Saturday, February 25, 2012

Fortochcka -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 3

There she was, reaching down a hand and helping me up from the ice.  One moment we had been walking and talking, and then my legs had gone out from under me.  I lay there, sprawled out with a surprised expression and a few bruises.  

Kyna's hand lifting me from the ice is another image that will always stay in my mind when I think of her.  It may have been just an icy path on the way to work that morning, but she was doing the same in helping me find balance on my path to a new life.

"So, are you going to tell anyone?"  Kyna continued the late January morning conversation.  "I don't know," I replied.  "I guess I'll have to, but I don't know when."

Iulia Molnar from Accept had put me in touch with the organizers of the First Romanian Transgender Congress that would take place in Brasov.  I was about to depart for two weeks of training in the US, and the congress would take place only a week after I returned.  Kyna was the only person at the Embassy who knew I was going.  Should I tell anyone else?

"I think you may want to tell someone," Kyna said.  "What if a group of skinheads was to break up your congress and you were to find yourself in a hospital and then in a newspaper headline?"

Kyna was right, but I was nervous and delayed.

It was in January that I opened my fortochka (форточка).  In Russian, the fortochka is a small window inside a much larger one that is opened with the first thaws that bring a still not realized promise of spring.  I was now opening the fortochka that I had kept closed most of my conscious life.

Opening the fortochka meant I would need to start talking with people beyond the small circle of Kyna, Iulia Molnar at Accept, and Chloe Schwenke at USAID.  I would have to begin talking with people in my life who might not be accepting.  With memories of 1990 all too vividly replaying in my head (Hubble Goes Up, I Go Down), I was scared.

It isn't his real name, but in jest and in love we call him the G-Man.  He was my new co-worker, freshly arrived in Bucharest in December.  Until then I had worked largely on my own, but the G-Man and I would now share the work and our small, cramped office.  We would come to know each other intimately if only for these reasons, and our lives would be heaven or hell depending on the relationship we developed with each other.

The G-Man is a naturalized U.S. citizen who hails from South America.  Ten years younger than me, he is an elegant, handsome man with a deep, resonant, almost professional singing voice.  Through the holidays when the work was slow, we began a slow dance of coming to know each other.

The G-Man once owned his own company and had become modestly wealthy in the 1990s.  He sold his company, planning never to work again, and set off on a bicycle journey across the US.   When the dot-com bubble burst in the late '90s, the G-Man found himself minus most of his life investments and in need of a job.  He found his way to the State Department about a year after I did.

Talk of bicycling united us and formed a bond.  We talked about my divorce and on-going post-divorce litigation, about his family in South America, and about his wife and two children who would be joining him in Bucharest in a few weeks.  He was fascinated by my CSC/NASA career and never tired of hearing my stories.  He was also a patient educator who helped me learn my job day by day.

"What in the world happened to you?" the G-Man asked as he stared at my face.  I had gone the night before for my first-ever electrolysis session with an electrologist who, it turned out, did not know the first thing about electrolysis.  (See Electrolysis in the Land of Vlad the Impaler.)  A portion of my face looked as though I had fallen off my bicycle and slid along the pavement, producing what looked very much like road rash.  I couldn't hide it.  As the G-Man and others asked about my shaving accident, I could not come up with a believable cover story.

