Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Three Little Orleans Log Book Entries

The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) ( is a volunteer organization that has existed, I believe, since the 1930s and has responsibility for maintaining the Appalachian Trail (AT) and other blue-blazed trails in the Virginia-Maryland area.  I have been a member for at least 20 years, even if I regret to report that I’m what you would call only a “cabin member.”  You see, PATC also maintains a network of cabins ranging from primitive hike-in cabins to a Victorian house in Harper's Ferry, WV, and many of them are open only to members.  I’ve stayed at a number PATC cabins through the years, but the one that has come to occupy a special place in my life is in Little Orleans (LO), MD, just off the C&O Canal to the west of Hancock.  It’s an in-between cabin in that it has electricity and running water but has an outdoor privy as a toilet.  There’s no Internet and no cell phone coverage.  I have spent several critical days of my life here, in particular a week in April 2004 just before I joined the Foreign Service and another in 2007 when I was first grappling seriously with the question of divorce that would lead to my fourth and finally successful transition attempt just a few years later.  

Those weeks of seclusion and “coming to terms” with key life changes mingle with joyous memories of being here with my son for the Leonid meteors in 1999 . . . or was it in 2000?  I was here again just last June when I was coming to the conclusion that I must resign from the Foreign Service.  I used my quiet time here to finish my letter of resignation, a letter that, thanks to several close FSO friends, I did not have to send.  Now with less than a year to go until my mandatory retirement date, I plan to come back to LO several times.  I was just here for the Columbus Day weekend, and I used the opportunity to look back at old log books (always a favorite pastime at LO), copy out my log  entries going back to 2014, and contemplate the unexpected paths that my life has taken in just these past four years.

August 15-16, 2014

I arrived at 6pm for just a one night stay at Little Orleans, my favorite PATC cabin.  I was taken aback by the imposing new gate at the road until I realized it was not locked.  I was also surprised by the padlock on the LO gate itself.  Has vandalism become a problem in the area?

The cabin is in the same perfect condition as always.  There have been some good upgrades such as the grill since my last visit.  I rather miss the stars on the ceiling of the sleeping loft, but I imagine re-paining is one of those «musts» through the years.  The kitchen range, which I remember when it was brand new, now looks old.

Yes, I’ve been coming to LO for a long time.  I believe my first visit was around 1996.  I will never forget being here with my son and others from his boy scout troop to stay up all night and watch the Leonid meteors in 1999.  Or was it in 2000?

I had rather hoped to read our log entries from those earlier visits, but I gather the older log books have been removed for safe keeping.  Mine is the first entry, however, in log book 9 from August 22-28, 2007.  Unfortunately, all I write about there is how I cleaned and painted the privy.  (I remember C contacting me afterward to say thank you.)

This may be my last visit to LO.  I work for the State Department Foreign Service and am about to head overseas.  Nearing retirement age, I do not expect to live in the Washington, DC, area again.

LO occupies a special place in my life, and it inspired me to build an LO of my own in the lake region of Maine. (In fact, that’s where I’m headed now on the road less traveled.)  LO has been my retreat, a refuge where I was able to grapple and come to terms with the issues of my life.  I am a much happier and, I hope, a better person for the decisions I made during past visits.  My return for this one night was in joy and in memory of those past visits.  I give great thanks to C and all the overseer family for making Little Orleans the beautiful refuge that it is.

Robyn Ann McCutcheon

PS – Filled hummingbird feeders and put out bird seed.  Borrowed one book, Woodswoman, but will return by mail to PATC.  (FWIW, I'm the one who left the Garrison Keilor tapes some fifteen or so years ago!)

August 19-20, 2016

Never say never.  On August 15-16, 2014, I wrote in log book #10 that “this may be my last visit to LO.”  I was on the eve of a 3-year assignment to Kazakhstan and did not expect to come this way again.

Well, here I am, this time with a young Kazakh friend who is visiting the US for the first time.  I’m on my annual R&R vacation.  We departed Astana early on the 19th, transited through Frankfurt, landed at Dulles, and came straight here.  We’re in LO for just the one night, but what a beautiful way to come home before moving on to the big city.  We just spend the day walking on the towpath and lying on the hammock, resting and enjoying the peace after a day in airplanes.

Only thing to report is that the cabin had a very musty smell when we arrived.  Things improved after we opened all the windows and turned on fans, but a bad smell lingers in the kitchen.  Perhaps there’s a dead mouse underneath?

Onward!  I have one more year left in Kazakhstan.  LO may see me yet again.

Robyn McCutcheon

June 10-13, 2018

To jump right to the practical side of things, I arrived Sunday afternoon to find Little Orleans in as beautiful, immaculate shape as I remember from my first visit some 22 years ago.  BUT:  Something has happened with the water supply.  In both the kitchen and wash room, the water flows only at a trickle at best and 95% of the time not at all.  My suspicion is that the well pump (submersible?) has died.  This must be very recent, as dishes in the dish drainer left by the previous renters were not yet dry, and the dish clothes were still damp.  Given the amount of rain we are having, it can’t be that the well has gone dry.  So much for my hopes for a good shower.  I’m filling every pot and bowl with that water that does sometimes flow from the tap and will be washing dishes (and myself!) as I would on a camping trip.  I’ll call PATC as soon as I leave and have cell reception.

Which brings me to the delight of being here again in LO:  no cell reception and no Internet.  PATC should begin listing these as positive amenities for those of us who come to LO in search of retreat, a place just to be and find peace both in nature and, through nature, in oneself.  On this visit I may not even turn on the recorded music on my phone or the music system in the living room.  Sitting on the porch and listening to the sounds of the birds, insects, and falling rain is sound enough.

If the rain continues – (I write on Monday morning) – sitting on the porch may be all that I do.  I came equipped for biking and day hiking, but the quiet is what I really came for this time.

