Friday, January 27, 2012

Kyna -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 1

Sometimes it takes just one person, a few words, and a hug to change a life.  For me, that person was Kyna, and the hug and words were hers.

It was October 2010, and I was newly arrived in Romania, a country I knew nothing about and whose language I do not speak.  Everything was strange, and here there were no ready-made friends such as I had in Moscow and Tashkent.  I hardly had enough money for food after being on leave without pay for most of September.  It was going to be a long, hard winter, a fact brought brutally home to me as letters from my ex-spouse's attorneys followed me to Bucharest within days of my arrival.  A new battle over support was beginning, and it was to take over my life.  In comparison, the divorce had been easy.

Fortunately, my new work life in the IT section at Embassy Bucharest was refreshingly calm and laid back, a fact for which I was very grateful as I again started spending evenings and weekends doing nothing other than responding to requests for documents and writing answers to interrogatories.  My legal bill, already well over $20,000, started to go higher and higher.  My new co-workers were all sympathetic and would pay for my meal if we went out at lunchtime, but none of them compared with Kyna.

Kyna was my upstairs neighbor, and she was also our nurse at the Embassy.  In the first days after my arrival, she showed me around the neighborhood and had her housekeeper cook and clean for me.  As she came to realize how badly off I was financially, she did this again and again.  There was a softness and a sense of humor about her that, I came to understand with time, comes from having lived a hard personal life.  Everything about her said, "You can trust me."

So there I was in Bucharest, wondering where the bra and shaved legs were going to take me.  I was surreptitiously cross dressing at work, and quite openly dressing as something approximating female at home using the few blouses and slacks I had bought in Lincoln before leaving Maine.  I was also very worried.  I had not cross dressed this much in years, and although it was wonderfully liberating, I was fearful.  "What will happen to me if they find out about this at the Embassy?"  At one point in late October I put everything in a bag and started for the dumpster.  Ready to throw the bag in, I stopped myself.  "Not this time," I whispered quietly.  "Not this time." I turned and walked back home.

"Kyna, I need to talk with you about something."  It was a late November day, and I had come to see her in the Embassy's MED unit.  I was nervous, and I'm sure Kyna sensed it.  She closed the door, sat me down, . . . and listened as no one had ever listened to me before.  It all came pouring out:  my childhood dream, the story of my growing up, everything I had kept inside in 1975, my marriage, my trying to come out in 1990 and landing in a psychiatric ward instead, the story of 2000-02.  When I was done, Kyna's words were, "You need the biggest hug I can give you."  She wasn't appalled.  There was no talk of sending me back to the US.  Rather, it was, "Let me find some resources that will help you."  The only promise that Kyna made me give was that I not cross dress in public.  "I don't know what the attitudes are in Romania, and I don't want you to get hurt."  Some months later it would be Kyna herself who pushed me out into Bucharest as Robyn.

Kyna was true to her word.  She became my confidante, and in time she became my protector and promoter.  We started walking to work together in the mornings, continuing the conversation.  Kyna patiently tolerated my early attempts at changing my voice with a falsetto that scares even me to think about in retrospect.  She encouraged me to follow my own way, and she was always there for me in the months to come.

I will have more to say about Kyna, but for now it's that first hug and those first words that stand out as one of the key events of my life.  What might have happened if someone had hugged me and said those simple words in 1975?  In 1990?  In 2002?  For any transgender person, so much depends on that first conversation, the reaction of the first person one opens up to.  It just took 56 years for Kyna to become that first person in my transgender life.

Kyna
Kyna is long gone from Bucharest.  She was off to her next post in the spring, and I miss her dearly.  For reasons that will become clear later, I was not even able to say goodbye, to return the hug.  Someday I will repay that debt.

I never asked Kyna the meaning of her name during the long winter of 2010-11.  Only later did I discover that Kyna has a special meaning.  It is an Irish name.  In Gaelic, Kyna means wise.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Pacing the Cage -- or -- The Day my Universe Changed (2002-11), Conclusion (?)

Have you ever woken from a nightmare, feeling relieved to know it was just a nightmare . . . only to find that you are still asleep, waking into a different nightmare?

That was my summer of 2010.  Within a week of my arrival in the US, I had a mediated settlement with my now ex-spouse.  It was over, unbelievably over.  The settlement was a tough one that would have me giving over $35,000/year in support for another ten years plus a 40/60 split in assets, but it didn't matter.  In Uzbekistan my salary had been close to $130,000 due to hardship and language pay, and it would be similar at my next post.  I could afford this agreement, and I breathed a tremendous sigh of relief that we had achieved an agreement through mediation, not the courtroom.

I just had to get through the summer of home leave and training.  As any Foreign Service Officer (FSO) will tell you, our salaries drop to the base salary when we are on home leave.  It can be a hard time, not a vacation at all.  My salary while on home leave was less than $90,000.  Support payments coupled with payments to my attorney -- to whom I owed about $25,000 -- outstripped my after-tax salary.  No matter, I thought.  I still had about $15,000 from my inheritance, and this would see me through from May to August, when I would report to my next post.

Relieved and happy, I bought a used 1990 station wagon, cleaned it up, and drove from Maryland to Maine, driving the back roads, camping at night, and visiting places from my past.  I had not been to my childhood home in Rockland County, New York, in over twenty years, and thus I spent two days there, visiting all the old places and marveling at how I still remembered street names and directions.  There had been many changes since the 1960s, but to my surprise I found they were not nearly as great as I had expected.  I visited both of the houses where I had lived and also the school where I had gone to second grade.

My Childhood Home, 1960-66
From Rockland I took the slow route north through New York and Vermont before turning east through New Hampshire.  I had been on the road nearly two weeks before pulling into Bangor, Maine, where I stopped to buy supplies before pulling into Lincoln the following day.

I had five weeks to spend in Maine before reporting back to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) for five weeks of training.  Much of the time went into fixing up my cabin, but as much as I could I was in the mountains.  I climbed Katahdin, backpacked in Baxter State Park, and went on day hikes.  I bought another bicycle and went on long rides.  I had never been in a kayak but had to have one.  It was wonderful to be out on placid lakes under the warm Maine sun.

