Monday, November 14, 2016

Resistance Is Not Futile

The morning of November 10 found me in Copenhagen.  As I awoke that morning, the Trump victory was not yet a foregone conclusion.  Hillary could still pull it out, I felt sure as I headed out the door of my hotel.  Surely she will pull it out.  But by the time I reached the conference on environmental and related issues for which I had come to Denmark, it was over.  I spent the day in numbed shock, feeling I must still be asleep in a nightmare from which I would surely wake.  Then came Wednesday night and the following days.  The reality sank in.  The age of endarkenment seemingly had spread across my country.  Would it ever be the same?  Would any of us?

At some level I had seen this coming.  Over a year ago, when it came time for me to bid on my post-Kazakhstan posting in 2017, I had a choice of staying overseas or returning to Washington.  I chose the latter, largely for personal reasons but also because I knew the pattern of presidential races has been for any party that has been in power for two terms to be voted out.  The odds were good that the Republican Party would regain the presidency, and I did not want to be overseas in a position where I would have to defend policies with which I fundamentally disagree.  By going back to a largely non-political job in Washington, I would not have to say words in public that would make me turn red with embarrassment and cause me to retch when I would get back to the privacy of my own quarters.

That was a year ago.  Still, as the presidential campaign wore on, the hope inside me grew that I was wrong.  Donald Trump's campaign based on populist say whatever the current crowd wants to hear with its racist overtones could not possibly succeed.  His appeal to the most base emotions with scarcely a shred of real policy proposals was doomed to fail.  No educated person could stomach him for long.

But it has come to pass.  Donald Trump, like it or not, has been anointed, largely by white men who long for a return of the 1950s when a white man could buy a car, buy a house, and support a family while working a high-paying factory job.  Industry in Germany, the UK, France, Japan, and the Soviet Union had been leveled by World War II.  Only the US stood unscathed, and we ruled the world.  Life was good . . .

Unless one was black, female, LGBT, an immigrant, or member of some other minority group that could easily be ignored by privileged white males.  That began to change in the 1950s with the civil rights movement, followed closely thereupon by the anti-war movement and women's liberation.  Then came Nixon and Watergate and disillusionment that led first to the election of Jimmy Carter and then . . . to Reagan!

It was with the election of Reagan in 1980 that I first sensed I was out of touch with that large segment of the U.S. population that had elected him.  Having grown up in New York City, having been educated at leading East Coast public and private universities, and having a deep knowledge of at least one foreign country together with its language and culture, I had become what much of the country despises:  a member of the educated, cosmopolitan elite.  

Therein lies the tragedy of the Democratic Party:  we lost touch with the working classes that in the past had been at the center of labor activism that supported progressive policies.  Unions were allowed to fail, and little was done to oppose Republican policies that hastened the unraveling of what unions had fought so hard to achieve.  Of all our failures, the greatest was to allow the cost of higher education to climb to the skies at the same time that the quality of secondary education was falling.  The divide between the working class and the educated class widened.  Workers with only high school educations found themselves at service jobs for minimum wage and looked enviously at the educated class even as many members of that class were far from being in the top 1% of the moneyed elite.  

Is it any surprise that a populist message, even when that appealed to angry racist instincts, would appeal to those who felt left out in this modern global economy?  Sound bites and tweets took the place of well-reasoned dialog that a large portion of the U.S. population had lost the ability to engage in.  The coming of a man like Donald Trump is something we should have seen coming but, hoping against hope and talking only to ourselves, did not.

I worry to the depths over what the incoming Trump administration will do to the country, to the progressive social fabric that had moved inexorably forward through most of my life, and to the planet.  Most of all I fear what will happen to the Paris Agreement on climate change that has been at the center of much of my work for the past two years.  Will it all be swept away by a man who believes climate change is a hoax?

I have been devouring the opinion columns in the International New York Times each day since the dark morning of November 10.  Of the many columns I have read, I take heart most of all from a November 12-13 column by Timothy Egan, Resistance Is not Futile.  I particularly like his comment about my own employer:
The State Department, which usually tries to be a force for good, advocating human rights over bottom lines, cannot be easily pressed into aiding the globe's gangsters and oligarchs, even if New Gingrich is secretary of state.
I hope I can look back four years from now and say those words applied to me.  With less than three years left until retirement, I have no career ladder to climb, no career to risk.  The professionals I work with care deeply about their issues.  Even if a different direction is given at the top, it will take a full purge to rid the State Department and other government agencies of their educated professionals.  For once, bureaucracy can be a force for good, standing in the way of policies likely to unhinge this planet from its moorings.

Meanwhile, I take courage from the scenes of peaceful anti-Trump demonstrations in many U.S. cities.  Just as in the days of the civil rights movement, this is the time for the exercise of freedom of speech and peaceful resistance.  It will be a time for civil disobedience if Trump insists on pushing through much of his campaign rhetoric as policy.  May that power of the people then extend to the Democratic Party as it reorganizes and reestablishes communication with the working class that it left behind.  

Resistance is not futile.  It is, rather, the only way left to us.    

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Five Years: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Astana:  November 6, 2016

Five years.  I turned around, blinked, and now see the past five years in the rear view mirror.  It was on November 10, 2011, that we announced my social transition to the U.S. Embassy community in Bucharest, Romania.  There have been many important dates in my life, but this rates at least as highly as the birth of my son.  My passport may still list the date of my physical birth, but for me it is November 10 that is the important date, the date worth celebrating.  And when better to celebrate and take note than when I turn five years old?

I've debated writing in this web journal again.  The spotlight that was on me that day five years ago as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) transitioning gender while serving overseas has moved elsewhere.  After serving for a year as president of GLIFAA, our lgbt+ association for employees of U.S. foreign affairs agencies, I too have moved on.  For over two years now I've been serving in Kazakhstan covering environmental, science, and health issues both within Kazakhstan and in other countries in the region.  The job is a challenging one.  The hours are long, the meetings are many, and I travel frequently in the quest of making this planet a better place for our children and grandchildren.  I'm not that much different from other FSOs who are in the field doing their best to serve our country.