For anyone who looks back at my log entry from August 2016, I am pleased to say that my young Kazakhstani friend NN has gone far in improving her English, has started graduate school, and may go for a semester of study in Poland this fall.

If you look further back to my log entry from August 2014, you will know I am a Foreign Service Officer with the Department of State.  So why am I at LO on a Monday morning rather than being hard at work in Foggy Bottom?  I’m here to decide if the time has come for me to resign.  I have only a year to go until my mandatory retirement age, but too many circumstances and political changes have piled up.  Even taking a financial hit by leaving early, I may be at greater peace with myself if I go.

And so to J, C (to whom I owe a long-delayed letter), and all the LO overseers, thank you for the love, care, and labor that you put in to make Little Orleans such a special spot where we can be at one with ourselves and find peace

Robyn Ann McCutcheon

PS — Rain over and sunny weather on Tuesday.  Rode bike up Oldtown-Orleans Road to the Lookout.  Had forgotten just how steep the hills are here.

The water situation has improved a bit.  I went to the well and could hear that the pump is working just fine.  The «but» is why.  None of the faucets in the cabin were open.  As an experiment, I turned the pump off at the breaker box (breaker Nos. 8/10) when I left for my bike ride.  When I returned 3-4 hours later, I turned the pump back on.  Eureka, I had good water pressure!  What joy it was to take a shower and wash my hair.  The water didn’t fail again until I was rinsing off.

I have a two part theory.  First, I suspect the previous renters had all taken showers just before leaving.  (The shower area was still wet.)  Second, there may be an underground break in the water line somewhere such that the pump is working even when no water is being used in the cabin.

The moral and the workaround?  CONSERVE WATER.  Believe the signs telling us to conserve.  Second – but pending concurrence from the overseers – turn off the water pump using breakers Nos. 8/10 when going out for the day to allow the well to fill.

With this I end my three page novella.  I have an appointment with the hammock.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Out of the Muck

This could have been titled, "How I Survived my Near Career Death Experience."  Other possibilities include "Finding my Inner Raging Bitch" or "Me Too at State."  

After my experiences at the end of my three years in Kazakhstan, I did not have much fight left in me.  With two years to go until mandatory retirement for age, I chose to return to an office in Washington where I had once served a number of years ago.  To provide some cover, let me call this the Muck Operations Center or MOC, a nod to friends with whom I worked on NASA missions for so many years.  Just as at NASA, this MOC functions 24/7, 365 days a year.   It involves shift work and working on holidays, but it's the type of work that one leaves behind at the office.  It's what I call "good, honest operations work" at a time when a progressive liberal like yours truly is best staying away from policy if only in the interests of preserving one's sanity. 

In this MOC it's the Muck Officers (MO) who do the lion's share of the work.  They are the ones on the line doing the 24/7 muck processing support.  As to me, I returned as Senior Muck Officer (SMO).  When I had served there previously, there had been only one SMO who was nothing more than the first of equals among the Muck Officers.  The SMO did all the same work and pulled all the same rotating shifts.

Things had changed since then.  Now, it turned out, there are two SMOs, both of whom function more as supervisors than as Muck Officers.  I was surprised at the change, but so be it.  All I needed to do was ride out two years.  Surely I could do anything for two years, couldn't I?

After settling back into this office, I came to realize that the SMO position was somewhat superfluous, a buffer between the Muck Officers and the front office management and frequently a mouthpiece for directives coming from management.  It's the Muck Officers who continue to do the real work.

If there was one thing I remembered from my time as a Muck Officer, it was that the work is labor intensive with much repetitive manual processing.  Even then I had put on my IT hat and thought that much of the work was screaming out for automation.  With 25 years behind me as an analyst and programmer on NASA projects, I had a vision for a software design that could save a Muck Officer as much as an hour or more of valuable time during peak shifts.  Just think of it, an entire hour that a human being does not need to be immersed in muck!  Now back as SMO, I decided the time had come to turn that vision into reality.

By December 2017 I had put together design and build plans and had developed a beta version for my own testing.  I held a meeting that included the front office.  I was given the go ahead to proceed.  An external review by State IT personnel would take place sometime in the spring, but in the meantime I had a blessing to deploy the software system to those Muck Officers who were willing to be beta testers.  Between January and April I progressed through several beta releases, updating and distributing documentation at each step, and I had almost all Muck Officers clamoring to be beta testers.  I found myself staying after hours and coming in on non-work days to push the work forward.  I saw this effort as my gift to an office that had been good to me in the past and that had given me a haven at this difficult political time.

But in mid-May I was rudely awakened from this idyllic view.  I had been away for two weeks for medical reasons.  I was working the evening shift on my first day back.  Not surprisingly, my first task was to dig out of two weeks' worth of accumulated e-mails.  At about 8pm I came to the message that changed my life.  It was a "Mandatory Guidance" issued by the other SMO and signed by the front office.  It instructed Muck Officers to return to manual methods pending an investigation of the methods developed by SMO Robyn McCutcheon.

I was stunned.  I searched in vain to see if there had been some attempt to contact me to prior to issuance of this "Mandatory Guidance" or to explain to me afterward why it had been issued.  There was nothing, not a word of explanation to me.  Moreover, the guidance had been issued just two work days before my return.

A suspicion that had been lurking in the back of my head jumped to the foreground.  From the beginning, the other SMO had professed again and again that he did not have time for me to bring him up to speed on the design and development.  He had always averred to being too busy.  "Some other time" was the refrain.  And now he had convinced the front office of the necessity of issuing this "Mandatory Guidance" with no warning to me.

The suspicion crystallized:  I had a colleague who, even in the area of muck, seemed to have issues working with intelligent women.  Isolated instances over the months now strung together in my mind, not all of them involving me directly.