Home in Maine
It took several weeks before I started to realize something wasn't right.  I had been offered a handshake for my following post a half year earlier.  This is an official term in State Department speak, an agreement by which a post stops looking for candidates and by which the candidate who accepts the handshake stops looking for posts.  The posting becomes official when the candidate is paneled.  This is usually automatic and swift once a handshake is accepted, but for some reason, I had not been paneled.  When I inquired, I was told not to worry and to report to training at FSI as scheduled.  At the end of June I boarded a plane and headed back to Washington.

Although I had worked over 25 years as a programmer, I had no experience as a systems administrator, and thus I was at FSI to take courses such as Microsoft Server 2003 and Exchange Server.  It was a hot, humid DC summer, and my time went into study and preparing for exams.  In mid-July I was told again not to worry, everything was on track for my follow-on post.  My new supervisor was keen on getting me to post as quickly as possible, and I already had a housing assignment and a community sponsor.  I was being asked what food I wanted in my refrigerator when I arrived.

View from a Kayak
With training over, I still had several weeks of vacation and returned to Maine.  It was there, in mid-August, that I got the word.  My assignment had not been approved.  To this day I don't know the reasons, and I will not speculate on them here.  I was shocked.  I had never heard of such a thing.  Here I was in Maine, out of training and almost out of vacation with no onward assignment.

The dream had turned back into a nightmare.  With a little netbook in my solar powered cabin, I went into action to find a new post.  I needed an assignment and needed it immediately.  I interviewed by phone with two posts, Jamaica and Romania, and both offered me handshakes.  The salary at either post would be nothing like what I had made in Uzbekistan and scarcely more than I was earning while on home leave, but it would be a salary.  It would be almost impossible for my friend F from Uzbekistan to visit.  I knew nothing about either country, but I remembered the beauty of northern Romania from having passed through there in 1978 and 1981.  I accepted the handshake from our Embassy in Bucharest . . . and waited.

Again, the process in Washington mysteriously slowed down.  I was now out of vacation, on leave without pay, and could get no answers on what was the problem.  I looked at my bank balance.  It was now early September, and I was running out of the inheritance money that I had expected to see me through only to the start of August.  One thing was clear:  I would default on my support payment come October 1.  I alerted my attorney, who asked for a modification of support due to reduced salary.  There was only silence from the other side.
Autumn Backpacking in the North Maine Woods

I still hiked, biked, and went kayaking, but the joy was now edged with fear.  "Is my career over?"  I was pacing the cage, wondering just what had happened to a career that until then had been nothing but upward.  I remembered the lines from a song of the same name by Bruce Cockburn--
I've proven who I am so many times
The magnetic strip's worn thin
And each time I was someone else
And every one was taken in
I listened to that song again and again.  It became my anthem as the leaves began to turn colors and still there was no word from Washington.

"OK," I decided, "If I'm to be unemployed, let it end right here in Maine."

I don't remember quite when, but at some point on a long hike during those weeks I realized that I had lost everything -- my home, most of my savings, and perhaps my career.  Everything material that one spends a lifetime building was gone or almost gone.  I thought of another old song and the line, "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose."  I could take those words at face value, or could it be that they should be read differently, "Nothing left to lose is another word for freedom?"  I had a choice to make.  Was life over, or was it only beginning in a new form?

Early autumn was beautiful in Maine.  The days were warm, and the sun shone brightly through autumn leaves.

I received word from Washington in the final week of September that my assignment to Bucharest had been approved.  I was surprised and almost sad to know I would leave Maine, that life would continue and that my legal battle would continue.  I already knew I would be cited for contempt when I was only able to make a partial support payment on October 1.  My legal bill would continue to grow just as my salary had dropped to the lowest it had been since I had joined the State Department.

My sister had told me many times that I should stop looking for geographic solutions to life's problems.  "Remember," she would say, "Wherever you go, you take yourself with you."

A Final Bicycle Journey, Early October
With nothing left to lose and remembering my sister's words, I stopped pacing the cage.  I didn't know yet where it would lead, but when I landed in Bucharest on October 5, 2010, my legs were shaved and I was wearing a bra.  My fourth and ultimately successful attempt at transition had begun.

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You can find Bruce Cockburn performing Pacing the Cage at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAcqr3MYMmM.  It may no longer be my anthem, but in listening to it again, I am struck by how appropriate many of the words are to any transgender person who has spent a lifetime hiding that fact, attempting to live a life for others but in the end satisfying no one.  It is a haunting end-of-the-old-life, pre-transition ballad. 


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Follow these links for more of the retrospective story: 
Previous entry -- I Wish I Was in the Land of Cotton -- or -- The Day my Universe Changed (Part 6)
Following entry -- Kyna -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 1

Sunday, January 22, 2012

I Wish I Was in the Land of Cotton -- or -- The Day my Universe Changed (Part 6)

Cotton fields.  I dreamed of them day and night all through the autumn and winter of 2007-08, white fields stretching as far as the eye could see.  If I could just get to those cotton fields, there would be peace and normalcy.

When I look back over my life, I find it odd but strangely true that I found the greatest personal normalcy in places where life was anything but easy, anything but normal.  Leningrad in 1978, the Caucasus in 1981, a wintry Soviet Union in 1987-88.  The smells, the images from those brief excursions are imprinted on my mind in greater relief than years of living my own far from normal life in the suburbs of Washington, DC.  In the winter of 2007-08, all I could think of was getting to Uzbekistan, today an independent nation but once the Soviet Union's cotton plantation.

I have reached the point in my tale where the statute of emotional limitations has not yet expired.  I have made my own peace with the events of 2007-10, but others have not.  The story will be sketchier from here on, as I live in hope that emotions and hurts may yet heal, that a day may come when, for one or another significant life event, I may again find myself happily in the same room with people who experienced some of this hurt.

By December 2007 I was taking Prozac for depression, Xanax for anxiety, and Ambien just to get a few hours sleep per night.  I had never expected divorce to be easy, but after repeated "what if" discussions through the years, I had thought it would be, if not amicable, at least a field on which negotiation would lead the day.  In this I was very, very deluded.

It had been one thing to live overseas in Moscow with my spouse in Maryland.  It was quite another to know she was just a 15-minute drive around the Washington Beltway.  The contrast between our Silver Spring home and my cheap Greenbelt apartment was stark.  Neither did Greenbelt compare well with Moscow.