On a Winter's Day in Astana
So why write here now?  In part it's because five years is a nice round number, what Russian speakers would call a round date (круглая дата).  In part it's because I know friends who supported me in Romania would like an update.  (Romania, te iubesc!)  And surprisingly, it's also because I don't want to fall into the type of stealth where covering my past becomes a primary aim.  Not wanting to trumpet my past on a daily basis is one thing; trying to cover up that past is something else entirely and is, indeed, impossible in this age of electronic media.

I have in fact fallen nicely into a form of stealth.  I can go days or weeks at a time now without thinking back on the transition challenges I faced.  To most of the people I know in Kazakhstan, I'm just an American woman who is well preserved, even attractive for her years.  Most people I work with both within the Embassy and outside it have no idea that there is a long story behind the woman sitting across the meeting table from them.  And in fact there's no reason for them to know.  There's scarcely even reason for me to remember.

Being stealth without actively pursuing it has in its way been wonderful.  I'm one of the lucky ones with passing privilege.  I've found that men find me attractive, and I even had a steady boyfriend for a year when I was in the US.  I'm part of a women's group, and I lodged an official complaint when a woman I work with at another Post in our region was the object of what I perceived to be gender-based discrimination.  

I've made many local friends in Kazakhstan.  I rather expect many of them would not believe me if I told them my story.  And why tell them?  It's not relevant to what we do together, to where I am today.

But Summer Does Come Even Here!
There have been personal challenges serving in Central Asia, but the challenges I face are the same that any other divorced woman my age would face.  The greatest of these is distance.  Kazakhstan is eleven time zones away from the East Coast of the US.  I miss my sisters, my son, and my granddaughter, and I now recognize that an intimate relationship lasting more than a year will have to wait until I return home for good next year.  The reverse challenge is that I would like to bundle up many of my local friends and take them home to the US with me, but I know that is impossible.  Just as with my dear friends in Romania, my relationship with friends here will be reduced a year from now to Skype, e-mails, and Facebook postings.  The joy of being an FSO is meeting new people in new countries and cultures.  The sadness is that we are always saying goodbye.

But sometimes there are reminders of my roots.  The political turmoil in the US seems strangely distant when one is this far overseas, but echoes do reach me.  The controversy over transgender persons in North Carolina makes me wonder if I should ever visit that state . . . and also makes me wonder if any of my friends who do not know my past would understand why.  The outcome of the current presidential election (I'm writing on November 5) could have a direct effect on whether my rights will be protected throughout the country.  I feel I have a personal debt to one of the presidential candidates whose actions ensured that my employment as an FSO did not end in 2010-11. 

Other reminders are local.  If the status of the Romanian LGBT community is similar to that in the US some 20-25 years ago, then the situation in Kazakhstan lags by 50-100 years.  I have had the pleasure of coming to know many gay, lesbian, and transgender persons here.  I admire many of them and was devastated earlier this year when my closest friend in this country, a natural leader who could have united individuals into a movement, died well before his years.  The lot of transgender persons is particularly difficult in a system that makes obtaining new identity documents if not impossible, then at least extremely difficult.

So here I am, a privileged American with a particular background serving her country while local friends with similar backgrounds struggle simply to exist.  Central Asia may not be Africa, but serving here has given me an appreciation for Chloe Schwenke and what she has written about the lack of rights for her transgender sisters and brothers on that continent.  (You can find Chloe's journal at  On days when my privilege stands out starkly following a diplomatic reception or high level meeting, I think of my local friends who are no less deserving than I am.

On a Museum Visit
I do what I can.  I do quiet work both official and unofficial to improve conditions for the local T and LGB communities, but their situation is not going to change by much while I'm here.  Moreover, with thoughts of being an Ugly American on my mind, I know this is a region where my U.S. and even Romanian experience may have only limited application.

Thus I turn back to the official job I was sent here to do and take joy in that and in the friends I have made.  I look to the coming winter, to me one of the true joys of being in a severely continental climate at the same latitude as the northern tip of Newfoundland.  (Yes, I love winter!)  I look forward to our annual tradition of doing a New Year's snow shoe night hike under a full moon on the frozen river outside Astana.

And if anyone was wondering, I would never go back.  The joys and even heartaches of the past five years are woven into the fabric of my life more brightly than anything that came before.  Surprisingly, November 10 this year will find me on a work trip to Copenhagen.  PE will fly up from Bucharest to spend my birthday and the following weekend with me.  Two Danish girls, temporarily at least, we'll pause, think back on what we lived through together and since, and raise a celebratory glass.  Life is good, and life is as it should be.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Auld Lang Syne; Saying Goodbye to a Friend

It is New Year's Eve in Astana, Kazakhstan.  I've already described the scene in my current web journal (Year's End on the Frozen Steppe), and this short note is in the nature of a PS.

The time has come for this, my first web journal, to say goodbye to a friend.  I trust we are still friends in life and shared experience, but like many of us who are several years past transition, my friend has decided to withdraw from activism and has asked me to remove the articles I once wrote about her here with her permission.  It is a request I will honor over the New Year's weekend.  For any reader who may already have divined about whom I am speaking, this will be your last opportunity to read those postings before I voluntarily remove them.

My friend is one of the lucky ones who has transitioned well, but in the country where she lives being transgender is still a liability.  She has been denied jobs or hired and then subsequently fired when the fact of her being transgender has come to light.  Due to the Internet and, in part, to the postings here, it has been all too easy for her past to catch up with her.  Living in a country that is arguably the poorest in Europe and with an elderly mother in need of care, she needs a steady income far more than she needs the visibility from her years as an effective advocate for trans* rights.