I took my concerns to front office management and was equally stunned by the response.  Within days I was cast as the trouble maker and was being ordered just to do my job, shovel the muck, and not contest the "Mandatory Guidance."  I responded that under the circumstances, I no longer wished to work in the office.  Once voted "Muck Officer of the Year" and recipient of a Meritorious Honor Award for my efficient muck work, I had torn off my smiley face and revealed the inner bitch with whom I was quickly getting in touch.  I opened an EEO case even knowing that proving anything in such circumstances usually goes nowhere.  It's a case of "he said -- she said" in which I would be told by my soon to be erstwhile colleague that there was nothing related to my gender in the crafting and issuing of the "Mandatory Guidance."

So as my front office started talking about disciplinary action, I began writing my letter of resignation from the Foreign Service.  I had wanted to resign last August after the refusal of Sultana's visa and had only stayed at the behest of colleagues and friends and to maximize my pension.  I already knew I had enough to live on if I were to throw in the towel.  Why not?

I almost did.  This is where my hymn to cisgender gay friends begins.  One in particular stopped me.  I followed his good guidance, finding a therapist who supported my application to use Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in order to get out of an increasingly tense office situation and use the time away from the muck to plan my future calmly.  It gave me time to throw out a request to Foreign Service friends in hopes someone might know of an office with an immediate need.  I began interviewing, and in the end, I found such an office that needed someone for a year's tour as quickly as possible.  We shook hands on the deal.

Still, nothing is automatic in the Foreign Service.  To get out of the Muck Operations Center, I had to submit a request that would be reviewed by a "curtailment panel."  Given that I knew my MOC management would oppose, I didn't think the odds were in my favor.  I had my resignation letter written and ready to go just in case, and I made sure the "curtailment panel" knew it.  The panel met two weeks ago, and I was as surprised as anyone when the panel approved my request.  I start working in my new office in mid-July.

So what do I take away from this experience?

First, being taken seriously as an intelligent, capable woman at State is as difficult as being taken seriously as a woman anywhere.  I don't think anyone had even bothered to read the stream of design and user documentation I had been issuing regularly since December.  The only people who cared were the Muck Officers themselves who were the ones with the most to gain.  (I also now look back with gratitude to the many talented women engineers and managers I worked alongside during my years of NASA work.)

Second, after my rape experience on a ferry from Georgia to Ukraine while returning to the US last year (My Journey . . . Home?), I am thin skinned, to put it mildly, when my fate is being decided by men who treat me as though I'm not there.

Third, I may not have the fight left in me to go against an entire bureau that has decided I'm a trouble maker, but I do have the strength to make principled demands and, if they are not met, not to compromise.  In this case I had demanded the rolling back or, with my help, revision of the "Mandatory Guidance."  When it became clear that this was not going to happen, I made the decision to leave.  With help and support from friends and colleagues, I was able to do this without resigning outright.  They know who they are, and they have my deepest thanks.

Finally, living by one's principles does have a price.  In my case it's a month of leave without pay while I was on FMLA.  Also, the position I'm going to comes with a somewhat lower salary, but the salary is lower for a good reason:  no shift work and no more muck!

I regret that the Muck Officers I worked beside will not benefit from the automation I was giving them, but I leave with my dignity intact and hope that I will be an example to other women at State.  There are times one must stand on principle no matter what the career consequences may be.

* * * * * * * *

The ending words from Kiri's Piano written by Canadian singer-songwriter James Keelaghan describe beautifully my feelings at the end of this difficult period:
Kiri knew what I did not that if we must be free,
Then sometimes we must sacrifice to gain our dignity.

Friday, January 26, 2018

A Stranger Among My Own

This post could be subtitled "When the World Doesn't Care."  For those who have become accustomed to upbeat articles from me, this will be an exception.

For the first time in over a decade, I greeted the New Year alone.  Not that I've ever been a party woman on New Year's Eve.  Far from it.  It's usually been a quiet holiday for me, but to spend it alone?  How different this New Year was from the past three when NN and I would wait up, usually watching an old movie, and go out on our balcony to watch the fireworks over Astana at midnight.  Last year BP joined us.  We watched the Truffaut movie version of Fahrenheit 451, taking a break only to view the midnight spectacle explode above the Esil' River, the presidential palace, and the endless white of the steppe.  On New Year's Day we would go out into the park and throw ourselves into the snow, making snow angels in the -20C and sometimes even -40C cold.

I'm not really the type of Foreign Service Officer that the State Department wants.  I went native in Romania, and I went even more so in Kazakhstan.  A year ago I had Sultana, her Mom, and NN living with me, sometimes with the addition of BP or whatever guest stayed late into the night.  Ours was a family.  It was the family I had always dreamed of but could only have after transition.  Although I did my job for the U.S. Embassy and am proud of several of my achievements there, it was family that made Astana special for me.

Sultana's triple visa denial was just as devastating for me as it was to her.  I felt as though my colleagues, the State Department, and my country as a whole had turned against me.  I still feel that way. 

So here I am, back in the US.  Alone, a stranger among my own.  Of course, there are compensations, important ones at that.  I get to see my grown son and my granddaughter whenever I want, not just once a year.  Same goes for my sisters.  I did miss them overseas, and watching my three-year-old granddaughter open her Christmas presents was something I wouldn't have missed for the world.  But this was different from being a head of household, in fact a surrogate Mom or older sister, for my family in Astana.

More generally, I have landed in the country of Trump and Pence, a country where I must fear that my rights are under threat.  Trump's attempt to bar transgender persons from serving in the military was turned back by the courts, but does he even realize that there are transgender diplomats?  I doubt it.  I wonder what would be his reaction if he knew?  Given his low regard for the State Department, perhaps he wouldn't care.  Or would he?

