and proud because you had the courage to share your story,’ and it’s moments like that are… wow. This is a win no matter what, at the end of the day. If this all ends right now, I’ve had an impact on somebody’s else’s life.”
Sarah Bricker Hunt, a proud Eastern Michigan University alum and the managing editor for Pride Source/Between The Lines, believes in the power of intentional journalism focused on people building their communities through everyday acts of love and service