My job from September 2007 through March 2008 was to learn the Uzbek language.  I was the only student, and it did not take long for the instructor -- formerly a highly-place Uzbek Government official -- to see that I was distracted.  My mind was on the divorce, not learning Uzbek.  The fact that I learned just enough Uzbek to get by is a testament to my instructor's tenacity, not mine.

Outside the classroom, my life was filled with attorneys and counselors.  Communication with my spouse was problematic, but when the holidays came, we both broke down and decided to try one last time.  We spent the holidays together and started marriage counseling, but by the end of January I could feel that nothing had changed and nothing would.  My spouse resisted, saying she did not want to divorce, but around me the home renovation that I did not want continued.  The workers who were involved did not even recognize me as a person to be acknowledged.  Old wars over my choice of friends, what few I had in Maryland, reignited.  By February I had moved back to Greenbelt, and every marriage counseling session began with my saying, "I want a divorce." 

The matter was still unresolved when I landed in Tashkent in April 2008, but then a strange thing happened.  Within weeks I was off the Xanax and Ambien, and within months I was off the Prozac.  Life was bearable again.  There was an ocean, a continent, and nine time zones between me and Maryland.  Only the difficult telephone calls and arguments continued, but with time their frequency diminished.  In late August or early September I told my spouse that I had made a final decision and would tell my attorney to file.  After that the lines of communication went dead.

At the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent I was responsible for the economic, science, and technology portfolios, and soon I was immersed in work.  I had never had even an introductory course in economics, and coming to grips with my new responsibilities was difficult as I tried both to do the job and to give myself a basic education.  Ironically, I found I had little use for the Uzbek language I had spent six months studying, as Russian was still the language of diplomacy.  I also worked closely with American businessmen and with the Tashkent chapter of the American Chamber of Commerce.  Thus I was speaking English and Russian 99% of the time and only used my limited Uzbek when traveling outside the capitol.


Statue of Amir Temur, Central Tashkent
Tashkent was not Moscow, and Uzbekistan still felt very much like being in the Soviet Union.  The reforms here since independence in 1991 had not progressed nearly as far as they had in other former Soviet republics.  Although the statues of Lenin were gone, one of the main newspapers was still called Pravda Vostoka just as it had in Soviet times.  Trade barriers were high, and there were almost no Western consumer goods to be found.  When I would tell local friends of the new economic crisis that was beginning to unravel in the US, they would stop me by saying, "We've been in economic crisis since 1991."  Life was difficult.  Money was scarce not just in a theoretical sense.  Many employers would go months without paying their employees.  Banks frequently did not have cash for days or weeks at a time.  The largest banknote printed was 1000 soum, about $0.50 USD, and shopping trips meant putting money in bags, not a wallet.  People horded what money they had, and the shadow economy of barter and black market may have been as large as the official economy.


But despite this gloom, Tashkent was not a gloomy city and neither were its citizens.  There were beautiful historical and modern areas, and the food -- none of it fast food -- was wonderful.  Shashlyk (shish kebab) was sold on almost every corner, and recalling the smell of fresh fruits and vegetables in open air markets still causes my mouth to water.


I had friends again.  My St. Petersburg and Moscow friends had friends of their own in Tashkent and had told me the previous year, "We'll put you in good hands."  They did.  I quickly found myself invited for dinner, for walking tours, and for theater and concert events.  V, my long-time friend from Petersburg, came to visit in September 2008.  She had been born in Uzbekistan, and she showed me where she had lived and all the places of her childhood.


The autumn and winter of 2008-09 were the time of what I now call the Phony War.  My attorney was in no rush to file papers.  I wrote to my spouse with settlement proposals.  I took it as a given that she would keep the family home and cars and, in addition, half of our retirement and other assets.  I suggested legal separation, not divorce, so that she would still be covered by my health insurance.  With our son now in college and with his college fully paid for, child support was not an issue.  There were no replies.


The Hot War began in summer 2009.  My attorney finally filed divorce papers.  Within days I received requests for documents and interrogatories from my spouse's attorneys.  They were detailed and voluminous.  While my attorney had slept through the winter, my spouse's attorneys had been hard at work preparing.  Within weeks I fired my attorney and hired a new one.  It turned out that the attorneys representing my spouse were reputed to be among the ten best divorce attorneys in Washington, DC.   I was badly outgunned and had to find a new attorney who would be a match for this opposition.  My life began to revolve around interrogatories and replies to document requests as my focus on the Uzbek economy weakened.


"So," you might ask, "What happened to your being transgender?  It's been a long time since you wrote anything about it."

Although I had shaved my legs and done some limited cross dressing in 2005-06, I was still where I was emotionally in 2002, when I had tried and failed to transition for the third time in my life.  I hated to look at myself in the mirror, but I had accepted defeat in 2002.  I was going to take this to the grave.  It was hopeless even to think about it.
En-Route to the Ferghana Valley


What I didn't know was that my spouse's attorneys were about to do the greatest thing anyone had ever done to encourage my transition.  When I received a large package of discovery materials, I experienced a body blow.  Throughout, page after page, was my transgender history in black and white.  Even the medical records from my visit to Johns Hopkins in 1990 were there.  These were papers I did not have, that had gone missing from my own files years ago!  The full history was there.  Painfully, I began to relive 1990 and 2000-02.  Although I had thought I had done everything possible in the 1990s to be normal, to accept the possibility that I was only overworked and depressed, not transgender, this was not how it was seen through other eyes.  Pages and pages of interrogatories and statements could be reduced to just one thing:  "You deceived."  I was not trusted and hadn't been since 1990.
Friends were beginning to learn about my hidden side.  A Moscow friend forwarded a letter she had received.  "Is it true?" she asked.  I stumbled, replying, "It's my past."  But was it?  My Moscow friend eventually slipped away from me, not satisfied with my answer or the path my life was beginning to take.

This brings me to the story of F1, my best Tashkent friend.  If there is anyone before whom I feel guilt and sorrow over the turn that events were to take, she is that person.  I met her through my chain of Moscow friends.  Her daughter F2 was my son's age, and together they were for me the picture of survival through difficult times.  Their apartment was spare, and money was little and far between.  F1 and F2 became my surrogate family and my release from the ever-increasing pressure of the divorce.  
 