In the aftermath of the election in November 2016, I like many progressives jumped into the fray, writing letters and making phone calls, not to mention increasing my monthly contribution to a number of organizations.  Then Sultana together with her college and visa quest took over only to be followed by disillusion and heartbreak.

I've already written at length about my disillusion with my own colleagues in Astana, most prominently in my article Why Is The U.S. Denying This Young Trans Woman A Student Visa? in the HuffPost.  The Kazakhstani edition of Esquire picked up and printed in Russian the interview I gave about Sultana to journalist Botagoz Omarova, and another Kazakhstani news portal reprinted much of the HuffPost article in Russian.  And of course, I have written in this web journal.

Those articles have changed nothing.  The Embassy in Astana has hidden behind Sections 214(b) and 222(f) of the Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA).  Together, those two sections of the INA can serve as cover for whatever a Consul decides no matter what the basis for the decision.  Being a Consul means exercising great power over the lives of others.  If a Consul is homophobic or transphobic, s/he can incorporate that prejudice into visa decisions without ever having to justify the decision to anyone.  It is my view that the job of Consul could be an excellent choice for a petty tyrant who doesn't have what it takes to become an authoritarian on a larger stage.

No one cares that the decisions in Sultana's case amount to a human rights violation.  Certainly my former colleagues don't care.  No one at the State Department in Washington seems to care either.  When I nearly resigned after the third visa refusal, a few supporters within State urged me to stay, telling me that inside the State Department I have a voice.  I don't.  I can write as many articles and have as many meetings as I like at Main State.  No one cares.  I'm just an upper mid-level officer making noise.  More than that, I'm a woman making noise, a transgender woman at that.

My disillusion extends also to those in the LGBTQI and progressive communities.  The disillusionment began slowly when I realized that there weren't many who were ready to contribute even a small amount to Sultana's tuition crowd funding campaign.  People whom I expected to jump in did not.

That disillusionment deepened after the visa refusals.  Those who I thought would care aren't ready to do more than give a shrug and say that Sultana needs to improve her ties with Kazakhstan to overcome paragraph 214(b) of the INA that puts the onus on visa applicants to prove that they are not intending immigrants. 

Pardon me?  14 out of 15 students accepted by Lane Community College from Kazakhstan received visas and only Sultana did not?  Is anyone going to seriously believe that Sultana alone out of 15 applicants was the only one who did not have good ties to Kazakhstan?  I will say until my dying breath that she was refused because she is transgender.  The only way she could convince consular officers that she has good ties to Kazakhstan would be, somehow, to not be transgender.

When I think of those LGBTQI and progressive allies, I find the song Easy To Be Hard playing in my head.

I have also found that the authority and respect I thought I had earned as the State Department's first openly transgender diplomat and as president of the State Department's LGBT+ association GLIFAA in 2013-14 was an illusion.  The people and organizations I worked with actively in earlier years don't respond when I write about Sultana's plight and the transphobic refusals of her student visa.  Last year I was included in a list of The top 50 successful transgender Americans you should know.  Missing in the title of that list was the word influential.

I have also discovered that the liberal, progressive media I had thought would care about Sultana's case don't care at all.  The use of INA 214(b) and 222(f) as a screen for prejudice doesn't rise to the level of public interest when the person targeted by the prejudice is transgender. 

Perhaps this has all been a needed personal reminder whispered in my ear as in Roman times that glory fades.  What success I had as an activist in the US was limited to one year.  I'm better known today in that capacity in Kazakhstan and Romania than in the US.  It is good to remember, in the end, that I am mortal, just one person no more deserving of respect than any other.

More optimistically, there have been supporters, several of who have asked to remain behind the scenes but who have been there with me at even the hardest moments.  My gratitude and my heart go out to them.  They donated money for Sultana's tuition.  They wrote to senators and representatives on her behalf.  They helped me get the word out to those few mainstream publications that were willing to cover Sultana's plight.  The National Center for Transgender Equality expressed interest, and there have been other words of support from a handful of human rights defenders.

And so I go forward.  I'm still at the State Department.  For what?  Yes, I'm here for the money.  I have a year and a half to go until mandatory retirement at age 65, and the way pensions are computed, I need to stay until the mandatory date if I wish to maximize the pension.  Each day I wonder if this is the day I will throw in the towel, but I tell myself that if I wish to help the family I have known, there is good reason to have that larger pension.  I have found myself a very non-political, operations job in a good office with good people.  In their company, I believe I can go forward.

Or not.  Perhaps this flea one day will bite the elephant too hard, and the elephant will respond in the way an elephant would respond to a flea that bites.  And yet forward I go with the words of Percy's Song ringing in my head:
Bad news, bad news came to me where I sleep
Turn, turn, turn again
Sayin' one of your friends is in trouble deep
Turn, turn to the rain and the wind
A young woman has been denied an education in her own country, and the transphobic decisions of my erstwhile colleagues in Astana are complicit in furthering this violation of human rights.
And I played my guitar through the night to the day
Turn, turn, turn again
And the only tune my guitar could play
Was, "Oh the cruel rain and the wind"
I will continue to fight even if no one listens, no matter the cruel rain and the wind.

Monday, December 11, 2017

My Journey . . . Home?

September 5, 2017, 10pm; Aktau, Kazakhstan -- I was the last person to board the rusting Soviet-era ferry that will take me across the Caspian Sea to Baku. . . .

Those were the opening, heartbreaking words of my article in the HuffPost, the end of my life in Kazakhstan, the end of my journey with Sultana Kali.  It was the beginning of a journey, a journey I never planned to take, not in this way.  

Sultana and I were to have boarded a plane to the US on September 1.  The first half of September was to have been taken up by going with her to Oregon, getting her established in her dorm, and sticking around through orientation.  It was to have been the idealized picture of a mother or older sister taking her child or younger sister off to college, the American dream.  I was then to have headed home to Maine and onward to my final assignment for the State Department at Main State in Washington..

