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.




Sunday, December 22, 2013

JFK, LBJ, and Their Gift to Me

I am from that generation.  I am one of those who remembers where she was on the afternoon of Friday, November 22, 1963.  I was in fourth grade.  It being a Friday afternoon, I was at release time religious instruction at the parochial school in nearby Spring Valley, NY.  I remember the mother superior coming to the door of our classroom and telling us that the President had been shot.  She asked us to stand and say a prayer.  By the time the bus had brought us back to our public school, it was all over.  The President was dead.  The school closed early, and we all went home.  My mom was sick that day and asleep when I got there.  When I woke her and told her the news, she didn't believe me.  Surely I had misunderstood, she said.  Then she turned on the television.  It stayed on.  Like most Americans, our family cried and prayed for four days.  There is a photo of me in the Nyack Journal News kneeling and praying at St. Joseph's Church.  All thoughts of Thanksgiving were gone.

In 1961 JFK had declared that "this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth."  The space race captured my imagination and ultimately gave me my first career.  (See Always an Attitude Analyst.)  I hung on every launch, even recording them on our family's reel-to-reel tape recorder.  I spent early evenings in wonder and awe just to look up at the sky and see the faint river of the Milky Way that was still visible from Rockland County, NY, in those years.

Whether JFK had the makings of a great President is something for the historians to ponder, but he did inspire the young people of my generation.  Not even quite seven years old, I remember his inauguration speech in 1961.  I remember the palpable fear of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the rise of the Berlin Wall, and JFK's Ich bin ein Berliner speech.  The Vietnam War was already a rumble but one that was still distant to my ears.  The civil rights marches in the American South were something we heard and read about, but they seemed distant to our middle class white suburb of New York City.  What washed over me and my young friends was the dashing image of the handsome young President with the beautiful wife who was leading us boldly into the New Frontier.

On the fiftieth anniversary of JFK's assassination last month, both CBS and NBC streamed their four days of 1963 coverage over the Internet.  I found myself transported back in time as I watched again the TV images I remembered from my childhood.  How old those images now seem, how ancient the technology that relied on telephones and film.  How soothing it was to hear again the voice of Walter Cronkite, our Uncle Walter, try to guide a grieving nation through its torment.  There were long, unrehearsed interviews -- something one can scarcely imagine today -- with politicians and citizens both low and high.  People seemed to speak their mind with little concern over the proper spin.  There was something almost naive about the discourse.

The more I watched, however, the more I realized there was something missing.  None of the newscasters were women, and almost no women were to be found among those interviewed.  Even Jackie Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson were presented more as supportive adjuncts of their husbands than as independent beings.  Almost no African Americans were to be seen.  The world belonged to white men, and no one from the mainstream media of the day was questioning whether there was anything amiss in this norm.

Like many of my generation, I associate JFK's passing with the start of our country's descent into Vietnam.  I watched the anti-war demonstrations grow around me.  The Tet Offensive came in 1968, to be followed shortly thereafter by LBJ's unexpected declaration that he would neither seek nor accept the Democratic nomination for another term as President.  As JFK's successor, LBJ had failed in our young eyes, and no one was sorry to see him go even if what followed was only a continuing descent into Nixon, Watergate, and disillusion.

On the final evening of re-watching the 1963 coverage last month, I unexpectedly had to reach for tissue as tears filled my eyes.  No, it wasn't memories of the slain young President that brought tears this time.  Rather, it was an offhand comment from a newscaster of that day wondering what would become of the civil rights legislation that JFK had proposed earlier that year.  With the young President gone, would the legislation be passed?

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was JFK's gift to me.  Like most white, middle class Americans, for decades I was aware that the Civil Rights Act was a good thing that was needed to address the wrongs done to black Americans in the South and throughout even our supposedly more liberal North.  If JFK had lived, would the legislation have been passed by our U.S. House and Senate?  There are those who think that it may not have or that at least it would not have passed without significant changes.

Enter LBJ.  Just days after JFK's assassination, he addressed a joint session of Congress with the words, "No memorial or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights act for which he fought so long."  The consummate politician, LBJ pushed the legislation through both houses of Congress.  He signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964.  Journalist Bill Moyers, then a White House aide, says he came upon LBJ that evening and found him in a melancholy mood.  According to Moyers, LBJ predicted that "we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come."  Even without Vietnam, LBJ may have sacrificed his own political career to the furtherance of civil rights in the US of the 1960s.