The G-Man liked to tell stories and jokes, and early on in our relationship, he asked me to stop him if he ever went too far.  For the first several weeks I laughed again and again at his unending storehouse of tales.  I needed the laughter, and the G-Man provided a good release.  And then. . . .
"I had a job once where the boss came around introducing a new employee.  I was busy with something and just heard him say 'I'd like you to meet Diane.'  I said hello and only then turned around to shake her hand.  Would you believe it, it was a man!  She was in a dress, but I knew that underneath it was a man.  No one else did, but I knew.  I can sense these things. . . ."
I know I must have gone pale or reacted in some other very visible way, because the G-Man trailed off in mid-sentence and looked puzzled.  Silence, a heavy silence that seemed to last a lifetime.  "What do I say?" I thought.  "Am I going to run from myself . . . again?"  I broke the silence in a whisper:
"I could be Diane, the woman you are talking about. . . ."
I don't remember what the G-Man said or asked next -- I was too nervous -- but over the next several weeks we began another slow dance as bit by bit, I told him my story.  Here I had before me not Kyna but my co-worker, a handsome, suave, somewhat macho guy from a South American culture.  This conversation was going to be different.
"Haven't you ever gone out of your mind with sexual desire?" the G-Man asked one day.  
"Never," I said. 
"Not even once?" 
"No, not even once."
I told him about my sexual life, such as it was, in which the roles always seemed perversely reversed from what they should have been.
"Haven't you seen ever how guys flock to a beautiful woman like moths to a flame?" the G-Man asked.  "What do you feel when you look at a beautiful woman?"
"I feel she is very lucky."
"What do you think of when you look at her face?" the G-Man insisted.
"I think of the great job she has done with her makeup and hair and wish I could ask her how she did it.  I'm envious."
I think that clinched it with the G-Man.  I was not just some unhappily divorced guy who needed a woman.  This was very different.

The G-Man again took up his role of patient educator, trying to explain to me what sex is like for a man.  
"Did you ever notice how the local guys become jittery if we sit too long in a meeting?"
"Sure, I've noticed that."
"It's because they're all smokers.  They have to have their regular fix.  Without it, they can't work, they can't do anything.  It's the same with sex.  Without sex, a man can't live."
We continued our slow dance over the weeks and months to come.  There were no more stories, just ever deepening conversations on sex and gender.  I told him about the Brasov congress that I would be attending.  I don't know when I won his heart and mind, but I know that I did.  Many months later, when the spring had come, it was Robyn whom the G-Man invited to dinner with his wife and two children.  Along with Kyna but in a different way, he had also become a protector.

Kyna and the G-Man.  Now there were two at the Embassy who knew.

"So, are you going to tell them?"  It wasn't the G-Man that Kyna was thinking of as she lifted me from the ice.  She was thinking of my department head.  She was also thinking of the people who are supposed to keep us safe while in-country and especially when we go off on our own on personal travel.  I had already upset some in Tashkent when I set out on my bicycle to Tajikistan without telling anyone.  What would be the reaction if anything unusual happened while I was in Brasov?

I split the difference.  My department head could wait, but Kyna was right about the Brasov congress.   
"I need to talk to you about something for a few minutes if you have the time.  I'm going to a congress in Brasov that you should know about."  
The conversation took place later in the day.
"With my divorce now final, I'm moving ahead to explore an area of my life I never could before.  I'll be going to a transgender congress in Brasov in early March.  I'm slowly coming out as the T in LGBT."
The response floored me.
"Gee, Bob, that's another one of your fancy NASA acronyms again, isn't it?  Could you spell it out?"
This wasn't going to be a few minutes.  The conversation lasted a full hour.  Sweating, I slowly went through the differences between gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender.  I described the Brasov congress and what I hoped to find there.  I explained I didn't know yet where this path would take me. 

As I left the meeting, I wondered if I had just put the stake through the heart of my limping career.  Could e-mails already be on their way to Washington about this Foreign Service Officer who suddenly blurted out the word transgender?  

An hour later I was calm.  A needed conversation had taken place, and I had stood my ground in explaining myself.  I owed that conversation to myself, and I owed it to my protectors, Kyna and the G-Man.  It was the first time I had ever sat down with people whom I knew only slightly and declared, "I am transgender, and I don't care who knows.  It is not a secret."  Only much later did I find out that through my honesty, I had just added another person to the list of those who would quietly support me on the road to a new life.

