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

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