My friend's request makes me reflect again on how lucky we are in the United States.  Although transition is never easy, it is now increasingly possible for a person of any age in the US to transition and retain employment, family, and friends.  I know my own transition that began in 2010 would have failed had it started five years earlier; it was only in 2008 that the situation for transgender employees in the U.S. federal government began to change for the better through the efforts, suffering, and perseverance of my predecessors on this road.  I chose a charmed moment, and I am forever in debt to those who came before me.  Unlike my friend from beyond the Prut River, I am able to live my life with my past as hushed or as open as I wish.  The choice is my own to make.

And so, on this New Year's Eve I wish to toast my friend for all that she has done for others and for the difference she made in my own life.  May the country where she lives evolve to a better place, and may she find the peace and security she needs both for herself and those she loves.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Proudly from Astana, Remembering '75

Someone had to write Proudly from Astana.  Having now written several in this proudly from series, I realized that if I didn't write it, no one would.  Kazakhstan is not the US when it comes to LGBT rights.  Neither is it Western Europe or even Romania.  It is a country where LGBT persons scarcely talk about their status even among themselves.  The one true national LGBT organization imploded and went out of existence a year or more ago, leaving only a patchwork of local groups in its wake.  It is a country that only recently was threatened by legislation that would have limited propaganda of non-traditional sexual orientations in the interests of protecting children.  Fortunately, it appears that threat has passed.

In neighboring Kyrgyzstan the situation is arguably worse.  It is a smaller country with a vibrant civil society and an equally vibrant LGBT movement.  The country's national LGBT rights organizations are active but also always under threat, sometimes violent.  Gay propaganda laws have been proposed, and it's not yet clear how they will progress.

Tajikistan is a mixture as best I can tell.  There is some good on-the-ground organization, but traditional society and LGBT issues do not fit together easily.  Tajikistan is a poor country, however, where it would be difficult to have institutionalized discrimination at the government level.  Most LGBT people fly under the radar, staying to themselves and out of sight much as they do in Kazakhstan.

Go to Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, and the picture reduces to the simple reality that sex between men is a criminal offense.  Under those conditions, there is no open LGBT society.  

Despite this grim picture, I have met with LGBT persons and allies in all five countries in the region.  Several of them have become friends.  And yes, trans* people are to be found everywhere, most facing the challenge of living lives in countries that will not change their identity documents.

It has been a remarkable month for LGBT rights in the US.  The Supreme Court found gay marriage to be a constitutional right.  Early this week the Office of Personnel Management directed that insurance providers in the Federal Employment Health Benefit program may not include exclusionary clauses in their policies.  The transgender exclusion is now history.  These are changes I never expected to see in my lifetime.

1620 JPA, My Address in Charlottesville
As I think upon the present both in Central Asia and in the US, my mind has also been making a remarkable trip back in time.  For nearly two months I wake up in the morning and, before opening my eyes, imagine myself in my bed in my small apartment in Charlottesville, VA, in 1975, near the end of my third year in the University.  Every detail comes back.  I remember how the bedroom was arranged, the bathroom, the dressers, the two beds, and the window that looked out into tree branches.  I remember the living room, the furniture, my wall hangings, the kitchen, and the kitchen wall papered with covers from The New Yorker.  In my memory's eye I see every corner of that apartment and imagine what lies beyond the door as though I could walk out into the world of 1975 today.

It all started on April 30.  That is a day on the calendar to which I usually pay little attention.  If I think special thoughts that day at all, it's that the last of the winter is over and that real spring, the spring of May, is about to begin.

This year was different.  April 30 fell on a Thursday.  It was a typically over-busy day at Embassy Astana.  I had just come off three grueling weeks.  Earlier in the month I had spent most of a week in Turkmenistan.  I returned just in time to get ready for a workshop on biodiversity for which I had some high level of responsibility.  In addition to the workshop itself, I needed to accompany one of the organizers to meetings both in Astana and in Almaty.   Not far behind was a meeting of the board of an international science center in Astana for which I also answer; I was saved from that only at the last minute when the meeting was postponed to June.  In the background was the fact that this is the time of year when all foreign service officers go a bit crazy with preparing their annual employee evaluation reports.

But I knew salvation was coming in the form of a three-day weekend.  Friday, May 1, was to be the first of three Kazakhstani holidays over the coming two weeks.  It was the start of the May holidays.  The Esil' River that had been frozen over in mid-April was finally flowing.  The snow had melted in the park across from my apartment building.  The seemingly endless Astana winter had finally ended.

I prepared to leave the office that Thursday evening, April 30, with an uplifted spirit in the knowledge that for the coming three days I could truly rest.   I took one last look at the news summary before I shut down my computer, and there it was, the report, the reminder that 40 years ago that day the last U.S. citizens and thousands of Vietnamese fled South Vietnam.  It was the anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the final end of a war that had dominated our American life from the time I was in the fifth grade.  The great tragedy of both the US and Vietnam ended as the last American helicopters took off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

It was a powerful memory.  Once home, I found and watched a PBS documentary of the last days of Saigon.  I felt transported in time.  It was as though I was seeing the images in real time, seeing them for the first time.

My Most Comfortable Chair
1975.  I had no television other than the TV that I would occasionally glance at in Newcomb Hall, the student union building.  The North Vietnamese advance on Saigon had been so fast that it was difficult to believe.  In the midst of courses and exams, it felt as though Saigon had been surrounded overnight.  On that April 30 in 1975, I remember sitting transfixed with the latest editions of the New York Times.  I sat in my most comfortable chair in my small student apartment.  The chair faced the door, and the table to my left had my one black, rotary dial telephone.  I listened to a shortwave radio, hoping for more information than was to be found in the hourly news bulletins on commercial radio.  I sat there, reading and listening, until the sun had set.  Then I took a solitary walk around the UVa grounds, still somewhat in disbelief that the last helicopters lifting off from Saigon had signalled the final, total defeat of U.S. policy.  