On February 5 I boarded a pre-sunrise flight at Bucharest's Otopeni Airport, bound for two weeks' training at the Foreign Service Institute.  Outside of training hours, I already had a meeting set up with Chloe Schwenke.  I had made an appointment with Martha Harris, a well-known counselor on gender issues at the Banyan Counseling Center.   I had been in contact with the Metro Area Gender Identity Connection (MAGIC-DC), and I had talked by phone with an electrologist whose office was a few short blocks from the hotel where I would be staying.

I didn't know it yet as I looked out at a still-dark runway, but by the time I returned from the US two weeks later, the fortochka would be gone, blasted from its frame along with the window and wall in which it had sat sealed and unopened for almost all my 56 years.

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

Follow these links for more of the retrospective story: 
Previous entry -- The Education of a Transgender Rip Van Winkle -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 2

Following entry --  Liftoff! -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 4

Friday, February 17, 2012

What Do Uranium and a Transgender Foreign Service Officer Have in Common?

Quite a lot, come to think of it.

There is the radioactivity to begin with.  When I first tried to speak of being transgender in 1990, I might as well have been radioactive judging from the speed with which some people in my life ran in the other direction.  Even in this much more welcoming and enlightened second decade of the twenty-first century, some may have preferred to deal with radioactivity than with the announcement of my intent to transition in the workplace overseas.  Special handling seemed called for, much as it might have been for an international shipment of uranium.

But just as with uranium, being transgender implies energy.  We need large stores of potential energy that we turn to kinetic as we walk the transition path.  I tell everyone that today I feel far younger than I did just two years ago.  It's as though I'm 57 going on 27.

Being a transgender Foreign Service Officer (FSO) takes the analogy further.  Like uranium, I have found that a transgender FSO can find herself in more demand than she ever expected.  It has been my greatest post-transition surprise over the past three months.

For the coming weekend I will be judging twenty-six finalist essays on the theme of tolerance.  Embassy Bucharest is holding an essay contest in honor of Human Rights Day, and the essays were submitted by Romanian high school students.  Last weekend I judged twenty-eight essays in the first round.  Over three hundred essays were submitted in all, and I am one of a dozen volunteer judges.

Then there is a GLIFAA colleague back in Washington who thinks I should be able to pull together enough information to write a report about LGBT issues among the Roma people.  Thanks to my former career, I believe I am better placed to report on LGBT issues on the Moon than among the Roma, but to my own surprise, I may be on the verge of having just enough information to write a short report.  Whether I do or not depends on three gay Roma guys.  One is in Bucharest, another is in Prague, and the third is in Dubai.  Well, maybe I had better stick to the Moon after all.

Next there is the transgender chapter for the 20th anniversary GLIFAA retrospective.  I wrote a draft over the holidays and got edits and clearances from everyone who was anyone who had anything to say on the subject . . . except for one.  I was simply going to turn it in to the editor, but then the one missing person sent me an archive of e-mails and other documents going back to 2007. 

My first reaction to the sight of this archive was an ardent wish to run for the hills.  Then I started to go through the couple of hundred pages of material . . . and was enthralled.  There's enough here for a book, and I've only got another couple of pages.  The archive covers everything that went on in GLIFAA's successful lobbying that culminated in gender identity being added to the State Department's Statement on Discriminatory and Sexual Harassment in the summer of 2010.  If it hadn't been for a core group of committed people, Robyn might not be writing to you from Bucharest today.  Looking at these documents, I feel I'm a historian working in the archives in Leningrad again.  Instead of running for the hills, I feel honored to be reading these papers.  Now all I need is about 40 hours a week to devote to this. . . .

And then there has been the Esquire interviewI'm leery of Esquire as the right venue for an article on what it means to be transgender, but just such an article is being written in the Romanian edition.  That article is not about me, thank goodness, but about one of the young Romanian transgender women whom I have come to know and respect over the past year.  (I have already had my fifteen minutes of fame in the Romanian press in a good article, A fi bărbat sau a fi femeie?, published in the opinion and literary journal Dilema Veche last November.)  The journalist from Esquire approached the Embassy for an interview, and with the State Department's current push for LGBT outreach, both the Embassy and Washington were enthusiastic.  We opted for written answers to interview questions that went through the normal State clearance process.  That gives us some measure of control and an opportunity to present the official US Government position on LGBT rights as human rights.  Stay tuned. . . .

