Saturday, May 25, 2019

A State-less Pride

The guidance came on May 16:  "The Department will not transmit an ALDAC for IDAHOT and LGBTI Pride Month this year."

I think most people reading this journal know that LGBTI stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex.  LGBTI is the official formulation at the Department of State.  IDAHOT, of course, is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia that is observed every year on May 17.  In countries where lgbt+ persons are most subject to discrimination, IDAHOT is often the most important commemoration of the year.

For those who do not regularly walk the halls of Foggy Bottom, let me explain that Department is shorthand for Department of State.  ALDAC stands for All Diplomatic and Consular posts.  Left out of the guidance was the implicitly understood word cable following ALDAC.  All official communication between Washington and embassies and consulates around the world takes place in the form of cables.  A cable is little more than a for-the-record e-mail to which State-specific meta-data have been added, but the Department of State is nothing if not tradition-bound.  What was sent 50 years ago using the world's telegraph network is still called a cable in these 21st century Internet days.

Having parsed the preliminaries, let me get to the meat of the May 16 guidance:  the Department of State will not be sending a cable encouraging U.S. Missions to engage in outreach to lgbt+ communities on IDAHOT or during Pride Month this year.  The guidance continued that despite the lack of a cable, there has been no change in policy.  Posts are expected to use all tools available to them to advocate for the human rights of all persons, members of lgbt+ communities included.  

Why is this significant?  As an FSO who has spent most of the past 15 years at U.S. embassies in Russia, Romania, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, I can attest that cables, especially action cables directing an embassy to do something, receive attention.  General statements that "existing guidance stands" receive much less.  If an embassy or consulate does not have staff with a passion for a particular issue, in the absence of official direction from Washington it is quite likely no action will be taken.

Moreover, a U.S. embassy is not a democracy.  All embassy staff come under Chief of Mission (COM) authority.  That's usually the Ambassador.  In the case of IDAHOT or Pride, even passion on the part of lower-level embassy officers may not be sufficient unless the COM approves.  A case in point, I can point to our commemoration of IDAHOT in Kazakhstan.  In 2016 the Ambassador declined my request to display the Pride flag inside the embassy.  In declining my request, he averred that he could only authorize official flags even though he personally understood the significance of Pride.  Thus we were unable to display the Pride flag in 2016.

Fast forward to 2017.  That winter I contacted the drafters of the annual Pride ALDAC and asked if it would be possible to include a statement in the 2017 cable to the effect that COMs are authorized to display the Pride flag.  They did include such a statement, and in 2017 I renewed my request to the Ambassador, pointing to the ALDAC cable that gives him the authority.  The flag was displayed prominently in the embassy atrium throughout the day on May 17.

So that's why an annual IDAHOT/Pride ALDAC is important.  It empowers lower level officers at U.S. missions to take action even when a COM is not initially enamored of the project.  Without such an ALDAC in 2019, I can only wonder how many initiatives will not come to fruition.

Where did the decision not to send an IDAHOT/Pride cable come from?  I feel certain the staff responsible for writing the annual cable are just as committed to lgbt+ human rights around the globe today as they have always been.  I believe the decision came from higher up, perhaps from the very top.  That would be consistent with what we have been seeing overall since the 2016 election.  Day by day, a death by a thousand cuts, our rights as lgbt+ Americans are being eroded with the removal of a guidance here, the rewriting of a policy there, or just the quiet disappearance of a web site.  It should come as no surprise that this erosion would happen also at the U.S. Department of State.

Happy Pride. . . .

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Overtime

I began my official full-time work career on the Monday after Thanksgiving in 1978.  The week before I had packed my few graduate student possessions in a rented van and, with help from my Mom and Dad, had moved from New Haven, Connecticut, to a group house in Silver Spring, Maryland.  Thanksgiving itself was spent with my oldest sister and her family, and on Monday morning I walked through the doors of 8728 Colesville Road in Silver Spring.  In those days that was the headquarters of Computer Sciences Corporation, System Sciences Division.  CSC, known lovingly by those of us who worked there as Cheap Sciences Corporation, was the major contractor providing orbital and attitude systems support for NASA scientific satellites controlled from Goddard Space Flight Center.  I recall that first disorienting week being in my shared office and computing with pencil and paper just how many days make up a normal work career.  At the time that number seemed to stretch out to such a distant horizon as to be something one should not think about.