August 22 decreed that none of this was to be.  This is the story of a solitary journey I never intended to take, a crying in the wilderness and an incomplete attempt to come to terms.

The eighth pack-out of my State Department career took place on August 24.  Sultana, her Mom, and other close friends were with me to see me through that day, a day that is always traumatic.  It's the day when a Foreign Service Officer sees the home she has known for two or three years turn back into what it had been, a sterile government-provided apartment.  Astana had truly become home to me, and the people who surrounded me that day were the family that had become very, very dear to me.

Three days later, on Sunday, I walked out of the U.S. Embassy for the last time.  I had just performed my first act of open protest, a dissent cable that took the high road in analyzing the lack of understanding of LGBT issues in our Consular section.  Two hours later Sultana, her Mom, and I were in a taxi for the many hour ride to their home in a provincial city.  I spent the following four days with this, my adopted family, as we took long walks and went with Sultana's granddad to the family dacha that I found to be more a small farm than a garden plot.

On Friday, September 1, Sultana and I boarded a train back to Astana.  I had torn up the free State Department air ticket.  I had washed my hands of the Embassy and wanted nothing more to do with it.  We spent the night with a friend and the next day headed to Astana's new train station.    We almost missed our train to Aktau.  The taxi driver had misunderstood and had started toward the old train station on the other side of town.  By the time we realized and corrected his error, we were running out of my time.  We were the ones running for all we were worth when we got to the train station.  The doors to the high speed Talga train were closing when we got to the platform.  When the conductor saw us running, he yelled that we were too late.  For the last time in Kazakhstan, I yelled back “Diplomat!” and hurled myself into the doorway, pulling Sultana behind me.

The journey from Astana to Aktau is a day and a half of crossing Kazakhstan's limitless steppe.  We dozed.  We talked.  We drank beer and tea in the dining car.  The strains of Arlo Guthrie's The City of New Orleans played on my telephone.

Sunset Over the Steppe
Our hotel in Aktau was not even a two-star, but it was only a block from the sea.  Sultana had never seen a true sea.  We walked endlessly along the beach.  After sunset we sat on rocks, dipping our hands into the Caspian and listening to the whisper of the waves.  

I had learned there is a ferry from Aktau to Baku, but it is mysterious.  There is no schedule, and the office and telephone of the agent keep changing.  We learned there would be no ferry on Monday and spent another day together walking for hours through Aktau and back to the Caspian.

My call on Tuesday was met with the news that there would be a ferry that evening.  I was told where to go and to be there at 6pm.  The ferry is a freight ferry used almost exclusively by truck drivers, and the port is designed for freight and trucks.  We found the ferry office and were told that boarding would not start for at least another two hours.  We found the one cafe there is in the port, and there I had my last supper in Kazakhstan.  When we returned to the office, we found that several German and Swiss tourists were waiting as well.  Only after 9pm was boarding finally announced.

The memory of Sultana's final hug stayed with me as I found a place on the deck.  It was after 2am when the ferry finally pulled away from the dock.  I remained on deck until 4am, watching as the lights of Aktau, the last lights I would see from Kazakhstan, faded into the distance.  I felt myself in a 1930s movie in the days before air travel as my tears, anger, and hurt mixed with the Caspian mist.  Back there I knew Sultana was looking as I faded away into that mist. . . .

* * * * * * *

The Caspian crossing was like a time capsule.  The ferry had been built in the time of Brezhnev and was likely subject to instant aging even when new.  The cabins and food were basic.  I found myself designated as the unofficial assistant to the Azeri woman who was responsible for the cabins.  She spoke no languages other than Azeri and Russian, and none of the European tourists spoke either.  I became her interpreter, and she repaid my service by putting me in a private cabin and treating me to tea and dates.  The voyage was uneventful except for the moment when a bucket of water came like a torrent through my porthole and drowned my bed.  Luckily for me, I wasn't in the bed when it happened.  The crew had forgotten to tell the passengers that they would be cleaning the deck and that we should close our portholes.  I was not the only one whose cabin received an unexpected bucket of water.

Crossing the Caspian
I chose this way of leaving Kazakhstan to distract myself from the pain and anguish over the actions of our Consular section.  When I boarded the ferry in Aktau, I knew only that I would be going to Baku.  I had no idea where I would stay there, for how long, or where I would go next.  These were all things I would need to figure out as I went.  The mechanics of plotting this solitary journey would occupy my brain.

But I would be haunted the entire way.  Unlike Kazakhstan, few people in Baku speak Russian well.  All signs were in Azeri.  I had arrived in a different kind of nationalist post-Soviet space.  The city was hot and humid.  For two days I took sweaty walks around the old walled city and through the pedestrian areas in the center.  I sat on the embankment and looked eastward across the Caspian, taking a picture of my hand waving to friends on the other side.  I thought of the coolness of Astana and my many long walks with NN at all times of year, day and night, no matter what the weather and wind.  My first evening I had dinner at Traveler's Coffee and thought back to my dinners at Traveler's with Sultana in Almaty in July when I was certain everything would still work out.  On my last evening, I found a KFC at the train station and had a quick dinner there, smiling to think how NN had thought the chicken at KFC in the US last year “just didn't taste like the real thing.”  

An overnight train as old as the ferry took me from Baku to Tbilisi, to a Georgia I had not visited since the days of Brezhnev.  Somehow I had found a Russian-owned bed and breakfast, perhaps because the default setting of the smartphone I had purchased in Kazakhstan is Russian.  Outside of the hotel, I was better off speaking English in this, a country that has been at war with Russia.  For two days the beauty of this ancient city softened my anger in the warm hospitality of the old city.  I walked from morning to night.  I rode the funicular to the park above the city where I sat on a bench with a Russian woman from Kislovodsk who had come on a solo vacation.  We shared ice cream and talked about the challenges of our lives.