On the Road Somewhere Outside Astana
The memory continued into the next day, May 1.  Not only had winter ended in Astana; we had suddenly jumped into early summer as temperatures rose to 23-25C, somewhere in the mid-70s Fahrenheit.  No longer was I constrained to ride my bicycle indoors on rollers as I had all winter.  I headed out on my first long road trip since arriving last year.  I wasn't sure how far I would go.  I eventually found myself on the Pavlodar road, soon leaving the Astana city limits behind as I rolled onward further and further into the steppe.  All the way, cranks turning, I was haunted by 1975, but if the memory of the previous day had been a sad one, the memories on May 1 began to bring a smile to my face.  I recalled taking long rides that summer also, heading out of Charlottesville and not knowing quite where I was going or when I would be back.  Usually I would head south in the direction of Fan Mountain and the University's new observatory.  I never got there, just as on this May 1 I did not make it anywhere near Pavlodar or any other geographic location worth mention.  By the time I got home that evening with both headlight and taillights on, I had gone some 64 miles, over 100km.  Somewhere during that ride I also felt, if only for a magic moment, that I was again 21 years old.

That feeling of being 50-something going on 20-something has been a very strong one for me since transition in 2011, but this time it was even stronger, more palpable.  That evening I found myself listening to the Hits of the 1970s on a recorded program from WXPN.  I never much liked the popular music of that time -- I was always a folkie at heart -- but that music was the backdrop of my life at that time.  To make up for the gloom of the previous evening's documentary, I re-watched the somewhat less gloomy movie Good Morning, Vietnam.  The next day, Saturday on this three-day weekend, I re-watched Nashville, a movie I remembered seeing for the first time in 1975.

Another smile comes to my face when I think of myself not as others saw me in 1975 but as I am today, only truly young again and not afraid of walking through my apartment's door and into the world.  I see myself sitting in one of those rocking chairs on The Lawn.  The guys all have long-ish hair.  The hippies are long gone, but some of those peace movement styles have remained.  One guy, rather a young Elliot Gould lookalike, plays the guitar.  I think he is cute, smart, and wonderful.  An entire lifetime stretches out before me.

That three-day weekend in April-May ended as quickly as it had begun with a new round of demands and schedules, but the memory of that weekend has lingered with an afterglow through May and June.  These weeks have seen me travel once to Uzbekistan and twice to Tajikistan.  There have been more visiting delegations to worry about than I wish to remember on this final weekend in June, my first real weekend of rest since the three-day weekend that brought back the memory of 1975 so vividly.

I come back to the present and can write Proudly from Astana because we did mark Pride.  We marked it quietly; there are no marches here.  I held a small reception in my apartment and shared a meal with several local and Embassy friends to mark the occasion.  As I looked at my young Kazakhstani trans* friends, I again thought of 1975.  My friends face the same challenges in 2015 that I faced in 1975.  Only they are braver than I was.  In 1975 I tried only briefly to live my life (See
WahooWa! -- or -- So How Far Back Does This Go?).  My young friends here are living theirs despite the obstacles in their way.  They have reason to be proud even if they don't quite realize it themselves.  I am honored to know them.

The Lawn at UVa, 1970s
But on this last Saturday in June, I look in the mirror and do not a woman who managed to transition at the 11th hour in the second half of her life.  Rather, I see a woman with a longer memory, one that includes a moment in 1975 when she sat with long hair and a young laugh on The Lawn at UVa, a moment when all was as it always should have been.

* * * * * * * * * *

Work life in Central Asia is indeed busy, perhaps the busiest it has ever been for me.  I doubt I will have time to write more than two or three times a year either here of in my other journal, Robyn in State.  For those who have been long-time-readers, thank you for sticking with me on this journey.  May your own journeys be truly wondrous.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

A Stealthy Guest Appearance

It's the end of the year, the week between Christmas and New Year's, and the view from my apartment window in my part of the world -- same latitude as northern Newfoundland -- is most definitely white.  Two weeks ago I got my first good break since arriving here at the end of September, and I spent it on a group snowshoeing hike in deep snow.  It was a new experience for me, but I hope to be doing more of it.

I had declared in September that I was done writing in this web journal, but I've decided to return here for a stealthy guest appearance.  Most of my limited writing since arriving here has been in my other journal, Alice in State, and that's where most of the writing will stay.  However. . . .

An interesting thing has happened since I left the US that is better written about here.  Against all expectations, I find that I am slipping more and more into stealth regarding my transgender background.  Yes, I know, it sounds strange to write about stealth in a publicly accessible web journal, but the fact remains.  As best I can tell, no one here reads this journal, and thus I can write freely without breaking the stealthy silence.  Moreover, I don't want to write on a trans* theme in Robyn in State, as there are some who read that journal who have no idea about my prior life.  The longer I'm here, the more I think I want to leave them in blissful ignorance.

I'm not stepping away from public activism, but I have come to realize that there is precious little activism one can accomplish in this very lgbt-phobic part of the world.  What activism there is will be found not in marches and public meetings but in quiet attempts to influence opinion.  Those activists and members of the lgbt community whom I have met keep a low profile.  In fact, several have asked me to do the same and just not tell anyone about my past.  If there's one thing I've learned as a Foreign Service Officer, it's never to get ahead of the local community, and thus I honor that request by slipping into stealthiness.

This has turned out to be remarkably easy to do.  At the Embassy where I work, only three people know about my prior life.  Two of them are people I worked with in the past, and the other is our nurse.  All are sworn to secrecy, and our nurse has put my medical records in a safe to which only she has access.  As far as anyone else is concerned, I'm just another overworked, mid-career, middle aged woman with a busy portfolio at a busy Embassy.

This has led to some odd moments.  Two of my divorced women friends have shared their divorce stories with me.  When I tell mine in return, I try to stick to ex-spouse or simply ex, but the questions I get are always about my ex-husband.  I have even found myself slipping into referring to an ex-husband from time to time.  In fact, it has begun to feel as though my ex was once my husband even in my memories of what it was like to be married.

