Saturday, August 20, 2011

How We Kidnapped Irina Nita

Did you know that we kidnapped Irina Nita?  Now, before any of my Romanian readers call the police or ask Interpol to put out an all points bulletin, I hasten to inform you that Irina asked us to kidnap her.  We only complied with her request by hijacking the Washington portion of the International Visitors Leadership (IVL) program that has just taken her to the U.S. for three weeks.

My readers outside Romania are probably asking, "Who is Irina Nita and what is this about kidnapping and hijacking?"  Let me explain.

Irina Nita is executive director of ACCEPT, the Romanian national NGO for advancement of LGBT rights.  I've had some involvement with ACCEPT for several months now, but I only met Irina about three weeks ago when I sat down to interview her for my U.S. Embassy report on the current situation and prospects for transgender individuals in Romania.  At the end of our conversation, I asked if there was anything I could do for her, and she proceeded to tell me that she hopes to organize a specialist conference on transgender legal and medical issues in Bucharest next year.  She said should would like to have American participation in this workshop but had no knowledge of or contacts in the U.S. transgender community.  She asked if I could help her.  She then added that she was about to travel to the U.S. on an IVL program sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

That was all I needed to get started on a hijack plan, but I knew I could not do it alone.  I'm a beginner at this sort of thing, and I needed professional help for an operation of this sort.  I turned to my "Oceans Eleven" team consisting of Anne Vonhof at the Office of Personnel Management, Chloe Schwenke at USAID, Shannon Doyle at MAGIC-DC, and my good Foreign Service friend Kay.  They assembled the list of U.S. experts on transgender issues for Irina to meet.  Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA) with leadership from Policy Chief Paul Kim anointed us an ad-hoc GLIFAA committee.  With that title, I approached the Public Diplomacy office at Embassy Bucharest.  I got a cool reception at first and was told that Irina's schedule was already fixed with little possibility for change.  I insisted, however, and they sent on our list of additional meetings to the program office in Washington.

A few days later I received an e-mail from Meg Poole at Meridian House.  Meg, it turns out, was in charge of Irina's program.  Not only was the Washington portion of the program not fixed, Meg was having trouble reaching anyone to set up meetings during the summer vacation season.  Anne jumped right in with names and telephone numbers for people she knew were available.  Mara Keisling from the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) started calling Meg as well, saying she was ready to meet Irina at almost any time or place.  Kay stepped forward to host a luncheon for Irina with a number of transgender activists and specialists in attendance.  In the end, we got transgender-related meetings set up for Irina at the Human Rights Campaign, USAID, NCTE, the Whitman Walker Clinic, and at a number of other organizations and government offices.

Irina will also travel to Atlanta, San Francisco, Des Moines, Atlanta, and Albany, New York, on what will be mainly an LGB itinerary.  The Washington component, however, now has a decidedly T shade that it would not have had otherwise.  At Irina's request we successfully cracked our way into an existing USG program and rearranged the parts.  Never before have I so thoroughly enjoyed being part of a hijacking.

Travel well, Irina.  Drum bun.  It's "wheels up" in Bucharest.  We'll see you in a few weeks.

PS -- Anne Vonhof managed to open more closed doors for us in Washington than I thought possible.  The next time I stand in front of a locked bank vault, I want Anne next to me to speak the magic words.

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