Let's see, what else?  Oh, yes, this is LGBT history month in Romania, and last Sunday I was a book in a living library event organized by Accept.  When I was first told that anyone who wished would be able to check me out and read  me for 15-20 minutes at a time, I had to chuckle.  The thought of a transgender person willingly offering herself to be checked out and read was just too humorous.  In the end it was a fun evening as I was checked out and read multiple times, mainly by young gay and lesbian Romanians for whom a transgender person is nearly as exotic as an extraterrestrial.  This book from the foreign literature section learned as much from the evening as did her readers.

Yes, just like uranium, a transgender FSO can be simultaneously radioactive, energetic, and in demand.  Please just don't put me in a centrifuge.  Although I wouldn't mind being enriched, I believe I'm already as refined as I can be and can't be improved.  As long as my half-life is long, I will continue to live as a young 57 going on 27. 

Now, where did I leave that stack of essays on tolerance? . . .


Friday, February 10, 2012

The Education of a Transgender Rip Van Winkle -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 2

In December 2010 this transgender Rip Van Winkle rubbed her eyes and began to wake from a 35-year slumber.

Think of it.  In 1975 I had read Jan Morris' Conundrum and had spent every spare moment in the stacks at U.Va.'s Alderman Library reading anything I could about transsexualism.  I had reached out to the gender clinic at Hopkins.

Then I purged and purged as completely as I could.  I put myself into a deep transgender slumber.  As I wrote earlier in NoTransition,
In 1990 I had been told I was depressed and overworked and that transgender people and transsexuality do not exist.  I took it literally, hoping it was true.  If a transgender story appeared in the newspaper, I did not read it.  If there was a report on the TV news, I changed the channel.
Except for a brief interval in 2000, I remained in that purposeful hibernation, avoiding anything and everything that had a transgender theme.  Even as I told F1 in Uzbekistan about my transgender self (I Wish I Was in the Land of Cotton), I did so with reference to what I had learned in 1975.  I didn't even know the word transgender.  I had never heard of gender identity.  The words hadn't been invented yet in the 1970s, at least not in the books I was reading at the time.

So here I was, yawning, stretching, and rubbing my eyes in December 2010.  Kyna confessed to knowing little or nothing about transgender issues, but she gave me a start with LGBT web sites and literature that she and others she had gone to considered the best place to start.

My life that December was a triad.  I was still learning my new job at Embassy Bucharest.  Thankfully, due to a wonderful crew of Foreign Service Officers (FSOs), this was the easy part.  (If this sounds like an advertisement for Embassy Bucharest, it is.)  The hard part was the new legal battle over support to my now ex-spouse.  I spent most evenings and weekends answering interrogatories and providing requested documents, even taking off and devoting most of the Christmas-New Year week to this task.  In the course of reviewing discovery materials, I learned that my outing may have gone much further than I had known.

The third leg of my triad was the reeducation of this transgender Rip Van Winkle.  So much had happened during my years of slumber about which I knew nothing.  I had never heard of Jennifer Finney Boylan, Mara Kiesling and the National Center for Transgender Equality, or the Human Rights Campaign.  I learned that although this was still a difficult path, in the 21st century not everyone lost their careers and families when coming to terms with themselves by bringing their physical bodies into alignment with their gender identity through transition.

"So, are you going to go see her?" asked Kyna.  It was another December morning walk to work conversation, and Kyna was asking about Iulia Molnar, the psychologist at Romania's national LGBT rights organization, ACCEPT.  I had found ACCEPT through a long train of links that began with Kyna, and I had written to Iulia, requesting an appointment.  "Yes," I replied.  "I'm taking off early next Friday and will see her then."