At home I have carefully not put up NASA awards in my old name.  I already have a new copy of my UVa diploma from the 1970s, and it would take a sharp eye to see that the name of the university president on the diploma is Teresa Sullivan, today's president, not Frank Hereford who was president in the year I took my degree.  I should have new copies of my MS and MA degrees from Yale and Georgetown in the next month.  If I can figure out how to scan those NASA awards, change my name, and reprint them in high quality, I will.  I am proud of those years of my life and have the fondest memories of the friends and colleagues I worked with.  I don't want to turn my back on those years.  At the same time, I don't want to have to tell my life story to the next new acquaintance who visits my apartment for the first time.

I could have found myself facing just that necessity when I had a mixed group over for Christmas dinner.  A new friend and I sat in recliners in my office room and talked about our lives, our boyfriends, and our experiences in this country that is new to both of us.  She had already noticed my photo with Secretary John Kerry, and I went no further than to say that I had served as GLIFAA president, have many gay and lesbian friends, and in fact have had a tinge of B in my past.  I was happy those old NASA awards were safely in a closet.

Moreover, as time goes on, I find I don't want to tell anyone about my past any more than I would want to tell about having my wisdom teeth pulled.  Did I really go through transition?  Isn't the present that I live today the only reality there has ever been?

I'm still willing to talk about my experience if there is a point to doing so, but in 99% of my interactions with others, there's no point.  Only twice have I been asked, once with a good outcome and the other not quite so much.  The latter was when I was speaking to an English language group concerning my research into the 1936-38 purge of Soviet astronomers.  A young man in the audience had an iPad or similar, and he used it to do a google search on my name and the subject.  He raised his hand in some confusion to ask about the links he found in my old name.  I muttered a few words about being transgender, and it was clear from looking around the room that no one understood what I had said.  Two people did get up and leave, so perhaps they had heard.  As to the rest, they were happy to have me return to the subject of the evening, oblivious to what I had said.

The better instance was when I was with a young diplomat from one of the countries in the region I serve.  He had done his homework.  As we were in a car, he switched to English and asked about my work as an LGBT activist.  I told him about GLIFAA, my experiences in Romania and in the US, and my work as a trans* activist.  His response was that he hoped for better conditions for LGBT rights in his own country and would work toward that end.  He wanted to learn, and thus my opening up to him might make a difference both for him and for others.

A Wintry Nighttime View from my Window
I still have some uncertainty in my personal life as to when a friend crosses the threshold of intimacy where it is wiser to tell rather than risk the friend feeling deceived if the fact should come to light at a later date.  Good attitude analyst that I am, I hope I can determine the correct loss function and minimize it.  In this I trust I will learn from other late-life transitioners with long personal and work histories.  For the most part, however, I'm finding that the transition that dominated my life in 2010-13 has less significance in 2014 and perhaps little to none in 2015.  The age of post-transition stealthiness has arrived, and it's an age I'm coming to enjoy.

As the stage lights dim on my personal but very public transition story, I think on all who have helped me on my way and of those whom I may have helped along the way.  The winds howl across the steppe at this northern latitude, but there is warmth inside.  For those who are in the cold dawn of their own transition struggles, may you, too, find the warmth of a future post-transition life.  May the day come when those struggles are little more than a memory. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Bringing Myself Home

The movers are here again.  Can I really have been working in Washington, DC, for over a year?  It seems only weeks ago that the movers were unloading my household effects fresh from Romania.   Just as during pack out from Bucharest, friends are holding my hands emotionally through the day.  Last year it was P.E., B.D., T.J., and several others who saw me through the day.  This year it is B.N. and D.U., respectively one of my newest and one of my oldest friends, two persons as dissimilar as night and day but yet united in their love and friendship for me and me for them.  Together we watch my apartment by the railroad tracks empty out.  To my own surprise, even this noisy little apartment became a home this year, the scene of dinners with friends and family, of laughter, and of hugs. I am sad to be leaving, but this is what we do in the Foreign Service.  We are always saying goodbye.

That was a week and a half ago.  Now I sit in Maine in my little home that is still a work in progress.  Alas, the builder stretched the truth beyond the breaking point when he promised a livable home by the time I arrived; a completed bathroom and kitchen are still weeks away by my guess.  Still, it is my own, the only home on this planet that is mine completely without any pretensions from any other person or bank.  Like my own life, it is a work in progress.

 CSC HST PASS Reunion Picnic
My unplugging from Washington began the weekend before pack out.  Friends from my old company, CSC, organized a reunion picnic for those of us who had worked together for many years on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) PASS project.  People drove from as far away as Huntsville, AL, to spend an afternoon at a park not far from Baltimore.  Some I had seen two years ago at a lunch get-together when I was in the US on R&R.  Others I had not seen in more than a decade.  Needless to say, they had not seen me either, so this was yet another “coming out” with old friends.   Together we had put together much of the ground systems for HST, had been through launch and servicing mission support, and had put together a two-gyro control mode when Hubble's gyros began to fail.  Beginning the day of the picnic and continuing through the coming two weeks, I was on a journey of remembering and looking forward to the next phase.

With my 23-year-old station wagon fully loaded, I drove out of Takoma Park, MD, for the last time on Thursday evening, August 14.   B.N. gave me dinner and lodging for the night. On Friday morning I was up and out early.  I drive a car so rarely that getting behind the wheel of Hillary, my 1991 Colony Park station wagon, is a special occasion.  Although a lifelong cyclist and almost exclusively a cyclist and pedestrian while living in Washington, I'm not anti-car as such.  Like everything in life, driving a car should be something done in appropriate measure.  Hillary may not be new, but she's big and strong and attracts admiring stares wherever I go with her.  Getting behind the wheel on that Friday morning, I smiled to think that I was at the start of a new adventure.

I had decided in advance to take the road less traveled to Maine. My route was to be circuitous and take me places I had never been.   Speed was not important.  The journey itself was what counted.

Overlooking Harper's Ferry
The first part of the trip was familiar.  Rather than heading north on I-95, I went first to Harper's Ferry, stopping there to do a day hike on the Maryland Height's Trail.  Is there any better view of the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah than from the Maryland Heights?  The song Take Me Back to Harper's Ferry by Magpie played through my mind.