When I boarded my next train to Poti, over a week had passed since I left Astana.  Another port city, Poti made Aktau look luxurious by comparison.  There were palm trees, but look down, and all one saw was an unreconstructed Soviet city for port workers.  I had to search for the next ferry office, this one owned by a Ukrainian line.  Once again I was told there would be no ferry  that day.  I was stuck in Poti for two days.  I had already walked the city through on my first day, watching the Sun set over the Black Sea from a crumbling embankment dominated by an English lighthouse brought here in the nineteenth century.  The owner of the no-star hotel where I stayed took pity on me the second day and drove me out to another hotel he owned in a more tourist-friendly area outside the city.  For the first time since 1978, I swam in the warm, clear waters of the Black Sea.  Later in the day I made my way to a national park outside Poti and rented a kayak, all the while remembering my best day in Astana, the September Saturday when EV and I launched an inflatable kayak into the Esil River across from the Akorda presidential palace.  I ate shashlyk at every meal, wondering when I might ever find shashlyk on the menu again.

On the third day the women at the ferry office told me to come at 6pm.  Aktau repeated itself.  When I arrived at the office, I was told to take a walk and come back in two hours.  I again walked up the crumbling city embankment from one end to the other.  When I got back, there was still no hint of when boarding might begin.  Only at 10pm did we start making our way to the ferry.  By then I had made friends with a young Ukrainian couple that had been backpacking in Georgia and with a vacationing woman from Kyiv.  

I breathed a sigh of relief when I got on the ferry.  Unlike the one on the Caspian, this Black Sea ferry was new, clean, and modern.  My cabin was almost luxurious.  The cafe was cozy, and the food was decent.  In the morning I watched as dolphins swam alongside us, jumping out of the water as they swam.

But this relief and comfort was interrupted by a brutality that brought back everything that had happened in these months.  I was raped.

It started innocently enough.  A Georgian policeman and his friend sat down at the deck table where I was sitting in the evening.  My new friend from Kyiv was there also, and thus we were a foursome.  The Georgian, my Georgian, was expansive and, although overweight, handsome in his way.  The other Georgian said almost nothing.  My Georgian started hugging me and introducing me to others as his future wife.  I knew it was crazy, but lacking basic 101 training, I didn't recognize the danger signs.  He was getting drunk.  In the end his quiet friend and I had to help him back to his cabin.  My Georgian drunkenly asked me to lie on the bed next to him.  No sex.  Just lie with him.

Perhaps 20 minutes later I realized I was being fondled.  We were not alone on the bed.  The quiet Georgian was there too, naked and coming into me from the rear.  My Georgian was caressing me from the front and telling me to have sex with his quiet friend.  I was terrified for the first several minutes, frozen in place, but then I screamed, jumped, and ran.  I ran down the hall to my own cabin and locked myself in, oblivious to the pounding on my door from the two Georgians.  Shaking, I took a hot shower, scrubbing as hard as I could to somehow wash away what had just happened.  I put on headphones and listened to music and cried almost until dawn.  What the Consular section had done figuratively with their visa denials had now been done literally by these two Georgians.

Arrival in Odessa the next day was a relief.  I walked out of my hotel in the morning, relieved to be in a city that felt comfortable and familiar.  No one here cared if I spoke Russian.  I went to the store to buy a few minor toiletries, the last time I would be able to buy them with labels proclaiming them in Cyrillic.

In the afternoon I boarded a Bulgarian bus bound for Varna.  The passengers consisted of me and three other women.  The two bus drivers said they were pleased there were so few of us.  We made our way westward through the rolling Ukrainian countryside.  Around 4pm we stopped at a border town where I used my last Ukrainian grivny to buy anything I could at the one kiosk I could find.  A few minutes later we reached the border with Moldova and passed slowly through customs and passport control.  Just thirty minutes later we were at the Romanian border.  

I had passed out of post-Soviet space.  Now no one would understand me if I were to speak Russian.  How strange that the language I had come to think of as my primary language for day-to-day communication would no longer be understood!  By prior agreement, Sultana and I now switched languages in the daily messages we were sending to each other.  For a year we had communicated only in English to help prepare her for college in the US.  Now I was the one who would need practice.  If not with Sultana, then with whom?

At midnight the bus pulled into the Romanian city of Constanta on the Black Sea coast.  I stepped down on the sidewalk, the only passenger to get off here.  I looked around to see NC walking quickly toward me, having come down from Bucharest to be with me.  For the first time since that hug in Aktau, I had a person I care about before me.  We hugged.  

It was a long, tearful, but happy reunion.  Our hotel room had a view of the Black Sea.  We walked and walked and walked.  The city was little changed from the time of Ceausescu, but the sea was timeless and especially beautiful at sunset on the rocky jettys that dot the coast.  Most of all, it was good just to be with someone I love and care about.  Two weeks had now passed since Sultana and I had arrived in Aktau.

After three days we boarded a bus at 4am to go north directly to the airport in Bucharest.  The time had finally come for me to return to air travel.  Even if horribly interrupted by the incident on the Black Sea ferry for two and a half weeks I had been able to say goodbye slowly to post-Soviet space and a life I have know there one way or another since I was a graduate student.  Now I had to prepare myself for the greatest culture shock of all, a return to a country I scarcely know since the election of 2016.

Most of all, I would be returning to a country that had turned its back on me.  Is this still my home?  As I boarded my flight in Bucharest, I was no longer sure.  My heart still pulls me to the East where the family I have come to know and love stays behind.  Surely it is not over?  Surely I will return there and yet again make snow angels with NN on a January 1 morning?  Surely I will again row a kayak up the Esil with the spirit of EV beside me?  If I have resolved anything during my journey by ferry, train, and bus, it is this:  I will go back.  Too much of my life remains in Kazakhstan.  My heart is there on the cold, wind-swept steppe, and it is calling me home.