I found ACCEPT on a quiet side street, a long walk from the U.S. Embassy's old downtown location.  It was a snowy, slushy day in Bucharest, but there is something welcoming about crossing the threshold into ACCEPT with its many cats, its smiling volunteers, and the always ready teapot.  Iulia was waiting and walked me slowly to her office.  In the next hour of give and take, using a falsetto voice, I told her the story of my life from the childhood dream through 1975 and the disasters of 1990 and 2000-02 and now my divorce and uncertain future.  Always warm and thoughtful, Iulia summed it up gently.  "I think it's time you finally gave Robyn permission to live her life."  She told me of an upcoming transgender congress, urged me to go, and said she would put me in touch with the organizers.

Of all the organizations that I learned of through links and contacts that had begun with Kyna, the most important proved to be Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA).  I had been aware of GLIFAA from the moment I joined the Foreign Service, but given my self-imposed purge, I had steered clear of it.  Even in December 2010 I was uncertain whether GLIFAA knew anything about or had anything to do with transgender issues . . . until I found links on one of the GLIFAA pages to an article by Chloe Schwenke, a senior adviser on African development issues at the U.S. Agency for International Development, a sister agency to the State Department.

It was a pivotal moment for me.  The more I read, the more I was amazed.  You see, Chloe was herself transgender and had transitioned in the workplace two years earlier.  She had also been one of the lucky ones in that she had preserved her marriage and family through love, understanding, and the support of a strong faith community.  I wrote to Chloe in mid-December --
I just wanted to write and say how much I appreciate your article posted to the GLIFAA website.  I'm 56 years old and posted to Bucharest, where circumstances may be allowing me at long, long last to begin a journey I dreamed of longingly when I was only 5-6 years old but for which I lacked the nerve for decades. 
Chloe wrote back warmly, and we began a correspondence.  Just knowing that Chloe existed on the face of this Earth was as important to me as early demonstrations of the real, not theoretical existence of gravity must have been to Isaac Newton.  "She lives, and she works in a sister agency."  This knowledge lifted me as I continued unhappily through my deepening legal battle.

Not all was brightness, however, on this beginning transgender journey.  Through the weeks in an ongoing conversation via Skype, I watched myself die in the eyes of my friend F1 from Tashkent.  First there was the realization that we would not be seeing each other again soon.  I had no money, and she spoke no Romanian or English.  I could not bring her to Romania, and even if I could, there would be nothing here for her.  Long distance I comforted her through the final illness and passing of her mother.  Then, in December, I broke the news that I had started down the transgender road on my own.  This was not something we were going to figure out together.  The conversations were difficult but important, much like the ones I wish I could have had twenty years earlier with my spouse.  "I now know this is not just my past," I told her.  "I don't know yet where this road will take me, but I need to follow it."  It hurt to say those words, and I know it was just as hard for F1 to hear them, if not more so.  Her dreams and hopes were dashed.  At best, we would now have an intermittent, long-distance friendship.  I thought to myself, "At least I will not do damage to yet another person I care for by pretending to be someone I am not."  It was faint comfort for anyone, but it was one of the most honest things I had ever done in this transgender life. 

On New Year's Eve I took a long walk to the center of Bucharest, looking at happy couples and groups rushing to their parties and events.  It was the first time I had spent New Years Eve alone in many years.  My financial situation was bleak, and my legal bill was growing without any clear hope of a negotiated resolution.  My relationship with F1 had been redefined absolutely and permanently as a friendship.  Still, as I walked home that New Year's Eve and watched the fireworks at midnight, I was not depressed or down.  Between Kyna and Iulia I had support and guidance.  In Chloe's example I had inspiration.  It was Iulia's words that were on my mind as I watched the fireworks --
I think it's time you finally gave Robyn permission to live her life.
"Maybe, just maybe," I thought to myself, "maybe in 2011 I will."  The self-imposed, decades-long hibernation of this transgender Rip Van Winkle had ended.