From Harper's Ferry it was westward to Little Orleans, where I stayed for a night at my favorite Potomac Appalachian Trail Club cabin.  This had been a spot of refuge for me for many years. Only two hours from Washington, the Little Orleans cabin could be hundreds of miles and decades away.   I remember being here with my son and others from his boy scout troop for the Leonid meteor shower in 2001.  The boys stayed up all night to watch the meteors that reached storm numbers just before sunrise.  I was there again for a week in 2004 in the short break between my farewell at CSC and the start of my new career at the Department of State.  How well I recall that week as I said farewell to the past and looked uncertainly to the future.   I spent several days there again in August 2007 shortly after my return from my Moscow posting.  It was during those days that I firmed my decision to divorce, not yet knowing where that decision would lead.

At my Favorite PATC Cabin in Little Orleans
This time, however, my visit to Little Orleans was one of peace and celebration.  My next posting in Kazakhstan will bring new challenges, but I have now been with the Department of State long enough to know that I can handle all situations.   I rocked in the hammock at Little Orleans, remembered past visits at times of change and decision, and smiled to think that I have, after so many decades of journey, become myself.  As I left, I borrowed borrowed a book, Woodswoman by Anne LaBastille, the story of a woman who built and lived in her own cabin in the Adirondacks in the 1960s.  There I am, I thought, an aspiring woodswoman apprentice from northern Maine.   (The more I read the book, however, the more I realize the extent of Ms. LaBastille's accomplishment that I may not be able to duplicate.)

I lingered over a long breakfast at Little Orleans on Saturday and only finally left in the early afternoon.  My next stop was not far away, at the Paw Paw Tunnel.  Here, too, I recalled earlier visits by bike and by foot, by myself or with my son and spouse.  Both the memories and the present brought a smile.  I hiked over the tunnel on the tunnel hill trail and then returned on the C&O Canal towpath, carefully holding the towpath railing in the dark so as not to slip.

Paw Paw Tunnel
A bit further to the west and then, at Cumberland, it was time to turn Hillary northward.   It was after 6pm when I crossed the Pennsylvania border.  Where would I stay for the night?  A quick look at the AAA guide showed there to be a campground in Bedford, PA, so I headed there.  D.U. had loaned me his tent, ironically also named Hillary as in Sir Edmund Hillary, the first to conquer Mt. Everest.  Only after I had pitched the tent and gone to explore did I realize that the entire campground had been turned into one large fundamentalist gospel revival meeting for the weekend.  I did feel a bit out of place, to say the least, but I relaxed after an older woman in the restroom commented that I was dressed real purdy.

Bedford was an appropriate place to stop in that U.S. Route 30, the original Lincoln Highway, passes through there.  My own journey to the north was in the spirit of long-distance adventures undertaken by motorists in the 1920s when travel by automobile was still new and a night's lodging was likely to be at campgrounds.   My own travel was to the north, but I detoured briefly to drive E-W on Rt. 30 in honor of those early adventurers.  Returning via local roads to my own northbound route on I-99, I passed a covered bridge.  I truly had traveled back in spirit to an earlier period of travel.

I stopped that afternoon in Wellsboro, PA, to hike down into the gorge that is the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, making friends with and exchanging photos with another family that was doing the same.  That night I camped by a river in Owego, NY, making friends with the family at the next campsite after losing my matches in the dark.  Dinner was black beans and rice that had come with me in the cooler from home and that I heated over Sterno.

At the Rim of the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon
On Monday, August 18, I passed through Cooperstown, NY, stopping just long enough to buy a tee shirt for a baseball-loving friend.  My own aim was the Adirondacks, but I may have chosen my route poorly.  I was surprised by how over-developed and tourist-ed the southern Adirondacks are.   Instead of camping there for the night, I pushed on to the Lake Champlain ferry at Ticonderoga, breathing a sigh of relief when I got to the relaxed Vermont side.  I found a quiet campground where a young Russian woman in the US on summer work and travel was staffing the camp store.

That evening I finally opened Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game, a book that had been recommended to me by several people as good background reading before going to Central Asia.  There on the cover was a quote from Jan Morris, “Peter Hopkirk is truly the laureate of the Great Game.”  I doubt there is anyone else at the Department of State whose eyes immediately latched on to that quote.  In her earlier life prior to transitioning in the 1960s, Jan Morris had covered the Hillary expedition up Mt. Everest.  Her book Conundrum had played a pivotal role in my life in the 1970s, the means by which I, in the pre-Internet world, learned that I was not alone.  Now here she was again, commenting on a book I was preparing to read as my minds turns to the next transition in my life.

It was that evening that I christened my car Hillary.  Jan Morris and the Hillary expedition, a tent named for Sir Edmund, and Hillary Clinton and her role in adding gender identity to the non-discrimination policy at the Department of State – somehow Hillary needed to be honored in my personal life.

On Tuesday I passed through the Green Mountains of Vermont, stopping long enough to do a short day hike on the Long Path to Silent Ridge.  By back roads and U.S. Routes, I made my way through Montpelier and then St. Johnsbury.  That was the only place where my route intersected briefly with a previous trip, my 2010, pre-transition drive to Maine.  This time, however, I headed north and camped on Lake Francis near the Canadian border in New Hampshire, spending some time in the morning discussing the advantages of different tent types with another lone woman traveler who had camped next to me.

Camping with Hillary
On Wednesday I crossed into southern Quebec, passing through Lac Megantic, the scene of a horrific train derailment, explosion, and fire in 2013.  Here, too, my path briefly intersected with an earlier trip.  In 2014 I traveled and car-camped to upstate New York and Quebec with my spouse and five-year old son.  We stopped in Lac Megantic for the night before re-entering the US via Maine.  That was my first-ever visit to Maine, and it was the event that first planted in me the thought of moving here permanently.   I smiled at the memory of what had been one of the best family trips of my married years.  In 1994 we entered Maine in the direction of Rangely, but this time I chose a different route through Jackman and, from there, to Greenville and Moosehead Lake.  I camped for my last night on the road at Lily Ponds State Park, enjoying both the stars and a wood fire.