Lyndon Johnson Signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into Law
Little noticed at the time, Howard W. Smith, an opponent of the Civil Rights Act, had slipped in an additional element that neither JFK nor LBJ had envisioned:  a prohibition against discrimination based on sex.  Some say that Smith may have wanted to torpedo the legislation by inserting something no one would agree to at the time; others say he was a true believer and promoter of equal rights for women.  Whatever the motivation, Smith's insertion was preserved in the final version, enshrined in Title VII that prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

As a young person in the 1960s, I took no notice Title VII and its prohibition.  I doubt I was aware of it at all.  Today, however, it is a text that I read with reverence as it is this document, perhaps more than any other, that has made my life possible.


No document in U.S. political life, not even the Constitution, is frozen in time.  All are subject to interpretation.  This is what happened with Title VII.  In a series of legal actions in the1970s and 1980s, courts found that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination and is, therefore, prohibited under Title VII.  Supplemental legislation added discrimination based on pregnancy, age, or disability to the list of prohibitions.  Then, just last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found in Macy v. Holder that discrimination based on gender identity is also a form of sex discrimination subject to Title VII remedies.  

It was shortly after the announcement of my transition in 2011 that the old EEO notices at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest came down, replaced by the new version with the following text:


Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, prohibits discrimination in hiring, promotion, discharge, pay, fringe benefits, job training, classification, referral, and other aspects of employment, on the basis of race, color, religion, sex (includes pregnancy, gender identity and gender stereotypes) and/or national origin.
There, boldly proclaimed on bulletin boards throughout the U.S. federal government, is that most important text that gives me my right to exist, to live my life finally without fear of harassment in the workplace, of losing my job or career.  I still get a shiver of joy when I read those lines even as I know that there is still a long road ahead to outlaw discrimination based on gender identity at both the state level and nationally.

Did either JFK or LBJ know that the civil rights legislation they were calling for in 1963 would later be interpreted in a way that provides transgender protections?  I highly doubt it.  Better to say, "Of course not!"  The word transgender didn't exist yet, and the few public transsexuals were seen by the public at large as oddities at best and usually as something far worse.  If someone had been able to explain the implications to them in the context of their day of how this legislation would be interpreted in the decades to come, JFK and LBJ may even have recoiled.  Still, as the intelligent and far seeing men that both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson were, they may have paused after that initial reaction in the knowledge that the New Frontier and Great Society applied not only to the space race and competition with the Soviet Union but to all imaginable facets of the human condition.  In my imagination, I see that knowledge bringing a smile to their faces.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  More than my first career as a spacecraft attitude analyst, this is the gift that JFK and LBJ gave to me.  It is the gift that gave me the freedom, at long last, to live my life.  As the memories of 1963 fade again into the present, I smile warmly and give humble thanks.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

November: What I've Gained

It's a chilly evening in Washington.  At about 10pm you would have seen me walking past the White House as I made my way to work on the 11pm to 7am shift at the State Department.  I had just come from an event celebrating the tenth anniversary of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE).  For the previous three hours I had sipped red wine and listened and watched as Mara Keisling, Chloe Schwenke, and a number of my other idols in the transgender equality movement spoke and were honored.  As I walked along Pennsylvania Avenue under a bright autumn moon, I had to pause in front of the White House and feel that chill that came not from the cold but from sheer exhilaration.  I'm really here!  I'm really me!  How wondrous to have lived to see this day, this time of acceptance that I thought I would never see in my lifetime!

Last weekend marked the second anniversary of the announcement of my transition at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest.  It's the day I now consider my birthday, and congratulations flowed in from around the world.  Just in time, I received a long-awaited document from the State of New York:  my amended birth certificate.  It now records that I was born Robyn Ann Jane Alice McCutcheon, female, in Nyack, New York, in a year when Eisenhower was President.  With that, the long train of fundamental document changes has reached its end.  Holding the birth certificate in my hands, I feel that official validation that what I always knew was true is now recorded as a matter of public record.

Enough about loss.  (See November:  What I've Lost.)  So what have I gained through transition?  It's not as easy a question to answer as you might think.  Might as well ask a fish what she has gained by being put in water.  What can one say when everything finally feels natural, when one can finally breathe one's fill just like a fish in water?

That moment of exhilaration in front of the White House captures it.  I'm really here!  In decades past I would have walked down Pennsylvania Avenue with a knot somewhere in my stomach, my eyes downcast.  Having a knot in my stomach was my natural state, a condition that would loosen only when I could escape to the mountains.  There was a jumble of fear, depression, and the self-imposed dictate of sheer will that I must go on as I am because that is the only choice.

All of that is gone now.  I no longer have that knot in the stomach.  I have forgotten what it feels like to have it.  I enjoy life now.  Even the most trivial daily tasks that once were drudgery now bring pleasure.

