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, Robyn 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 (www.glifaa.org), 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 http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2014/06/228045.htm.)  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.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Please Continue to Hold During the Silence

No, I have not given up writing in this web journal.  Let's just say I've had to take a pause due to an overwhelming abundance of commitments.  In addition to my full-time day job, I have a second full-time job as president of GLIFAA, our LGBT+ association for employees of the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other U.S. foreign affairs agencies.  That is where my time and attention are going, day and night, at least through June if not through the end of my term in August.

Serving as president of a major employee LGBT+ organization is both a privilege and a challenge, exhausting but always gratifying.  If you would like to know more of our work this year, visit our new web page at www.glifaa.org.  There you will find information on our initiatives, our history, and photos from our various events.  

If you were familiar with our old web site and literature, you will notice that we have a new tag line:  GLIFAA -- LGBT+ pride in foreign affairs agencies.  This year's board of directors under the leadership of yours truly is doing all it can to become more diverse and inclusive.  No longer does GLIFAA represent only gays and lesbians.  We have a number of transgender members both in the US and at posts around the world.  Our doors are open to all flavors of orientation and identity wherever they may be on the bright LGBT+ rainbow.  If you are in the Washington, DC, area, come to one of our monthly meetings, happy hours, or other social events.  If you are outside the US, you may find that there is a GLIFAA representative at a U.S. embassy or consulate near you (www.glifaa.org/about/post-representatives/).


GLIFAA Board of Directors at the Annual
"Pink Party" in February 2014
Be assured that I will return to writing in this journal once I have become an ex-president.  Where will I be next?  Look for me somewhere on the Silk Road as of next September as I return to Central Asia.  Until then, follow me at www.glifaa.org!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Our Winter Love: Thailand Anniversary and Return to Bucharest

One year ago today, Nadine and I were at the Phuket International Hospital (PIH) in Thailand.  Nadine was recovering from her surgeries, and I was still in the process of mine.  Our two weeks at PIH are a cloud of memories overlapping and intermixing.  Days and nights blended together as we moved in a fog from one medical procedure to another, one meal to another.  Confined to our beds for many days, we would watch movies, read books, and listen to music.

It is very human to identify a piece of music with a time and a place.  At some point during our weeks of recuperation, an old instrumental piece from the 1960s came streaming over the Internet from MPBN in Maine.  It was Bill Pursell's Our Winter Love.  I then found it on YouTube and listened to it again and again.  Released from PIH, I would sit on the balcony at the Aspasia Resort, looking out on the beach and the blue sea with the strains of this music surrounding me.  An odd choice, perhaps, but Our Winter Love came to symbolize for me the time that Nadine and I spent in Thailand.  I have but to hear it to be transported back to Phuket.

View from the Aspasia, January 2013
I have not written much of late.  That was inevitable when I accepted the presidency of GLIFAA, the LGBT rights association representing LGBT employees at the State Department and other U.S. foreign affairs agencies.  The GLIFAA presidency is nearly a full time job in and of itself.  Combine it with a full time day job and watch all leisure time disappear.  It's a very good thing that I enjoy and am gratified by both of my jobs.  I do miss writing here, however, and move forward in the knowledge that another change will come in my life late next summer that will again give me the time to write.

Despite the pace of work, Our Winter Love also applies to this winter.  December and January have been filled with good news both for me personally and for those I love.  Although I was working a shift on both Christmas and New Year's Days, I felt my small student-style apartment in Takoma Park was infused with love.  I had my own candlelit Christmas dinner the day after Christmas.  My son and his girlfriend sat on one side of the table.  Next to me sat a gentle man who has entered my life these past several months.  A wonderful holiday feeling and smell hung in the air.  It was a beautiful Christmas.

Having worked through Christmas and New Year's, I finally got my own break when I flew home to Bucharest on January 5.  Riding into the city from Otopeni Airport, I had tears in my eyes.  Bucharest still feels like home, much more so than my temporary abode in suburban Washington.  I looked out the window of my taxi at each familiar site as we approached the center.  Nothing had changed.  It was as though I had never left.

Holiday Lights Are Still Lit in Bucharest Until January 6
I no longer have an Embassy-provided home in Bucharest, but I rented a small apartment for two weeks not far away, just off Piata Victoriei.  Exhausted from the flight, I fell into a deep sleep on the couch and didn't hear when my dear young friend PE knocked on the door.  Rather, she told me afterward that she was banging on the door and had taken fright when I did not answer.  She was in the administrator's office to ask about "the American woman who arrived today," when I finally woke up and saw that she had been calling.  In a minute she was back at my door, and I was able to give the biggest hug I have to someone I had dearly missed these seven months.

My Homecoming Open House in Bucharest
For two weeks I felt I was back in my family with friends coming and going.  We had a reunion open house the Saturday after my arrival.  It might not have been on the scale of the parties I used to hold, but the same warm feeling was there with most friends not leaving until well after midnight.  Another day I went to the Embassy "just for 2-3 hours". . . or so I thought.  I spent most of a day there sitting and visiting with the local staff that had worked with me and with my American friends who are still there.  Another day I went to ACCEPT, the Romanian LGBT rights organization, for most of an afternoon.  I went to my favorite hairdresser -- the only one who truly understands my hair -- and visited Mirela, the magical electrologist of Bucharest.  PE and I went shopping together just like old times.

With Nadine on a Cold Day in Chisinau
Moldova, of course, was not going to allow me to come so close and not pay a visit there as well.  I flew up to Chisinau on a Monday morning and spent two and a half days there.  I had chosen my dates well, arriving in Chisinau on Old New Year's Eve.  Nadine, Dan, and I celebrated the Old New Year together with their friends, and on Old New Year's Day we went together to a Finnish sauna to bake out the old and make room for the new.  Nadine and I reminisced about Thailand, Our Winter Love playing in my head.  We agreed that we must return there one day and truly visit that magical land that we saw largely from our hospital window and from the balcony of the Aspasia.

I knew before I went that two weeks would go by in a flash and that I would again miss my friends.  I have no regrets.  It's far better to miss friends whom one has been able to see and hug at least briefly than to live only with a memory from a year ago.  

Of this I am certain, Bucharest is still home.  I hope ardently that it will also be my future home.  It is where I came to be myself, whole at last, living my life as it always should have been lived.  As Pascal Mercier writes and as is portrayed on the screen in Night Train to Lisbon --
We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place.  We stay there, even though we go away.  And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.
I am again in Washington today, back in the hustle of work and GLIFAA.  It is gratifying work, and I stay in touch with my friends overseas as best I can.  I pause for a moment and allow the mind to wander.  Our Winter Love starts to play in my head, and there I am, on the beach in Thailand with Nadine or walking the streets of Bucharest with friends so close that they have become family.

To all my friends and family in Romania and Moldova, Robyn sends her winter love.  Ne vedem mai tarzio.  We will see each other again soon.  


* * * * * * * * * * * *

For those who have not heard Our Winter Love, listen now and imagine me with Nadine sitting on a balcony a year ago in Phuket.