Thinking of Friends in Romania
My journey to Maine on the road less traveled was not quite over the next morning, as I continued on to Millinocket on what is known as the Golden Road, a private dirt road passing through the Maine North Woods that is owned by the timber countries.  I passed lakes and streams that are accessible only on those private roads.   I stopped at Abol Bridge and admired the view of Katahdin.  I had last stood there in 2010 in the days before departing to Romania and making the decision to make a fourth lifetime attempt to transition.

On the Abol Bridge
Hillary rolled up to my little home that Thursday afternoon.   I'm camped out in a sleeping bag in my own home, but I have hopes that I will have water and a working bathroom by this week's end.   I've set up the furniture that I brought with me from Maryland and unpacked my bags as best I could.   I've brought myself home even if that home is a work in progress as my builder and his helpers work around me during the day.

That, dear readers, brings me to the end of this phase in my life's story.  N.O., a good friend and excellent engineer, asked me at the CSC reunion picnic when I might get around to writing about something other than what it is to be transgender much as I used to do in chatty e-mails before transitioning.

B.N. was a voice of conscience at my ear through much of this year.  My transition in full public view at the U.S. Embassy in Romania has played an important role in making life easier for other trans* employees at the Department of State.  The days when an Foreign Service Officer could lose a security clearance and a career by virtue of being trans* are over.  So is my own story of what it was like to transition as an FSO.  B.N. is a great believer in making one's garden grow.   It is now time for me to take care of the garden that is the rest of my life.  Also, as Mara Keisling one remarked to me, “Being transgender is not a career path.”  It is time to move on.

This is my final entry in Transgender in State.  Thank you for reading and for following my journey.  I hope it has been a useful window into one woman's experience.  It has been an honor to write here and to know that what I have written is being read.

If you wish to follow my continuing journey, I will be starting a new web journal called, simply, Robyn in State, once I am in Central Asia.  Although I will not forget LGBT issues, they will not occupy central place.  My adventure on the Silk Road is about to begin, and there will be much to write about.  Please consider yourselves welcome to follow.

In the meantime, farewell and best wishes to all my readers.  May your own journeys bring you to peace, fulfillment, and much love.   Robyn has found hers as she completes her transition journey, bringing herself home.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Proudly from Washington, Proudly from GLIFAA

On the Amtrak Acela from Washington to Boston, we just crossed the Susquehanna River.   Tomorrow the Concord Bus will take me the rest of the way to Bangor as I repeat the route I took almost exactly one year ago when I first arrived back in the US at the end of my three-year life in Romania.  For the first time in many months, I begin to relax from what has been the most exhausting but at the same time most productive and gratifying year of my life.

This has been the year of my life in GLIFAA, our officially recognized lgbt+ organization for the Department of State and other foreign affairs agencies.  I knew a year ago when I was first asked if I would be willing to serve as GLIFAA president that this would be a challenging year.   It was so challenging that I gave up writing in this web journal several months ago, recognizing as hopeless the possibility of finding time to write here while engaged in two full-time jobs.

The first full-time job, my day job, was in arms control in an operations center that works 24/7/365.   We worked in shifts of 6-days-on/3-or-4-days-off, rotating between 7am-to-3pm, 3pm-to-11pm, and 11pm-to-7am shifts.   I worked on Christmas Day and New Years' Day, and I will work on the 4th of July.

The second full-time job was GLIFAA.   In Department-of-State-speak, it was the desk officer job that challenged and required me to be always on alert and always ready to manage, solve problems, and advance issues through white papers and meetings with highly-placed officials.  Suffice it to say that I got used to meeting with officials at the Undersecretary and Deputy Secretary levels.   In my day job I never would have met with people at that level.   I met with officials at the White House and with peers in other LGBT groups representing employees of federal agencies and departments.

One year ago I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of lgbt+ and, in particular, trans* activists whom I knew in the US; all of my contacts were in Romania, Moldova, and in a handful of other European countries.   I may have been just a meteor rushing across the sky of U.S. activism this year, a flash soon to be forgotten.  Still, for the few who witnessed the flash firsthand and who were affected by it, I hope a memory will remain of the bright falling star that moved against the background of fixed stars, against the background of those who have been carrying the weight of U.S. lgbt+ activism for decades.

This was an lgbt+ year for GLIFAA.   When I agreed to run for GLIFAA president in the spring of 2013, I had worries of what it would be like to be president of what historically has been a gay men's organization.   (See In Homage to Allyson Robinson.)  I am only the second woman to be GLIFAA president, the first to be so by virtue of the transgender experience.  In fact, I am only the second transgender woman to be visibly involved with GLIFAA, following on the bold example set by Dr. Chloe Schwenke in 2008.

My worries were unfounded.   Perhaps more than anything else, I consider the biggest success of this year has been GLIFAA's continued internal evolution.  My Board of Directors (BoD) consisted of six men, and our Governing Committee (GC) consisted of two men and two women.   (Although those numbers are still heavily weighted in one gender direction, I hasten to say that one of the women on the GC was the powerhouse of energy who got us through many an event with her energy, organizational skills, and boundless enthusiasm.)   It was a year for the BoD and GC to learn from me what it is to be trans*, and it was my year to learn more about what it is to be gay or lesbian.

In September the BoD took up the discussion of GLIFAA's brand.  Have you noticed that I have yet to spell out what GLIFAA stands for?   When it was founded in 1992, it stood for Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies.  That spelling out of GLIFAA did not on its surface include me or those who are intersex, gender queer, gender fluid or any of the other letters of the ever enlarging LGBT rainbow.  The BoD decided the time had come to discuss the future of GLIFAA's brand.