Nearly my age, F1 looked ten years younger and had a sense of humor and optimism that had seen her through Soviet rule and the ensuing economic chaos of independence.  Also, for the first time in my life, here was a woman whose interest in me went beyond friendship.  I felt it at our first meeting, and I thought of my Russian friend LM in the US who had once told me, "Your only problem is that you married the wrong woman."


Not an Unusual Highway Scene Outside Tashkent
It had taken me over 50 years to learn an important lesson.  I sat F1 down at the kitchen table and told her, "There's something you need to know about me."  When I was done, she asked, "Is this your past or is this your present?"  I replied that I thought it was the past but that in truth I just didn't know.  I was in the early stages of an escalating divorce and didn't know anything anymore.  F1 thought and replied, "That means you will understand me better, just like my girlfriends."  I was stunned by the response.  Unlike what had happened in 1990, I had before me someone who accepted me.  "I'm a doctor and have seen everything," she said.  "We'll work this out together."

It was wonderful.  I would accompany F1 and her daughter on their shopping trips, helping them choose their clothes.  A shopkeeper once offered me a chair, saying she had never seen a man so patiently accompany his wife or daughter while they were shopping for clothes.  "There's a reason," I thought silently as I accepted the chair.  F1 would tell me about her ex-husband and boyfriends, and I could ask her things I never dared ask anyone. 

On a Springtime Mountain Walk with Friends
Although I resisted commitment and said repeatedly that my future was unknown to me, with time I began to think that perhaps this really was the middle path I had hoped for, a possible life with someone who knew and was not appalled.  Could it be?

The divorce continued to escalate.  My payments to my attorney and in support to my spouse were over $4000 a month.  A date was set for mediation in May 2010, just after the end of my tour in Uzbekistan.

My work suffered.  I did a tolerably good job, but it was not what I had done in Moscow or before that on the Russia Desk.  I could feel it, and I sensed that it was noticed.  The divorce dominated my time, sapping both my savings and my energy.  When it came time to bid on my next position after Uzbekistan, I did something that in the Foreign Service is considered unorthodox at best, tantamount to career suicide at worst:  I asked to leave the realm of political and economic work and return to the world of information technology, something that would leave me free to concentrate on the divorce and building a new personal life.  I got my wish, and in October 2009 I learned that I would go to an IT position in another Russian speaking former Soviet republic.  F1 was overjoyed.  She would be able to visit easily without a visa.  I agreed that once the divorce was final and I had gotten settled, I would invite her to come on a long visit.  Then, with my own life returning to normal, we could find out if there was a future for us.


Rough Travelers Enter Karakalpakstan
Meanwhile my son came to visit not once but twice.  We had agreed between us never to talk about anything remotely concerning the divorce, but I was relieved just to know that I had not lost him.  We traveled together to the Ferghana Valley, to Samarkand, and even to the desert fortresses of Karakalpakstan.

I went on long bicycle trips.  Sometimes I rode 45 miles completely around Tashkent on the ring road to relieve stress.  In the spring of 2009 I rode the back roads for three days from Tashkent to Samarkand.  Another time I rode my bicycle to Tajikistan, meeting en-route a Belgian bicyclist who was on an even longer trip to China.  
 
In 2009 I flew twice to Maine.  I had fallen in love with Maine in the 1990s and even more so when I passed through it in the summer of 2007.  I had received nearly $100,000 as my portion of my Mom and Dad's estate, and it was the only money I had that was not under the cloud of divorce.  With my sisters as helpers and real estate advisers, I found the property not far from Lincoln that I now call home.  It's only the smallest of cabins, but it's on 32 beautiful acres.  My sister and I fell in love with it the moment we saw it.

The movers came in late April.  I invited friends for a farewell dinner, and then we walked around nighttime Tashkent.  I was too distressed over the divorce to have the same emotions I had had when I left Moscow, but these were friends who had helped me and supported me as they watched me sink ever further into the morass of litigation.  As I hugged F1, F2, and all my friends one last time, it hit me.  I might never see any of them again.



Last Nighttime Walk in Tashkent
It was on my mind the next day as my plane rose into the sky, the cotton fields quickly replaced by steppe and desert.  A few days later I would see my spouse across the table in a mediation room, our first meeting in over two years.  My life was about to take the sharpest turn it had yet taken, a wild turn that was beyond my imagination. . . .

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This blog, which I began and still write mainly for friends, is also for my friends in Uzbekistan.  I know that they read it, and I dedicate this entry to them in thanks and love.  Most of all I dedicate it to F1 and F2, friends who have remained friends.  I miss you all.  May you find the better future that you richly deserve.
* * * * * * * * * * * *

Follow these links for more of the retrospective story: 
Previous entry -- Decision on Gros Morne -- or -- The Day My Universe Changed (2002-11), Part 5
Following entry --
  Pacing the Cage -- or -- The Day my Universe Changed (2002-11), Conclusion (?)


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Old Clothes and Transgender DADT

Last September we set the date for my workplace transition at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest.  With November 10 fixed in the calendar, I expanded my new professional wardrobe, packing the old one into boxes as pant-suits, skirt-suits, dresses and pullovers took their place in my closets and drawers.  The two large boxes with my old business suits, dress shirts, and ties sat forlornly in my back room.  What was I going to do with them?

If I had been in the US, I would have donated everything to Goodwill or similar charitable thrift organization.  In Romania I didn't know what I would do.  I didn't want to throw everything away.  To whom should I give it?  My housekeeper who cleans and cooks for me once a week took a few things for her father, but the boxes were still full in my back room at the start of January.

This week my old clothes finally found a good cause.  A Scottish ex-pat friend put me in touch with another Brit in Bucharest who has been active in charitable work.  As of Wednesday evening, my old clothes have started their journey to a new life in northeastern Romania, the scene of severe flooding that left thousands homeless in 2010.  Another tie with the past has been cut as I move forward.  I poured a glass of red wine and toasted the past, smiling towards the future.

Signing Factura Using New Dip ID
It has been a beautiful weekend in Bucharest.  Friday night dinner with embassy friends who supported my transition through hard times last year was a warm way to begin.  Today I rendezvoused near the Arc de Triomphe with one of my new friends, PA, a young Peace Corps volunteer from Michigan.  Many embassies have a beautiful tradition of inviting Peace Corps volunteers and those on academic exchanges to Thanksgiving dinner.  I was one such lucky recipient of Thanksgiving warmth in frigid Leningrad in 1987, spending an evening with other students and academics as a guest of the Consul General.  Last year I was on the other side of the table, so to speak, as I mixed with Peace Corps volunteers at the Ambassador's Thanksgiving dinner.  That's where PA and I met, and dinner conversation led to a promise that "Of course, we must get together again!"