Lake Region, Maine
October 9, 2017

Monday, September 11, 2017

Interview with Botagoz Omarova

Это интервью с журналистом Ботагоз Омарова было записано в Караганде 11-го августа 2017 незадолго до моего отъезда из Казахстана и между вторым и третьим отказами в выдаче студентческой визы Султане Кали.  Интервью включает размышления насчёт отказов и тоже на такие темы как запрет трансгендерным людям служить в армии, опубликован Президентом Трумпом в июле.

Часть первая:

Часть вторая:

Часть третья:

Часть четвёртая:

Friday, September 8, 2017

My Declaration

I sit on the deck of a 33-year-old freight ferry, somewhere on the Caspian.  Kazakhstan lies far behind me.  Azerbaijan is already visible, but we seem stuck in the water, moving neither forward or back.  Who knows when we will actually reach Baku.

Our ferry may be stuck, but I am not.  This is my declaration that I will fight and will not forget:

The triple denial of an F-1 student visa to Sultana Kali is rooted in transphobia and discriminatory views of LGBTQI persons in Kazakhstan.

Why do I believe this, and why will I fight a system that has the means to crush me?  For that, see my Letter to a Senior Colleague.  The evidence speaking most loudly that the denials are rooted in transphobia is this:
Of sixteen students accepted by Lane Community College since 2010 -- four of them this year -- Sultana is the first to be denied a visa by Consular officers in Astana and Almaty.
Read those words again and let them sink in.  In what way did Sultana differ from other Kazakhstani students accepted by Lane?  Were Sultana's finances that much different from those of 15 others?  Were her ties to Kazakhstan that much weaker?  I don't think so.  It will take strong documentary evidence in the form of a spreadsheet comparing these characteristics for all Lane students to convince me that Sultana differs significantly.  I only know of two ways in which Sultana stands out from others:  1) She is tall, and 2) She is transgender.  I put my money on the second as being the characteristic that led Consuls to refuse her visa on the grounds that she is an intending immigrant, the catch-all category of refusal that is used by Consuls when an applicant does not meet their criteria, a catch-all that in the end can mean almost anything.  As anyone who knows Sultana can assure you – as I can assure you -- an intending immigrant is one thing Sultana most definitely is not.  Her life now and in the future is firmly rooted in Kazakhstan.

We've lost our battle with Consular in the sense that Sultana is not going to the US to start college this month.  Her life is on hold for yet another year, denied education in Kazakhstan and now, thanks to Consular, in the US.  My country is now complicit with Kazakhstan in what I consider to be a human rights violation.

I wanted to resign after the first visa denial.  Early retirement still beckons as an island of rest, but  several colleagues prevailed on me to stay in the Foreign Service.   And so here I still am.  I hope, however, that those same colleagues understand that behind my smile, I am a fighter and will use every means available to this pen even if the odds against victory are huge.  I will wield this pen within the U.S. State Department and in public, the personal consequences to me be damned.  

The engines of this ancient ferry have started again.  Soon I will be disembarking in Azerbaijan on a circuitous journey to the US.  Behind me lingers the image of Sultana at the seaport in Aktau.  The  physical and emotional feelings of that final hug remain.  For Sultana, her family, all in Kazakhstan's LGBTQI community, all dear friends in Kazakhstan, and for my own heart and soul, I will not walk away from this fight.  To all who have stayed behind in Kazakhstan, I assure you our parting is only temporary.  We will be together again.  I will be back.

Letter to a Respected Senior Colleague

You recently wrote that
For the record:  I have seen no evidence of transphobia or LGBT phobia -- or any other forms of discrimination -- in our consular sections.
Dear Colleague, despite my great respect for you and other colleagues in our Mission, I beg to disagree.  The triple refusal of an F-1 student visa to Ms. Sultana Kali is discriminatory.  I say that even if our Consular colleagues had no realization that they judged Ms. Kali through the rose colored glasses of transphobia when adjudicating her visa application.

Put yourself in my skin for a moment.  As a transgender woman, I know that had I transitioned ten years ago instead of seven, the odds are very high that you would not know me today.  It was common, perhaps standard, for transgender persons to be removed from federal service as recently as 2008.  Even today, there are parts of the US where I fear for my safety.  I mean that in the literal, physical sense should my transgender history become known.  Some states have or are adopting bathroom bills telling me which restrooms I may use and which I may not.   Others are considering laws allowing businesses and even public servants to deny me and my gay brothers and sisters service on religious grounds.  Are such laws adopted, supposedly democratically, by state legislatures discriminatory?  

Whether you feel it or not, dear Colleague, you have white male cisgender privilege.  I, too, have white privilege and can only begin to sense the even greater fear that my black transgender sisters live in as they walk the streets of any U.S. city.  Still, can you begin to grasp my fear and their greater fear?  I say this as someone who used to have male privilege and knows what it is to have given it up.  If I had transitioned ten years ago instead of seven, would you have stood up for me?  Even seven years ago there were some who wanted me drummed out of the Foreign Service.  From what I know of you, I like to think you would have stood by my side.

And now President Trump is pushing policies to bar transgender persons from serving in the military.  Will you stand with me if he next turns his eyes on transgender persons in the Foreign Service?

Now take a further step with me and see if you can put yourself in the skin of a transgender person in Kazakhstan.  I assure you, dear Colleague, conditions for transgender men and women in Kazakhstan harken back to conditions in the US fifty years ago.  Transgender persons are denied education and employment.  I don't mean that as in sometimes.  I mean it as in always.   Schools and universities expel anyone whose sex as specified in identity documents differs from gender identity and presentation.  Employers will not hire transgender persons for the same reason.  An entire class of people is denied both education and employment in Kazakhstan.  Did you know that?