That discussion went on from September through February.  All sorts of new names and tag lines were proposed and discarded while ever new ones were proposed.   In the end we chose to respect both our history and our future.  Like Coca Cola, GLIFAA is a name with deep and honorable roots.  If it had not been for those brave souls, mainly gay men, who founded GLIFAA at a time when security was still routinely rooting out gays and lesbians, I and many others would not be here today.  A number of our founding members paid with their careers for founding GLIFAA.  The price that they paid needs to be remembered and honored always.

But what of the future?   How were we to include our allies and other parts of the LGBT rainbow?   It was in February that that we came to a collective decision that enthused us all.  GLIFAA's name henceforth would be, simply, GLIFAA without any spelling out.  At the same time, we approved a new tag line for use in our literature, on our website, and in our correspondence: lgbt+ pride in foreign affairs agencies.  The + encompasses all the other letters in the LGBT rainbow.   Pride means we are proud of GLIFAA, of who we are, and of the agencies and departments in which we work.   The BoD's decision is subject to a month-long membership vote that is now underway, but I am confident that the decision will be ratified.

GLIFAA Board Meets with the Five Out Gay Ambassadors
If you go to our website (, you will see what GLIFAA's banner looks like today.   I am proud beyond words of my BoD and GC for taking this evolutionary step. Indeed, this was not Robyn's issue.   Rather, it was other board members who took the lead, and the result was collective decision on an issue that affects all our members.   We proved that the L and G can work to common purpose with the T.  My concerns when I first agreed to run for GLIFAA president were unfounded, and it is my sincere hope that our cooperative, collective example will help other groups that are going through their growing pains as they look to include all the letters of the lgbt+ rainbow.

What else?   We had our monthly membership meetings and happy hours, not to mention our monthly newsletter.  Our website is entirely new as of February and, unlike the old, is easy to update and maintain.   Our largest annual social event, The Pink Party, filled the ballroom at The Chastleton and showed a profit for the first time that anyone could remember.   There were also pride marches and festivals and more roundtables, seminars, workshops, and meetings than I can remember let alone enumerate.

The GLIFAA BoD and GC Celebrate at the Pink Party!
So what about policy?   We had three big policy issues this year.   I won't go into detail here – see our website for that -- but I can say that we were successful beyond my greatest hopes when we first laid out our policy program last September.  The State Department's domestic partners policy first introduced by Secretary Clinton still exists today just as it did a year ago.  We pushed back against the misguided view that "Hey, since you can all get married now, you don't need domestic partner benefits."  In fact, we pushed back hard using every possible avenue we could think of.  The fact that the domestic partners policy is still in place today just as it was when our board took office in September is a quiet but huge triumph.

In the Capital Pride March
We have made progress in keeping our LGB families together when foreign service officers go to their overseas assignments.   This will be a long-term, uphill battle as governments in some parts of the world are adopting laws against gay propaganda or even making it a criminal offense to be gay.  These same countries have begun denying visas to spouses of our officers more often than they did in years past.  Our success this year has been an internal one at State and USAID as we educated upper level management and brought them to an understanding of the issue that will allow them to take steps that will make it easier to keep our families together.

Our third big issue had to do with transgender health care for federal employees.  Without wanting to attract undue attention, I will allude to a certain June decision from the Office of Personnel Management regarding Federal Employee Health Benefits.   GLIFAA, working with a coalition of allies, worked hard in this area.

We also worked closely with those involved in official State Department and USAID foreign policy.   I helped to write the first State Department cable (i.e., instruction) to all diplomatic posts on carrying out reporting on and outreach to transgender communities around the world.  In Washington, the Department of State had its first-ever observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance.  So did a number of U.S. embassies and other diplomatic posts around the world.

Escorting Secretary John Kerry to Pride at State on June 19
So what is the cause for my mood of celebration and relaxation today?  That is simple to explain.   Last Thursday, after planning and organization that went back to early March, we had the annual Pride at State ceremony.   It was held in the Benjamin Franklin room on the eighth floor of the State Department, a venue that was beyond the dreams of GLIFAA's founders whose first meetings were in member living rooms in the early 1990s.  The keynote speaker was Secretary of State John Kerry, who gave the strongest State Department statement on LGBT rights since former Secretary Clinton's speech in Geneva two and a half years ago.   (You can find the Secretary's speech at  Russian-American LGBT activist Masha Gessen was our guest speaker, and she spoke eloquently on the need to push back against the restrictions on human rights in Russia and a number of other countries.  Yours truly moderated and gave the opening and closing remarks.

Sharing the Stage with Secretary Kerry, Masha Gessen, and
Janice Caramanica from the State Department's Office
of Civil Rights
Moreover, Pride at State took place on June 19, my mother's birthday.   I was wearing her pearls and thinking of her that day.  By serving as GLIFAA president, I had finally become the manager that my father had always hoped I would be, a role for which I had no stomach in my former life.   It is remarkable how what once was so hard has now become so possible.  I could feel the spirits of my mom and dad in the Benjamin Franklin room that day.   As I read the list of our VIP guests, I knew who were the VIPs who headed my personal list.

So as I sit in the Acela, now somewhere in New Jersey, I can say to myself, "You did it!"  Although my term of office extends officially through August, elections are now underway for our new board.  We will know the results in early July, but I'm reasonably confident of the results even today.  GLIFAA will continue forward in very good hands.  Once the election results are official, we'll begin a transition period that will allow me to step back and regain more of the personal time that I need for family and friends and for the preparations I must make to move on to my next post in Central Asia in September.

As I once wrote Proudly from Tirana and Proudly from Bucharest, I can now write Proudly from Washington, Proudly from GLIFAA.  This has been my year of lgbt+ leadership, the year when I gave all for the causes I believe in.  I am proud of my GLIFAA board and all we accomplished.   I'm proud that I had the honor to serve as GLIFAA president.   To all whom I have known and worked with this year, your GLIFAA mom sends her warm thanks.   I am proud and honored to have known and worked with all of you.