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

You can find Chloe Schwenke's article for GLIFAA, A Transgender Perspective, at http://www.glifaa.org/content/transgender-perspective.  You can find more of Chloe's excellent articles on gender issues on her website at http://www.developmentvalues.net/node/54.

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

Follow these links for more of the retrospective story: 
Previous entry -- Kyna -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 1
Following entry -- Fortochcka -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 3

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Transitional Bicycling and a Night of Lunacy

One part of my life I thought I would need to give up for some time after my workplace transition last November was commuting by bicycle.  I expected there to be a period during which my work colleagues would have trouble adapting to my new appearance.  For that reason, in the first days after November 10, I worked extra hard to make sure I was impeccably dressed and groomed as I walked through the gates of the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest each morning.  My makeup, hair, and everything about my appearance had to be as close to perfect as my still evolving abilities could make them. 

That period lasted for about three weeks.  To my own happy surprise, all my colleagues adapted to the new me within days, not weeks or months.  After all the planning, my transition in the workplace was trouble free beyond my wildest hopes.  So. . . .
 
As the weather remained remarkably mild, I thought, "Why not?"  My bicycling has firm roots going back to my failed attempt to come to terms with being transgender in 1990.  (For more on that, see Hubble Goes Up, I Go Down.)  Why should I give it up?  Moreover, HRT does change the metabolism, and I needed the exercise.  

I got back on the bicycle and began carrying my clothes to work just as I always had.  The department I work in is blessed with its own well-equipped shower facilities, and there was nothing I couldn't do there that I wasn't doing at home.  All I needed was to show up a half hour earlier to change and groom.  It worked.

In the end, I rode over 2500 miles last year, and I only stopped a week ago when a delayed winter finally caught up with us.  The bottom fell out of the thermometer as temperatures dropped to -20C (-4F) and a blizzard moved in.  The Embassy closed early on Thursday the 26th of January and remained closed on Friday.  Two feet of snow fell, roads were closed, and public transit outside the city center stopped.  The bicycle is now put away, likely for weeks if not for months.  My exercise will have to come from other means as I go back to being a daily bus commuter.

I noted the change in season with a Night of Lunacy by inviting nine friends for dinner.  Several of them were instrumental in making my workplace transition possible.  As focussed as I have been on myself, I had lost track of the calendar.  Several of my friends will soon be leaving Bucharest for the last time, and I wanted to show my gratitude before they were all too engrossed in pack-out and moving.  I used every chair and every dining room table extension leaf I had.

Why a Night of Lunacy?  I now have a small telescope again for the first time in many years, and my friends had all asked me to set it up for a look at the first quarter Moon.  The snow had ended, and the sky was crystal clear.  Still, what can you call a star party on a -15C evening other than an act of lunacy?  I have no shovel, and we had to stomp down the snow drifts to set up the telescope.  It was worth it, though, as several of my friends had never looked through a telescope before.  After the Moon, it was on to Venus, Jupiter, and the Orion Nebula.  One friend who has known me since Moscow was so excited that he couldn't restrain himself . . . and used my old name as he exclaimed his delight.

Which brings me back to transgender DADT.  Next in line for the telescope was a much newer friend from a different embassy who knows nothing of my past.  There was a surprised look on her face.  I put my hand on her shoulder and said, "If you didn't know before, I'm trans."  It was fine.

My young Peace Corps friend had come also, but by now she already knew.  When she accepted my invitation, I told her she would likely find out something about me that evening, and so I'd rather tell her straight out.  As I had hoped, she was wonderfully accepting of the new knowledge, even if I was a sad to lose the wonder of a new friendship in which I had simply been accepted as a woman.

We retired inside from our lunacy and settled down to an evening of lasagna made from my mother's recipe using local Romanian cheese.  We reminisced over the events of the past year, and I raised a toast, muffled by emotion, to so many old and new friends who have been part of this year of miracles.

Transitional Bicycling and a Night of Lunacy.  That is the report this week from Bucharest, where the snow, ice, and wind are melted and calmed by the warmth of friends.