Arc de Triomphe in Summer
My transition has been very visible to family, friends, the entire staff of Embassy Bucharest, friends at other embassies around the world, and to old colleagues at CSC/NASA.  I transitioned in this way on purpose for support, self-protection, and, most importantly, to leave no friend behind.  I wanted anyone who had ever been important in my life to hear this from my own lips in my own words.  Writing these notes from my perch in Romania has been my way of continuing the conversation with friends who are time zones and continents away.

One of the greatest joys of the two months since November 10 has been meeting new friends who know nothing about my background, nothing about my transition.  It has been wonderful to meet and talk without having to trot out my entire story, just to have conversations that are normal.

Do you sense where this is leading?  Like others, I am having to work out for myself how much I tell and when.  I'm starting to think of this as the inwardly directed, transgender version of DADT, "If you don't ask, I won't tell."  At age 57 I have a history and can't sweep my prior life under the carpet.  I already am hitting this mark with PA.  When we met on Thanksgiving, I inquired how long she would be in Romania.  Through January was the answer.  In my mind I thought, "Great!  We can be friends for two months without my having to lead off with a there's something you should know conversation."  

Peasant Village Museum (early autumn)
Today, however, as we walked through the Peasant Village Museum at Herastrau Park, PA told me her time in Romania has been extended into the spring.  She lives not a ten minute walk from me in a sparse apartment in which the oven is not working and where the electricity is more off than on.  Remembering what it was like to live in a dorm in Leningrad in 1987-88, I immediately blurted, "Come on over and visit me for some home cooking."

"Oh sh*t," I thought after I said this.  "I'm going to have to tell her."  The photo of me standing next to my son at his high school graduation is not to be hidden away.  By that time we were sitting out of the cold in a small Lebanese cafe.  "Do I tell her straight out now?"  Perhaps it was self-centered, but I held back.  "Please let us just be normal girlfriends for a little longer."

Yes, sigh, by next time I will have to explain.  From what I can tell of PA, she will be surprised but readily accepting.  It's just that I'm tired of having to be accepted all the time.  I'd much rather just be.  Given that I am living through the greatest miracle of my life, I know that this is one wish too far, one that borders on ingratitude.  I doubt that I am alone in that feeling, the wish of wanting to just be.  I'm learning another lesson, one that others have had to face after progressing into their new lives.

But as we hugged each other goodbye, I could not help from thinking how wonderful it was, just being for those few minutes longer.


Friday, January 13, 2012

Decision on Gros Morne -- or -- The Day My Universe Changed (2002-11), Part 5

I arrived back in the US in mid-August 2007, but I returned to the old Silver Spring home for a few days only.  It may have been only two or three days.  Officially I was on home leave, the time that the State Department gives Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) between assignments so that they can re-acculturate into U.S. society.  I had three weeks before I needed to report to the Foreign Service Institute, and I told my spouse I needed to get away to absorb the events of recent months.  I boarded a plane, flew to Bangor, Maine, and began a two week driving and camping trip through Maine and the Maritime Provinces of Canada.

It was a time to make decisions.  I had not been in the US since February, and I still needed to come to terms with that earlier visit.  Ma had passed away on February 15, surrounded by my four sisters and me, my spouse, my son, and as many grandchildren as could drop everything to rush to Maryland.  Like all who have gone through the experience of losing their second parent, I suddenly felt old.  I was 53 and could no longer pretend that most of my life was still ahead of me.  My own mortality was no longer a distant unknown.

This is what I was thinking about as I drove north from Bangor, camping that first night in the shadow of Katahdin.  It had all happened so quickly.  The previous September my two sisters and I were visiting my friends Zh* and V* in Petersburg when my spouse called.  I was shocked, because my spouse almost never called.  "Ma is in the emergency room," she said.  It was gallstones, nothing more, something Ma had ignored for years and years.  Now she was in pain, and she finally allowed the surgeon to go ahead and remove her gall bladder.  The operation was a success, and Ma was home within a week.

Ma's surgery may have been a success, but she was not the same person.  Could it have been the anesthesia?  When I returned home at Christmas 2006, she was a scared, pale shell of the strong woman who had polished my thrift store coffee percolator in 2005.  She had lost weight but could not eat, refused to eat.  She could remember the past in detail, but she could no longer remember what had happened five minutes ago.  The cold hand of dementia had taken my mother's mind, and she knew it.  You could hear it in every word.  You could feel it in her fear.  "Please don't leave me," she would say again and again and again.

My sisters had borne the brunt of caring for Ma after their return from Russia, but they could no longer do it even with the help of a live-in nurse.  They were exhausted from 24 hour shifts.  Ma no longer slept.  Assisted living seemed the only option.  Surely Ma will rebound in a few weeks or months if only she has the help she needs, won't she?  We celebrated Christmas with Ma in her own home . . . and the next day began moving her to an assisted living facility just a few miles away.  I spent the first night with her, comforting but not able to comfort her in the strangeness.

I flew back to Moscow after the New Year, hoping against hope that I would see Ma in full health when I returned in the summer.  In February I traveled to a provincial town to sit in on hearings for a new nuclear power plant.  I wrote my report on the train ride home and polished it the following day, a Friday.  Just as I was preparing to call it quits for the day, the phone rang.  It was my sister Irene.  "Come home," she said, "Ma was taken to the hospital.  She's non-responsive."  I was on the plane to the US the following morning.

Ma lingered for a week.  Then, as so often happens, she rallied.  I was the one with her that evening as she ordered me around her room asking for this and that, her mind clearer than it had been in months.  I kissed and hugged her goodnight, convinced that I would have to reimburse for the State Department for the emergency travel ticket that had brought me home in such great haste.

Ma did not wake up the following morning.  We all gathered around her and made our final goodbyes before she breathed her last shallow breath.  She was gone.

Two more weeks went into the funeral and into closing Ma and Dad's home.  As anyone who has been through this knows, there is nothing quite as final in its finality as closing the door of your mother and father's home for the last time, knowing you will never open it again.  I arrived back in Moscow on a Wednesday but was not able to compose myself to return to work until the following Monday. . . .