Young people who come out as transgender in Kazakhstan suffer emotional and sometimes physical abuse from their families.  One young woman was chained to a radiator by her parents for days before friends managed to distract the family and rescue her.  Sex work is the only work available to most young transgender women who are rejected by their families.  Many of these young women are further victimized by sex rings and human traffickers.  Some whom I have met personally are savvy street operators who might seem coarse to you, but they have my understanding and sympathy.  Do they have yours?  They have no other choice if they choose to remain alive.

Ms. Kali is one in a thousand:  a 19-year-old transgender woman and feminist who enjoys the support of her family and who has turned herself at age nineteen into an activist leader recognized throughout the LGBTQI community in Kazakhstan.  She, too, was forced out of her school before receiving a diploma, and she has been fired from every job she has tried to hold as soon as her transgender history became known.  QSI and Miras International schools in Astana will not have her, and neither will Nazarbayev University.  None will admit to transphobia or discrimination against LGBTQI persons.  All allude instead to administrative problems or the poor quality of Kazakhstani schools when they turn Ms. Kali away, but those of us who lack white male cisgender privilege know that these are just excuses.  I have run into such excuses again and again in my own life.  Take the excuses away, and you are left with transphobia in its pure, unmasked form. 

The effort to enroll Ms. Kali in a U.S. school where she can earn a BA degree has been an effort lasting nearly one and a half years.  Through crowd funding, Ms. Kali collected donations from around the world, including many significant donations from Foreign Service Officers and LGBTQI leaders in the US and Europe.  Her essay on how she wants to change life for transgender persons in Kazakhstan won her a scholarship from Lane Community College that recruited Ms. Kali for what they saw in her:  an intelligent young woman who will go far even if denied a high school diploma in Kazakhstan.

When Ms. Kali was first denied a visa in on the grounds that her funds were insufficient to cover four years of undergraduate education, I stepped in personally by filing an I-134 Attestation of Support that commits me to making up the difference and guaranteeing that Ms. Kali will never need public assistance.  When the office of Congressman Peter DeFazio informed us that the interviewing Consul had wanted to see letters offering employment upon completion of the BA, we found two who immediately stepped up and offered such letters.  An American sociologist at Nazarbayev University wrote a letter offering career guidance and help getting Ms. Kali established in UN organizations such as UN Women.

None of this made a difference when Ms. Kali went for her second visa interview in July.  In fact, the additional documentation was not even reviewed.  The interview was over in 3-4 minutes with the same result as the first time:  214b refusal on the grounds that Ms. Kali had not proven that she is not an intending immigrant.  The result was the same at her third interview in August despite inquiries from Senators Baldwin, Cardin, and Collins that were instigated at the request of multiple supporters of Ms. Kali's cause in the US.

Dear Colleague, the interpretation of law is in the hands of those who apply it.  In the Jim Crow South, poll taxes and similar measures were used to deny black Southerners the right to vote.  Those applying the laws and denying voting rights would have claimed they were just upholding the law.  Were those laws discriminatory?  I think you would agree that they were.  Might there not have been some public servants who, when applying those laws, personally disagreed with them?  Might there not have been one or two among hundreds who chose to be more liberal in their interpretation and who extended to our black brothers and sisters the right to vote?  What would you have done?  What would I have done?  Don't we both wish and hope that we would have been on the right side of justice?  Or would we have just said we were following the law and doing our jobs?

The same applies here.  Determination of who is an intending immigrant lies in the hands of individual Consuls.  Perhaps income, bank accounts, property holdings, marital status, and children are good indicators of ties to one's country for the majority cisgender population.  I remember using those criteria myself when I did my own Consular tour a dozen years ago after a woefully insufficient six weeks of basic Consular training.  But do you see now that for transgender persons in Kazakhstan, not working, not having a degree, not owning property, and not being married is the norm?  In fact, they are the rule that has no exceptions.  Applying the criteria used for the majority cisgender population is tantamount to denying visas to all transgender Kazakhstanis.  Those criteria are, by definition in the context of Kazakhstan, transphobic.  

But could not a Consul see beyond income and bank holdings to consider the whole person standing at the visa window?  In Ms. Kali's case, couldn't her scholarship essay and multiple recommendation letters have served as substitutes to prove that she is not an intending immigrant?  As someone who has come to know Ms. Kali and her family intimately over the past year and a half, I can give you my personal assurance as a Foreign Service Officer that Ms. Kali is not an intending immigrant.  Her life and what she wishes to accomplish in it are in Kazakhstan.

You wrote:
For the record:  I have seen no evidence of transphobia or LGBT phobia – or any other forms of discrimination -- in our consular sections
Do you see now why I disagree with you and strenuously so?  By applying the criteria used for the majority cisgender population and denying a visa to Ms. Kali, the interviewing Consuls did discriminate against a transgender person.  Their decisions were based on criteria that are transphobic by definition.  Saying that the Consuls were simply applying the law does not make the result any less discriminatory or transphobic.

Dear Colleague, I call on you to take off the rose colored glasses of white cisgender male privilege.  I call on all of us at Mission Kazakhstan to remove our glasses of privilege whatever their shade.  We stand for human rights, and LGBT rights are human rights.  In denying a visa to Ms. Sultana Kali, our Consuls rendered a decision that is discriminatory and that supported discrimination against transgender persons in Kazakhstan.  Our standing as a beacon of hope has dimmed.  It is a sad day for Ms. Kali.  It is a sad day for the LGBTQI community in Kazakhstan that had looked to us for inspiration.  It is a sad day for all of us.

Robyn McCutcheon
(Former) Central Asia Regional Representative for Environment,
Science, Technology, and Health