Confidence.  With the knot in the stomach gone, I no longer fear the future.  Where I used to plan obsessively, I now go forth each day with a lightness of thought, a confidence that I am ready for whatever the day might bring.  The time for living is now, in this moment.

Mirrors.  I used to hate them.  Without intending to sound vain, I can say that today I enjoy looking at my own reflection.  It's the reflection I always thought should be looking back at me.

Voice.  Could my voice ever have been different than it is today?  Those old recordings of someone with a bass voice claiming to be me must be a forgery.  I can't imitate that voice today even if I wanted to.  It's gone, wonderfully gone.  The voice I speak with now is the only natural voice I could ever have had.

Friends.  I had very few in my old life.  Today, friends along with my sisters and my son make up my large extended family.  Most of all, I treasure having girlfriends the way women treasure having girlfriends.  Whether it's for coffee, a phone chat, or a long walk, time for girlfriends is a nearly sacred matter.

The Future.  I remember sitting in my office at Computer Sciences Corporation in 1978 and estimating the number of days until my retirement, the day I could escape and be alone.  I really did that.  I just wanted to get through life, do what I was supposed to do, and get to the end of it when the pain would go away.  Now it's as though I have finally started living, each day, week, month, and year an increment of time to be treasured and enjoyed.

It is wonderful to be two years old with my life still fully open before me.  A life I never thought I could have is now mine.  In comparison, all that I lost through transition fades to insignificance.  It's a beautiful time to be alive, to walk past the White House under a bright moon and feel that exhilaration of being a woman with her future and all roads open to her.




Thursday, November 7, 2013

November: What I've Lost

November, the month that brings both Transgender Day of Remembrance and Thanksgiving, is a time for reflection.  It is also my anniversary, which this year marks year two since the public announcement of my transition at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest.  It is a good opportunity to take stock of what I've lost, what I've gained, and what has remained the same.

What have I lost?  Compared with too many persons who pay with their lives, I've fared remarkably, almost miraculously well.  Still, viewed from a cisgender perspective, the perspective of someone who has not spent a lifetime confronting the reality of being transgender, the price has been high.  In financial terms alone, I have lost a year's salary, most of my life savings, and almost all real estate and physical property of value to the divorce that immediately preceded my transition.  The medical price tag for counseling, hormone replacement therapy, electrolysis, voice therapy, gender confirmation surgery, and facial feminization surgery amounts to almost another two thirds of a year's salary.  The financial picture for a person whom social security views as age 55+ is bleak.


I have also lost considerably in terms of career advancement.  If one views my move from Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) to the State Department as a first step on the transition road, that was already a big down step.  At CSC I was a Senior Computer Scientist, the equivalent of an FS-01 on the State Department's scale.  I joined State in 2004 as an FS-04, the rough CSC equivalent of an MTSB/A but the highest level at which it is possible to enter.  I received tenure and was promoted to FS-03, the equivalent to SMTS at CSC, in 2007, the shortest possible time for tenure and promotion at State.  

I have been frozen at that position for six years now and see no prospect for further advancement for at least another 2-3 years.  Why?  I detoured from the career path in Romania, doing a down stretch to an out-of-the-way, nearly invisible FS-04 technical position.  This was a logical step for someone who was about to transition and who was worried how her transition would be perceived.  The fact that I later did significant human rights reporting on LGBT issues is scarcely visible to the blind promotion panels that meet annually in Washington.  My current position is at-grade FS-03 but is one that is widely seen as having little promotion value.  It's career virtue to me is that I could get the position at all after having committed career suicide in Romania.  It gets me reasonably positioned to put me back on the career path in the few years that are left to me in this career.

That career price is the direct sum of the costs of the individual decisions I took along the transition path.  Each cost is almost physical, tangible, but there are no regrets.  The decisions were my own.

Other costs fall into a misty area of gray.  Am I seen differently post-transition?  Are my abilities evaluated differently?  For example, in 2004 I tested at 4 in Russian on a 0-to-5 scale.  In 2007 I re-tested at 4+.  This year I tested again but was awarded only a 3+.  Had my Russian fluency slipped during two and a half years in Romania?  Probably.  By that much?  I think not.  Could the fact that I was wearing a dress and speaking with a very different voice in 2013 have played a role?  Perhaps, but we are in the realm of the unprovable, the intangible.

Male privilege.  Perhaps I rarely or never exercised the options that came with it, but male privilege lay upon me like an un-sensed cloak.  Only now that it has been removed do I know it was there.  My auto insurance rate went up.  Not by much, but it did go up.  My softer, feminine voice does not automatically command the same respect from strangers.  If I am with a man in a restaurant, the waiter pays attention first to the man.  At a restaurant last week, our waitress walked away after taking my partner's drink order, completely failing to take notice of my presence.