On the Monday after Thanksgiving 2018, I celebrated my 40th anniversary in the world of work.  A date that in 1978 seemed impossibly distant had arrived in the proverbial blink of an eye.  I am not retired yet.  That date comes on August 31 of this year year, but with the passage of Thanksgiving 2018, I find myself in a time that I've come to think of as overtime.  With the budding of the trees that is taking place now in April 2019, make that double overtime.  May 1 marks the 15th anniversary of second career as a Foreign Service Officer at the Department of State.

I am struck by both the similarities and difference between 1978 and 2019 and in my Washington lifestyles.  2018-19 have found me again living in a group house just as I did in 1978.  Both then and now it's a way to economize while getting through a bridge period.  In 1978 I was sure I would work for CSC for only 2-3 years, not the 25+ years that I spent there.  Now, in 2019, I know for a fact that I have just over four months left living in DC before taking up my life as a retiree in Maine and a citizen of the world.

Both then and now I have few commitments outside of work.  Family came in the between years, and love my son and granddaughter as much as I do, they are independent of me today.   In 2019 as in 1978, I look to spend my time outside of work with friends and taking advantage of DC's theaters and museums.  The difference is that I have many more friends than did the introverted attitude analyst of 1978.

The 40+ years have gone by in the blink of an eye, but that very number of years gives me weighty pause.  1978 may feel like yesterday, but things have changed dramatically during those years.  One of my first duties at CSC was to be punch card librarian for the attitude system we were building to control Magsat, an Earth resources satellite that launched in 1979 on the fiftieth anniversary of the stock market crash.  Our software ran on an IBM 360-95 computer at GSFC.  If we kicked everyone else off the machine and had it for our sole use, we could revel in 650K of core memory.  When I got my first TSO (time sharing operations) terminal and a 300 baud acoustic modem in 1980, I felt I had entered an entire new age.  Imagine not having to punch cards!  We mere mortals had no concept that the Internet would change our world in just another 15 years.

I have to remind myself when talking with younger colleagues today that they have little concept of my world as it was in 1978.  Cultural references from then are lost on them even as they smile to an older respected colleague.  If someone has started talking to me in 1978 about life in 1938, I would have thought of them as ancient.  After all, 1938 was before World War II.  The Great Depression was still underway and FDR was still in the White House!

I also watch day to day as my past, so to speak, catches up with me.  Several years ago I wrote a small Fortran program (!) on my Linux systems that tells me each time I log in how many days remain until my retirement.  It also tells me what the calendar date was an equivalent number of days in the past.  For every day I get closer to retirement, my past catches up with me by two days.  It's now nearing the end of 2018.

But for all these mind games, I still feel young even if I do have to acknowledge that I had more energy 40+ years ago.  I'm still active and in good health.  Not operating a car for most of the past 15 years either in the US or overseas has helped in that.  Biking and walking are still my main modes of transportation.  When I do retire, I plan on a long bike trip home from DC to Maine.

Career overtime as precursor to the beginning of an entirely new phase in my life.  Let's not call it retirement.  If anything, I feel I am getting ready to graduate from high school all over again.  New adventures wait just over the horizon.


Wednesday, April 3, 2019

An Uzbek Guide to Surviving a Government Shutdown


I have published three Op-Eds in the HuffPost since leaving Kazakhstan.  If you are interested and haven't seen them, here are the links:
I have to give this to the Department of State:  all three Op-Eds were cleared for publication.  Despite my deep disagreement with State and, in particular, Consular policies expressed in two of these Op-Eds, I am proud to work for a Department that has a place for dissenting views.

