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

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