From the Hills of Cape Breton
By now I had been through Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, my mind a tumult from grief over the loss of my mother, the end of my independent life in Moscow, and growing certainty that I must end my marriage.  From the hills of Cape Breton Island I looked out upon a steely Atlantic Ocean on a cold, windy day, the gray clouds pressing down.  "Will I have the strength to do this?"  I was filled with guilt and remorse.  My spouse had shown an unexpected side, visiting my mother often in her final weeks.  "I should be grateful," I thought as I looked off into the gray distance.

A Newfoundland Fjord and Rain, Rain, Rain
The next day I took the ferry to Newfoundland.  Rain, rain, and more rain, my tent and clothes never drying out.  Why did I decide to come to such a dismal place?  Each morning I threw my wet tent and clothes into the trunk of the car as mildew became the scent of the day.

Then I arrived in Gros Morne National Park.  The sun was shining as I pulled into the visitors' center around noon.  I inquired about hiking to the top and was told, "You can make it to the top and back before sunset if you start now."  I replied that I thought I would do the hike the next day.  "The sun is shining now, you know," was the reply.  I took the hint and put on my hiking boots.  After a two hour rock scramble I was on the top, above the tree line, looking out on the Saint Lawrence valley.  I put my camera on a rock, set the self timer, and forced a smile.

On that sunny, windy top, looking into the distance, I moved to a decision.  Years of compromise and accommodation had led to a fruitless dead end and pain all around.  It was time to break from the past even knowing that the pain of the break would more intense than anything I had yet experienced.

A Last Tranquil Night in Maine
It was another week before I pulled into Bangor.  The day prior I camped by a beautiful Maine lake and passed through the town of Lincoln.  "This is a place I could call home," I thought.

"We need to talk," I said by telephone from Bangor.   "I want to live my own life.  That's the way it's been for two years.  I want to make it official."  The response was consternation and disbelief.  First one phone call and then another were followed by a sleepless night.

The conversations continued painfully face-to-face in Maryland.  A week later I had moved into an apartment in Greenbelt, a long walk from Goddard Space Flight Center where I had spent so many happy years.

On the first Monday in September I returned to the Foreign Service Institute to begin six months of Uzbek language training.  Several FSOs I had worked with on the Russia Desk and in Moscow were there, and they all asked how I was doing.  "I'm asking for a divorce," was my reply.  "I've asked for a divorce," I would repeat quietly to myself, amazed that I had said it first to my spouse and now to friends.

Would I have the strength to see it through?  I had changed careers at age 50, had done well in three radically different jobs in three years, and had rediscovered an independent life.  "If I could do all that," I thought, "Surely I can see this through to the end?"  Little did I know just how difficult the months ahead, the years ahead, would be.  It would prove to be the hardest thing I had ever done.

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

Follow these links for more of the retrospective story: 
Previous entry -- Mission to Moscow -- or -- The Day My Universe Changed (2002-11), Part 4
Following entry -- I Wish I Was in the Land of Cotton -- or -- The Day my Universe Changed (Part 6)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Of Friends, Mammograms, and Van Gogh

It's the first post-holiday weekend in Bucharest.  The weather is blustery, rainy, and cold but not cold enough for snow.  It's the perfect weather for long talks, visits with friends, writing, and just curling up on the couch with a book and a glass of wine.  Although born in New York and having lived most of my life in the mid-Atlantic, I love the northern latitudes even with their winter unpredictability and grayness.

Devoting as much time as I have to retrospective jottings has been important to maintaining touch with family and friends.  One of the fun things about working for the Foreign Service is that one gets to travel and live overseas.  I learn new languages, live in new countries, and make new friends, but maintaining close relations with those one has left behind in the US is hard even for those of us with normal lives.  Imagine what it is like to come out as a transsexual in transition to family and friends when there is an ocean, a continent or two, and many time zones in-between.  Although I did as much as I could in person on three visits to the US last year, I started writing these notes as a way to explain more fully what had been hidden for decades to those who thought they knew me well.  The most gratifying part of writing has been that it has worked.  My son and sisters have become closer, and many friends have rallied around in ways I never expected.  Thus the retrospectives, some of them difficult to write, have their place.

But not all friends have Internet, and not all have followed.  One friend whom I have known since 1978 has drifted further and further away, and after a phone conversation on Thursday evening, I believe she is gone for good.  Like me, AJ was a misfit.  I met her through a friend while in graduate school.  She was pretty much a street person just a year or two older than me who had a hard time getting along with anyone.  I took her in and for months she had her bed roll on my floor in New Haven, Connecticut.  Then she disappeared and did not turn up again until the late 1980s.  She had joined the Hare Krishna and lived in their Baltimore temple.  At least she lived there until she was unceremoniously shown the door and ended up on my doorstep again.  Thus it has been ever since.  We talk by phone, sometimes frequently and then sometimes not at all for a year or two.  From time to time she would turn up at my doorstep in need of help, and I would always provide.  She was one of the first to learn of my being transgender in 1990, and she was one of the few who did not reject me.  The last time I saw her was in 2007.

Sigh.  AJ does not have Internet access and has no idea what I look like today other than for a photograph I sent her a few months ago.  For the past year and a half she has been adamant in trying to dissuade me from transition, asking me to forget my physical body and live in the spiritual world.  She could accept that I am transgender as long as I did nothing physical about it, a reaction that is unfortunately all too common.  On Thursday I told her I would be going for a mammogram the next day, and this finally brought home to her just how far I have gone down this road.  She had stumbled over my name for months, but somehow the mammogram hit her harder than a legal name change, a new passport, and an evolving voice.  Our conversation ended with her saying she did not think she could accept me any longer.  The following morning I awoke to a critical, painful voice mail message.  What had been a dialog has devolved into something much uglier, almost abusive.  A friendship has ended.

One side of me is guiltily happy that I will no longer have to try to convince or persuade, let along help AJ out of a difficult bind in future misadventures.  Another side sheds a tear for losing a relationship of 33 years duration, a voice that was there in my own difficult times.

The losing and gaining of friends is well known to everyone who has walked this road before me.  It's part of the process, as I already knew from my failed attempt to come out in 1990.  The happier side is that many other old friends have become closer, and to new friends in Romania I am and have always been Robyn.  