Alas, my HuffPost chapter ended with the closing of its Opinion section in early February.  I wasn't even aware other than for the silence that greeted my most recent submission as we were still looking at the threat of another U.S. government shutdown.  My final submission is now published instead here. It's a dark humor look at what government workers could learn from their counterparts in Uzbekistan when it comes to learning how to survive a shutdown.  Enjoy.

If anyone has a suggestion for an outlet replacing the HuffPost Opinion section, do let me know!

* * * * * * * *
An Uzbek Guide to Surviving a Government Shutdown

We've been through it, a full month of government shutdown.  A federal worker myself, I was one of the victims, first on unpaid furlough and then called back to unpaid, excepted work before the Trump White House finally caved and re-opened the government.  In my office I've struggled to dig us out of the accumulated work and missed deadlines, and I know I'm not alone in that.  Hanging over us all is the threat that this might happen again, soon at that.

We learned many survival techniques in January, and our helpful Departments and Agencies suggested useful ways we could cope without paychecks.  Yard sales, pawn shops, unemployment compensation, and explanatory letters to creditors together with food banks became part of the mix.  The White House saw no big deal for coddled federal workers who no doubt could make do with less.  In the worst case, rich fathers or uncles could see us through, couldn't they?

This was all well and good, but January showed we are for amateurs when it comes to shutdowns.  Why not learn from other countries that have been through this all before, not just for a month but for years on end?  Why not learn from Uzbekistan?  Government workers there are professionals when it comes to surviving shutdowns.

Uzbeks owe their professional shutdown survival skills to President Islam Karimov.  A former Communist Party Secretary who became President after the Soviet collapse, Karimov espoused a policy of Make Uzbekistan Great Again.  Within a few years most ethnic Russians who could get out did get out as Karimov allowed nationalist passions to ignite.  Uzbekistan was now for the Uzbeks.  Down came the statues of Lenin and Marx, and up went statues of Amir Timur, better known in the West as Tamerlane, the new symbol for Uzbek statehood.  Terrorist bombings by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in 1999 led to a total crackdown on dissent of any type.  Even benches were removed from parks so that people would not linger and, horror, talk about life with friends and neighbors.

Karimov introduced trade barriers that effectively cut Uzbekistan off from the rest of the world.  No McDonalds or Burger Kings here.  The policy was import substitution to encourage Uzbek business and industry even as uncompetitive Soviet industrial towns shut down and came to resemble U.S. rest belt towns.  Uzbekistan even withdrew from the unified Central Asia electric grid to keep all electricity generated within its borders, well, within its borders.

The economic picture for Uzbekistan was nothing but rosy . . . according to official Uzbek government figures.  Any source contradicting those figures was news of the most fake variety.  The GDP was grew at a slow but steady pace, and the world financial crisis of 2009 scarcely touched Uzbekistan.  Karimov’s book The global financial-economic crisis, ways and measures to overcome it in the conditions of Uzbekistan called on the rest of the world to follow the Uzbek example to achieve abundant peace and prosperity.  It was pointless to tell any Uzbek official that of course the Uzbek economy had not collapsed.  How could it when it had never risen off its knees in the first place?

The White House could learn much from the Uzbek example that would allow it to pursue its agenda more effectively, but U.S. federal workers also have much to learn from their Uzbek colleagues.  It was normal for government workers in Uzbekistan not to receive salaries for months on end.  When salaries were paid, it was often in kind.  I have Uzbek friends whose balcony was knee-deep in potatoes, their salary in lieu of cash for a month.  When Russia put high tariffs on auto imports from Uzbekistan, the traffic in Tashkent exploded as government workers were given the chance to soak up the overproduction at next to no cost.  (The Chevrolet Matiz, assembled at a facility in the Fergana Valley, sold for only about $5000 in 2009.)  When the government began paying salaries electronically, employees became used to banks telling them there was no cash on hand when they went to make withdrawals.  When pensioners started receiving their pensions on debit cards, they would stand at registers in high-end stores frequented by foreigners and ask that they be allowed to pay with their debit cards in exchange for cash they could use at the food markets.