Personal freedom is not what it used to be.  I fight this, but even so, I know there are places I should not go, places where I should not be alone, especially at night.

Physical strength has changed.  I still have the strong legs of a bicyclist, but young men now routinely pass me on the road.  Upper body strength, never very great, is diminished.  Rings and bracelets that were tight when I began transition now fit well.  Some are even loose.

Friends and colleagues.  To my delight I have lost very few, but there have been some.  A friend who chose me to be best man at his wedding in 1982 dropped contact in 1990 when he learned my secret.  A NASA friend did the same in 2011.  Most of all, I regret the loss of a Russian colleague with whom I worked closely as a historian.  "I will never be able to accept this," she replied when I wrote to her of my transition two years ago.  She still has not.  I remember her fondly when I look at publications and even a short documentary film that carry both our names.

November, a month for reflection.  As the leaves fall, I think about what I've lost.  As the autumn chill deepens to the white flakes of winter, my thoughts turn to what I've gained.  I'll write about that next time.  (See November:  What I've Gained.)

Monday, October 21, 2013

Our Exclusive Halloween Ogre Visits Again

The leaves are falling, blanketing the parks of Washington with their gold and red.  The breezes bring a chill now as the days shorten. . . .

Wait a second, didn't I write something much like that a year ago?  Let's see, there was To Peris(h) by Bicycle, Autumn Comes to 45-deg N, and what was it?  Oh yes, An Exclusive Halloween Ogre Just for Us!

Halloween is in the air once more.  It is again the time of witches, fairy princesses, hobos, Boo Radley, and the Hollywood fantasies of a childhood younger than mine.  It is the time when I am again reminded of the transgender exclusion, that special ogre that visits transgender women, men, and children of all ages in the form of exclusionary clauses in medical insurance policies.  In macabre fashion, these clauses deny coverage of medical procedures that are in any way connected with or, in the eyes of insurance providers, a consequence of gender transition.  

In many cases, the services being denied to transgender persons – such as estrogen or testosterone medications, hysterectomies, or mastectomies – are regularly being provided to others who are not transgender.  It is not uncommon for an insurance provider to deny coverage for claims for gender-specific care based on the person's gender marker on file with insurance.  For example, insurance may deny coverage to a transgender woman who develops prostate cancer.

The transgender exclusion brings consequences that may extend years beyond transition.  A provider may deny coverage for a heart condition if it decides that this condition was in any way transition-related.  My own provider, the Foreign Service Benefit Plan underwritten by Coventry, now routinely questions every claim whether it is directly related to my transition or not.

Last year I wrote of the growing list of progressive public and private employers who now offer medical policies without transgender exclusions  to their employees.  In the Washington, DC, area, American University is just the most recent addition to this list.  (See http://www.hrc.org/files/assets/resources/CorporateEqualityIndex_2013.pdf.)  Almost all employers that now provide transition-related coverage report that there has been little or no increase in premiums.  (See http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Herman-Cost-Benefit-of-Trans-Health-Benefits-Sept-2013.pdf )

"Has the U.S. Government (USG) joined this group of progressive employers over the past twelve months?"  I'm glad you asked.  
Alas, I regret to report that the transgender exclusion is still alive and healthily flexing his muscle in the FEHB plans offered to federal employees.  Sigh.  As equal employment opportunity and workforce diversity policies have progressed, health insurance has remained quaintly in the age of disco.
What I wrote a year ago still applies.  The answer has not changed, nor, I am given to understand, will it be any different in Federal Employee Health Benefit policies for 2014.

"Why has there been no change?" you ask.

"I don't know," your humble servant replies.

Unlike a year ago, however, I am now in a position to do something more than just wring my hands.  I am president of Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA).  We have written a white paper on the transgender exclusion in which we present all the arguments why this clause is discriminatory and must be removed.  We will be presenting this white paper to highly placed officials within the agencies whose LGBT employees are represented by GLIFAA.  We will be requesting that these agencies go on record with the Office of Personnel Management as favoring the exclusion's removal.  


Will this work?  We don't know, but we hope so.  

Meanwhile, as I wrote a year ago --
Beware as you make your rounds this Halloween night.  Amidst the witches, hobos, wizards, and zombies, our own exclusive hobgoblin lurks, waiting to pounce.  Someday he will transform into a beautiful fairy prince or princess, ready to grant all wishes.  Of this I am certain.  It hasn't happened quite yet, but like any fairy tale, this one too will have a happy ending.
For those of us covered by FEHB, may Halloween a year from now be ogre-free.