Lipscani Street Scene
Venturing out under gray skies this morning, I headed to Van Gogh in the Lipscani district for brunch with a friend.  Lipscani is Bucharest's old town, a pedestrian area of small shops and cafes in the city center.  Van Gogh is a favorite gathering place for many of my friends here, and it has also become one of mine.  It's a warm and cozy place to get out of the cold on blustery days.

I first met my friend SL at ACCEPT, the Romanian national LGBT rights association, several months ago, and we had been trying to get together ever since.  Today we swapped stories of growing up transgender in the US and growing up gay in Romania in the Communist period.  To me, every LGBT person I have met in Romania is a hero, and that is all the more so for those who grew up before the overthrow of Ceausescu.  My own timidity in the face of social conservatism in the US in the 1960s and 70s looks like petty cowardice in comparison to what LGBT people had to endure here.

After brunch we walked for a bit in Lipscani before going our separate ways.  I had a smile on my face, the blustery day seemingly that much brighter for good company.

Oh yes, I nearly forgot to say that the mammogram was negative.  Despite being between thin and normal weight most of my life, I've always had breasts that were at least A cup or somewhat larger.  I should have been having mammograms for years, but no doctor in the US ever referred me even after I would casually mention that one of my sisters had been treated for breast cancer.  When the Romanian doctor at the Sanador Clinic told me, "Ms. McCutcheon, everything is normal," I breathed a sigh of relief.

This has been my weekend in Bucharest, a weekend of friends lost and friends gained, a mammogram, and Van Gogh.  May this winter day find you all surrounded by a warm, loving glow.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Mission to Moscow -- or -- The Day My Universe Changed (2002-11), Part 4



With my arrival in Moscow I enter into the historical memory of many old friends and colleagues who are reading these notes.  I was so excited to be living in Russia that I decided I must share it with those I had left behind, and so I began keeping a travel log to which I would add photos and impressions.  Every few months I would send the latest installment to my family and to my friends at CSC and NASA.  All in all, it was the best, happiest two years of my former life.

I will not reproduce those old notes here.  Their purpose served, I move on to the unwritten life, those things I could not or would not write about at that time.

My apartment was on Kutuzovskiy prospekt, one of the most desirable streets in Moscow, the equivalent of Park or 5th Avenue in New York City.  I immediately fell in love with my new home.  I was a twenty minute walk from the Embassy, and only a forty minute walk from Red Square.  The theater district was spread at my feet, walking distance or a quick metro or bus ride away.  I would go on long walks through old districts and would wonder if George Kennan had also walked there 70 years earlier.

Moscow River at Night
Most of all I was struck by how Moscow had changed since the 1980s.  Although I had briefly returned to Russia for conferences in 1993 and again in 2003, only now was I able to take in the dramatic changes that had occurred.   I could see it in every store, the new or renovated buildings, in the theaters, and in the stylish clothing.  Most of all, I could see it in the faces of the people.  Instead of a gray mass of expressionless faces, in September 2005 I saw people smiling, enjoying their new lives in a country that was freer, government notwithstanding, than it had been at any time in its history.  This was far from an American style democracy, but the fears, the terrors of the Stalinist period that I had spent so many years studying and documenting were gone.  Even the silent repression of the Brezhnev years had for the most part evaporated.  People felt liberated and were living as they never had before.
Novy Arbat Street, Moscow's Time Square

I, too, felt liberated from an oppressive personal situation in the United States, and I smiled as I walked the streets of Moscow.  I smiled a second, still secret smile:  I had shaved my legs for the first time since college and felt wonderful.  I calculated that I could continue shaving my legs for weeks to come and still have time to let the hair grow back before my first trip to the US.

To my own surprise, I found I enjoyed my work in the Consular Section.  The thought of having to conduct visa interviews had nearly convinced me not to go to work for the State Department.  It seemed so foreign to me, so different from anything I had ever done.  I could not imagine what it would be like.  After a first few, tense weeks, I relaxed and began to enjoy my daily routine.  I found I enjoyed talking with people, hearing their stories as I reviewed their visa applications.

View of the Russian White House from Kutuzovskiy
I can't say I was a good consular officer.  I tended to believe the stories I heard and to give the benefit of the doubt.  A person's story had to be in a universe of its own before I would begin to question and give the occasional refusal.  After all, my own story would be difficult for anyone to believe, and that thought was always somewhere in the back of my mind as applicant after applicant appeared at my window.

Kievskaya, my Metro Station
I will never forget the young woman in her mid-20s who appeared before me one day with an application to go to some mid-western university.  I opened her file and discovered she had been refused twice, with one interviewer writing that the woman appeared to him to be involved in the sex trade.  Two refusals like that tend to be fatal, but before I closed the file, the applicant implored me to take a closer look.  I hesitated and started turning pages.  According to what I saw, the applicant was a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics.  There was a long CV and a list of publications.  I looked at the woman and asked if any of her publications were included in the file.  They were, and I began to scan one of them.  It had been published in a refereed journal.  I looked again and saw that one of the co-authors was a U.S. professor who had arranged a one-semester collaboration with her.  This was the reason she was applying, and I could see no reason on earth why she should have been refused.  I asked about the two previous interviews.  "The first consul just looked at me and said refused," she said, "and the second one refused me without asking a single question."  With some degree of anger I entered notes into the system deploring how such an error could have been made.  The young woman glowed with the biggest of smiles when I told her, "Of course I'm approving your visa.  I wish you all possible success in your research."  I sometimes wonder whether I, too, would have refused her had it not been for my own psychological makeup, my transgender side, that probed for a different reality below the surface.
As Featured in State Magazine

Best of all in Moscow, I had friends.  Since the debacle of trying to talk about being transgender in 1990, I had not had many personal friends.  Those that I did have had to pass inspection at home, and thus my circle of friends had slowly shrunk to the people I worked with at CSC.  Now I could choose my own friends, and I rediscovered the joy of having friends with whom I could have a meal, go to the movies, or go on a trip.