Somehow or other, Uzbek workers lived on and even thrived after a fashion.  Barter was the name of the game.  “How many kilos of potatoes are needed to buy that Chevy Matiz?”  The old Soviet model, “You pretend to pay me, and we pretend to work,” continued to apply.  Life happened on the side in spite of a government that was, in effect, shut down for more than 25 years until death came for President-for-life Karimov in 2016.

So take heart, federal workers of America.  Ask your Department or Agency to work out a deal with American farmers who have lost their market in China.  Just think what you could do with a balcony knee-deep in soy!  Snip newspaper coupons and offer your services to private sector employees.  You can reduce their weekly food expenses in exchange for a percentage in cold hard cash.  One day you may be able to buy a car from Detroit that no longer has a market outside U.S. borders.  A month’s salary in American whiskey that is no longer competitive in Europe may ease your pain. 

Through it all, ponder that you are helping to level the playing field for government bureaucracies everywhere through your understanding of the Uzbek experience.  One day, perhaps, we may cast off our chains as we realize there is more uniting than dividing government workers in all countries.  In the meantime, Xo'p mayli.  That’s Uzbek for Good or, sometimes and perhaps more to the point in this context, Whatever. . . .
_________________________________________________________________

Robyn Alice McCutcheon is a Foreign Service Officer who has served in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Romania.  Although Ms. McCutcheon is employed by the U.S. Department of State, the views expressed in this column are strictly her own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of State or the U.S. Government.
 

Monday, March 25, 2019

Waters of March: Reprise


I sit in my home office in Maine.  As I look at the window, I see the waters of March. They are dripping off my roof, the solar panels, and the trees as a fog rolls in and thickens.  When I arrived home a week ago, deep winter still reigned.  On Monday the temperature bottomed out at -18C, and I could almost feel I was back in Kazakhstan.  But winter comes to an end everywhere. In this part of rural Maine, it's coming to its end this week.  Perhaps there will be another deep freeze or two, but by early April mud season will be in full swing, some 2-3 weeks earlier than it would have been in Astana.

This is a reprise.  Two years ago I wrote Waters of March as my impending departure from Kazakhstan was beginning to feel real.  I had long told friends and adopted family in Astana that as long as there was snow and ice, I wasn't leaving.  As the first days of above freezing temperatures came upon us, I knew my time was growing short.

So it is now.  I have just 24 weeks left until retirement.  I go back to DC on Monday and have those 24 weeks ahead of me, but as temperatures rise and the Maine snows melt, retirement is no longer a distant mirage.


Winter Sunset from my Porch in Maine
The Washington ride of the past 18 months has been rough at times.  I'm a transient in DC, living out of a suitcase with friends who had a guest bedroom for rent.  (At $500/month, I expect I have the cheapest rent of any Foreign Service Officer in Washington.)  Weekends are spent with friends, my sisters, or my son and family.  Every other month I come home to Maine for the feeling of being in my own home and sleeping in my own bed.

As anyone who has read Out of the Muck knows, I am ending my career in an office different from the one where I expected to.  I owe deep thanks to those who got me out of the Muck Operations Center and into an office that is dealing with human rights programs around the world.  I am ephemeral in that office on what is known at State as a 1-year Y tour, but the energy of an office of committed young people is infectious.  My job is the comparatively simple and administrative one of making the bureaucratic wheels turn so that these young people can do their jobs with minimal impediment.  In Kazakhstan and before that in Romania, I have been on the receiving end of some of their human rights grants for lgbtqi+ organizations.  I know the good work that this office is doing even at at time when the administration in power at the White House seems intent on turning back much of the progress we have made on human rights.  It makes me want to do a better than a just adequate job in this final year.  I have fired up the after burners on this 40+ year long career, infected as I am by the enthusiasm of the people around me.

For indeed it has been 40+ years in not one but two careers.  Make that three if you add my years of research and publishing as a historian.  More on that at another time.

For the moment, however, I'll just end as I did two years in Astana.  As the waters of March fall, they remind us of the promise of life in our hearts.




Monday, January 21, 2019

Shutdown but Out in Maine

On Snowshoes
Three weeks of Furlough-di, Furlough-da! are coming to an end.  Funds were mysteriously found last Thursday with which to pay State Department employees, and thus my young friend Catriona and I are in her Land Cruiser somewhere between Bangor and Augusta, ME, as we make our way back to DC.  We’re supposed to report to work on Tuesday, but who knows?  We’re racing a winter storm.  The sky is sunny here, but it won’t be for long.  We’ll overnight in Hartford, CN, and indications are that we’ll wake in the morning to more snow and ice than we may be able to handle.  What will be will be.  There are worse things in life than an extra day in Hartford.

Sigh.  I’d be returning to DC whether or not funds had been found.  Last Wednesday I was re-classified as excepted (essential) and told to report to work without pay.  At least now we know we’ll get some pay, even if it’s unclear how long the mysterious funds will hold out.

Three weeks at home in Maine.  That’s the longest stretch I have been able to spend at home since NN came with me on R&R from Kazakhstan in 2016.  Three weeks is just long enough to feel one has settled in at home, not merely come for a quick visit.  I had been scheduled for a week of vacation at New Year’s, but the government shutdown took us all by surprise.  I decided to stay put at home and canceled my return ticket.  Catriona, also on furlough, drove up to join me mid-way through my second.

Maine is the one place on the East Coast of the US that reminds me of both Romania and Kazakhstan, the countries that came to feel the most like home to me while I served overseas.  The hills and mountains of Maine are like those in Romania, as is the maple syrup.  The snow and wind are like Kazakhstan.  January temperatures down to -18C are normal in my part of the state.  A patch of brown earth would be worthy of shocked surprise.  I love winter.  I love snow.  I love my home in Maine.

How did I spend my time?  I couldn’t get Hillary, my 1991 rear wheel drive station wagon, out of the driveway, and thus I stayed close to home.  I arrived in Bangor by bus on December 29 and did my grocery shopping before paying a princely sum to a Lyft driver to take me all the way home from Bangor.  I easily had food for a month, and my little town’s general store supplies the daily needs of bread and milk.

On other visits home I would drive to Baxter State Park or to Katahdin Woods and Water National Monument for my hiking or winter snow shoeing.  Not getting there turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it forced me to look for alternatives right where I live.  To my happy surprise, I discovered Maine’s Interconnected Trail System (ITS) for ATVs and snowmobiles.  One of the main routes passes through my town, and during the work week there is no one on it.  I could snowshoe for as long and as far as I wanted and not meet any person or any vehicle.  The woods and hills were just as winter quiet and beautiful as those I usually drive to get to.  I was thrilled to find that I have this outdoor resource treasure right at my doorstep.

I also have my own 32 acres, the front 7-8 acres of which are partially cleared.  I clipped on the cross country skis that I brought with me from Kazakhstan.  I have a long way to go before I qualify even as a novice, but I am able to push myself around on the skis, not to mention get a good aerobic and upper body workout as I do it.

I set my own time at home in Maine.  I mean that not only in the sense of doing what I want when I want but also in the sense of choosing my own time zone.  With a deferential nod to those who determine boundaries, my part of Maine has no business being in Eastern Standard Time.  If the zone boundaries were drawn without reference to borders, we’d be in Atlantic Time with the Canadian maritime.  That’s the time zone I choose to live in while at home.  It lets me see the January sun set at 5pm, not 4pm.  I love nothing better than to sit on my porch even in January and watch the sun go down through my trees.

Evenings were for music, reading, movies, and serials.  Even in Maine I enjoy watching Russian serials, if not Russian news, and after Catriona’s arrival we would take turns choosing what to watch.    She introduced me to The Terror, a fictionalized account of Franklin’s ill-fated 19th century expedition to find the Northwest Passage.  What better place than Maine to watch a serial about explorers locked in ice and eternal winter?  I rejoined by playing Stan Roger’s Northwest Passage, a song that both Sultana and my son love.