I was something of a fish out of water as far as the other Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) were concerned.  I was not one of the young 20 or 30-somethings looking for a spouse, and neither was I one of the 40 or 50-something married FSOs with spouse and children.  Thus I quickly fell into a wonderful circle of Foreign Service Nationals (FSNs) who worked as assistants in the Consular Section.  Almost all of them were women, many of them were divorced, and a number of them were around my age.  We had an informal theater club and would head out in the evenings to everything from art exhibits to serious drama to comedy and even to the puppet theater.  Sometimes OI would call me up on a Friday evening and say, "Hey, let's go to the movies and get sushi tomorrow."  And so we would.
Thanksgiving 2006 with Friends

The fact that I was married made me non-threatening to these Russian women even as it struck them as strange that my spouse had not accompanied me.  "She will be coming later, won't she?" I would be asked.  "Of course she will," I would answer even as it was becoming increasingly clear that she never would.

I also had friends from my earlier visits.  AI, my historian friend who had worked with me in the 1980s, was well into her 70s but still active.  Some evenings I would go to her apartment after work to help her with her historical writing.  Like so much of the old intelligentsia, she had not benefited from the capitalist windfall of the new Russia.  She was living in the same simple apartment she had lived in twenty years earlier.  She had lost her job in the 1970s for daring to write about the astronomers who had been purged in the 1930s, and in 1991 she had been one of the first to join the human chain that protected Boris Yeltsin's Russian White House in the face of troops sent by the coup plotters who had put Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest.  Yet here was AI today, living as she always had.  One evening when I arrived, she had the kitchen table set for dinner.  As I enjoyed her home cooking and the fruits of her carefully tended garden, I said, "Next time I'll take you to Yolki Palki."  That was a chain of restaurants akin to Appleby's in the US, and there was one directly across the street from AI's apartment.  She had never heard of it.  Fourteen years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and AI had never once set foot in a Yolki Palki.

Wintry Scene near Home
The winter of 2005-06 brought wonderful frosts with temperatures regularly down to -30 or -35C.  I had never experienced such cold in my life, but I loved walking through Moscow all bundled up, looking at the brilliant blue winter sky.  When the snows came, they stayed and did not melt until mid-April.  I went cross country skiing for the first and only time in my life.

I went home for Christmas, 2005, and again for my son's high school graduation in May 2006.  That would be the last time that my spouse and I would come together in joy for a family event.

In the fall of 2006 I moved out of the Consular Section and into the Environment, Science, and Technology (EST) Section.  This was a change from my original assignment, which had me doing consular work for two years.  The stories had spread around the Embassy about the former rocket scientist doing visa interviews, and I was asked if I would consider a transfer.  The person who was supposed to come to Moscow and take over the civilian nuclear portfolio was not able to come, and no one could be found in the US who take that person's place on short notice.  I readily agreed, and the Consular Section acquiesced.

Getting my Portrait Painted
During my second year in Moscow I could be found at Rosatom nearly as often as at the Embassy.  I accompanied high level delegations that came to Moscow to carry out negotiations on more treaties than I can now remember, and on occasion I was able to travel to such places as the nuclear center at Dubna.  The work was harder than visa interviews and frequently had me on the go late into the evening and on the weekends, but just as had happened on the Russia Desk, I found I was able to step in and begin working in an area that until then I had known little or nothing about.  It was tiring to the bone but exhilarating.

Two of my sisters came to visit in September 2006.  I showed them all over Moscow and then took them to St. Petersburg where we stayed with my dear friends Zh* and V*, whom I had known since they kept me fed in the frigid winter of 1987-88.
Summer Bicycling with Visiting Friends

Every other month I would go to Petersburg by express train to spend a weekend with V* and Zh*, and sometimes V* would come to Moscow to spend a weekend with me.  Through her I met her brother S* and sister-in-law M* who had left Tashkent and moved to the outskirts of Moscow several years earlier.  V*, also born in what was now Uzbekistan, had moved to Leningrad, now Petersburg, with Zh* decades earlier.  Our weekends together were always filled with good food, laughter, and warmth.

I returned home again for Christmas, 2006, but this time it did not feel like Christmas.  My spouse's aunt had passed away, and there was the funeral to attend to.  My mother's health had taken a sharp turn for the worse, and the holiday season did not feel like a cause for joy.  I returned home one last time in February 2007, but of that I will tell later.

Summer 2007
The last, happiest of weeks in two happy years came in May 2007.  My son had come to visit for three weeks, and he quickly fell in love with the city as much as I had.  He delayed his return home for another three weeks, and I took him everywhere I could.  When I was at work, he would go out on his own by foot or on my bicycle.  Once he spent most of a night helping sanitation workers clean Red Square.  He invited one of them, a young man from Tajikistan, home for breakfast.  For the first time since he was a young boy, my son and I had time alone and began to know each other all over again.  When I took him to the airport in early July, it finally hit me that I, too, would soon be leaving . . . for good.

Two weeks later the movers came.  In the course of a morning they packed and removed everything except the two suitcases I had come with.  I looked at my bare walls after they left and then took a walk through my neighborhood.  There were tears in my eys.  I didn't want to leave.  How could two years, a time that had seemed like an eternity when I arrived, be gone so quickly?

I already knew that my onward assignment would be in Uzbekistan, and that made me happy.  I knew I would get to see a part of the former Soviet Union I had never seen before.  I also knew that I would for the most part be able to get by using my Russian, but the State Department in its wisdom decided I also should be trained in the Uzbek language for six months before going to Tashkent.  That meant returning to the US and to the Foreign Service Institute.  It also meant returning to Silver Spring, to my spouse, to the house that no longer felt like a home.

Final Days, Saying Goodbye
As I walked around Moscow in those last days and hours, I wondered if I would ever see my Russian friends again.  I grieved, and as I did I came to understand more clearly than ever before that I had no wish to return to my old life.  I had experienced freedom, a new life, and for my own salvation would not, could not return to the past.

I boarded my flight back to the US on a bright August day.  I looked at the Russian fields as the plane rose higher and higher and turned to the northwest.  "How am I going to do this?" I wondered.  1990 had been a disaster.  So had 2000-2002.  I had nothing but a history of failure behind me in my personal life.  This time I had to find the strength to succeed no matter what the pain.  There had to be a way out, a way forward.  There simply must be.  There had to be. . . .

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

Follow these links for more of the retrospective story: 
Previous entry -- Povorot -- or -- The Day My Universe Changed (2002-11), Part 3
Following entry --  Decision on Gros Morne -- or -- The Day My Universe Changed (2002-11), Part 5