Shutdown but by all means out in the great outdoors:  those were my three weeks in Maine.  Only 32 weeks remain until my mandatory separation for age, an event that I look at more as high school graduation than retirement.  Maine is now home, and I feel a pang of regret as we leave.  I want more time in the Maine woods, but if there is a plus to our return to DC, it is that we will be able to participate in person in whatever protests are being organized.  I’ve already appeared in protest once in front of the White House.  There undoubtedly will be more such appearances.

We’re nearing Augusta now.  The sky has already darkened as we head south to the equally dark politics of Washington.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Breaking up with Facebook Is Hard to Do . . . but Worth the Effort?

I've had an uneasy feeling about remaining on Facebook for some time now.  For others there might have been specific events that prompted them to raise the #DeleteFacebook flag.  Perhaps it was the ever growing saga of how Facebook sees user data as a commodity?  Perhaps the Cambridge Analytica scandal in early 2016 was the turning point?  Many of us on the progressive left were sickened by the irresponsible role Facebook played in the 2016 election as a source of disinformation and as an outlet for Russian propaganda.  I know I was, and I was just as much disturbed that such disinformation found a ready audience.

Like many in the baby boom generation, I first opened a Facebook account some ten years ago as a way of staying in touch with my son.  He had stopped using e-mail, and Facebook was all the rage for his age group.  The irony is that he has long since moved away from social media.

I became a large scale user of Facebook after gender transition in 2010-11.  I was in Romania at the time and had become well known in the Romanian lgbtqi+ community.  Everyone was on Facebook, and before long I had more Romanian Facebook friends than I did American.  When I left Romania in 2013, Facebook remained a window into the lives of those I had left behind in Romania.  The same has been true of my friends in Kazakhstan.  For a foreign service officer, Facebook allows at least a glimpse into the lives of those we have known and sometimes loved in the countries where we have served.

But does that glimpse have substance?  I lost count of how many Facebook friends I have a long time ago, but I believe it is now in the 1000 range.  How many glimpses do the Facebook algorithms give when the number of friends has grown that large?  Where do the glimpses that populate our news feeds come from?  I can search for a friend and find out what she or he is up to, but when one comes down to it, isn't it also possible to do that by a simple e-mail to that friend?

If there was a specific time when my relationship to Facebook soured, it was in the crowd tuition funding campaign we undertook for Sultana Kali.  During that campaign we collected more than we had any reason to expect, but almost none of the contributions came via Facebook friends.  The bulk came from outside the social network, a network that turned out to be hollow.

Facebook played a foul role in our 2016 election, a role made all the more foul by its attempts to cover up or belittle Russia's use of social networking as a means of dividing us as a people by playing on our worst instincts.  Without Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social networking platforms, perhaps we would not live in a world today where the occupant of the White House is dangerously unhinged and the U.S. role in the world is in rapid decline?

Anyone who has followed me on Facebook knows that I have published little there since leaving Kazakhstan in 2017.  At most, I spend perhaps 5-15 minutes a day on the platform to glance at the news feed and look for any personal messages.  Even as a messaging platform, I have found Facebook wanting.  WhatsApp is a better way of staying in direct touch with specific individuals and groups of friends.  Kazakhstan as a country seems to run on WhatsApp.  More recently I learned that Telegram is a better, more secure messaging platform not under Facebook control, and I plan to move there.

That brings me to my 2019 New Year's resolution to move off Facebook.  I deleted my Twitter account months ago, and I've never really been a user of Instagram.

Am I cutting off my nose to spite my face?  Will the loss be worth the gain in control over my own data and a clearer conscience?  I don't know.  I've toyed with this decision for months, dancing around it without coming to a firm yes or no.  In the end I've decided that the only way to know is to try.  Rather than deleting my Facebook account outright, I'll deactivate it for a half year and experience what life is like without Facebook.  If the loss outweighs the gain, I can reactivate the account.

I did say New Year's resolution, didn't I?  Let's make that Old New Year, the beginning of the new year by the Julian calendar, January 14 in our Gregorian system.  That will give those who wish to stay in touch with me time to copy my non-Facebook  contact information, which is:
e-mail:
msrobyn-alice@usa.net
robyn.aja.mccutcheon@gmail.com
WhatsApp:  pegged to my Kazakhstani telephone, +7 771 164-0368
I also pledge to write more often in this web journal, perhaps not much more at first due to work and travel schedules, but more with time as we move into the year.  I am also still on LinkedIn.

As an experiment I've also opened an account on Diaspora*, a decentralized open-source social networking platform.  There are not many people on Diaspora* yet, but perhaps we can change that together?  If you want to follow me there, you can sign up at https://joindiaspora.com/ and look for me as robyn_alice_mccutcheon@diaspora.dev.facil.services.

That's my #DeactivateFacebook challenge to myself for 2019.  Forward I go into a time before Facebook existed.  Happy New Year, С Новым Годом, and Happy New Networking to all!


Monday, December 31, 2018

New Year's Tidings of Passport Cheer

To say 2018 was not been a good year for the T of the U.S. lgbtqi+ community would be to put it mildly.  Between the Trump administration's push to expel all transgender members of the military, a leaked memo detailing a plan by the Department of Health and Human Services to erase us, and the recent deletion of the Office of Personnel Management's guidance of transgender persons in the U.S. federal government -- the news has been unrelenting and almost never good.  With each executive branch step to remove transgender protections, the surface area of the island on which we stand shrinks.  Allies who say not to worry as protections are stripped away sound at times like climate change deniers who don't see hurricanes, tsunamis, and wild fires as portents telling us that time is running out.

Another worrying development this year were edits to the U.S. State Department web site regarding changing gender markers in passports.  Ever since Secretary Hillary Clinton simplified the procedures for changing that marker, a U.S. passport has become the ID of choice for most transgender Americans.  Rather than documentation of invasive surgeries that had been required in the past, only a letter from a certified medical provider that the bearer is receiving "appropriate clinical treatment" is needed when applying for a new passport.

Those worrying web site edits included replacing gender with sex, a change that for many of us harks back to the old days of sex reassignment surgery. Did this reflect a change in procedures?  The rules that Secretary Clinton simplified could be changed by a simple stroke of the pen by a subsequent Secretary.  Were the web site changes a harbinger of changes to come?  Adding to the worry, there were several reports from the field that people who had changed the gender marker in their passports a decade or more ago were being asked to provide documentation of their gender transition when they went to **renew** their passports.  The fact that additional factors may have been in play for these persons did little to allay fears.

The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) went into action quickly by requesting a meeting with the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs.  Other organizations also requested meetings, and I was involved behind the scenes in a couple of preparatory phone calls.  The report back from those meetings was not to worry, that nothing had changed other than an unfortunate, ill-prepared edit to the passport web site.  Nationwide, however, there was a rush on the part of many to renew passports sooner rather than later lest those soothing words be replaced by another executive tweet that would change everything.

I should know.  Despite being a Foreign Service Officer, I also worried that things could change and not for the better.  I hold a diplomatic passport with five years' validity and a tourist passport that would expire in 2021.  I had already had some trouble using the tourist passport on its own in that my hair style, hair color, and some facial features had changed since the passport was issued in 2011.  Far better to renew the passport now, I thought, before I retire next summer and surrender the diplomatic passport.  Also, if anything were to go wrong with the renewal, I would rather it happen now while I'm still employed at State and can work the back channels to raise a ruckus.  So it was that in the first weekend of December I dropped into my corner mailbox an envelope containing my application, old passport, new photo, and letter explaining my request for early renewal. 

All of this brings me to those good tidings of New Year's passport cheer.  I arrived in my little Maine town last Friday evening and went to the post office to retrieve my mail on Saturday.  There it was, mixed in with two months' bulk mail:  my new tourist passport.  It was issued on December 21 with full ten year validity.  No questions were asked.  

I now join my voice to the soothing words from NCTE and elsewhere:  the procedures established by Secretary Clinton are still in place.  To this I add my pride in my own organization, the Department of State.  Sane minds are still in contril.  For the first time since the debacle with the denial of Sultana Kali's student visa in the summer of 2017, I applaud my colleagues in the Bureau of Consular Affairs.  They are doing the right thing.