Saturday, April 28, 2012

If Thy Friends Doth Protest Too Much, Do Not Remove Thy Clothes

Since last year I have been hosting a monthly transgender support evening at my residence in Bucharest.  If any of my readers happen to find themselves in Romania, just drop me a line and I'll give you directions.  MAGIC-DC it is not, but when I found there were no support groups here, I decided I would start a tradition.  Coincidentally, it's even on the third Friday of the month just like the MAGIC-DC evenings.

Has the tradition caught on?  It's too early to say.  For the first several months only my friend Raluca Niculescu came, and we would spend a couple of hours talking and having a bite to eat.  Raluca is recently post-op, and I have much to learn from her about her Thailand experience.  In January it was DO who came, and we watched some transition-related videos and then part of the movie Transamerica.  In February no one came.  The surprise came in March, when over the course of the evening I had a dozen people in my apartment.  Well, to be honest, six, including Irina Nita from ACCEPT,  are LGBT friends and colleagues who had come at 7pm for a Pride Month planning meeting.  As we got closer to 8pm, my officially announced time for the transgender evening, the doorbell began to ring.  Six more joined us, and the Pride Month meeting slowly morphed into the transgender evening.  What was truly gratifying that night was that I had never before met five of the people who came for the transgender evening.

So I never know quite what to expect.  Maybe no one will come, and then again, perhaps a half dozen or a dozen will ring my bell.  Or. . . .

On Friday, April 20, I arrived home by bicycle at about 6:30pm.  "Good," I thought, "I have an hour and a half to get ready."  Before setting out food, I decided I had enough time to take a shower.  I had just taken off my bicycling clothes and started the shower when. . . .

Buzzzzzzzzz!!!!!!   Someone was at my door.  I turned off the shower, threw on a bathrobe, and ran to the front door and cracked it open.  There stood Raluca with a smile that turned to an expression of surprise when she saw me in a bathrobe.

"It is at 7pm, isn't it?" she asked.

"No, it's at 8pm, but come on in while I get ready."

"But I have a whole group right behind me!" Raluca replied, "We all just got out of jail."

"What???!!!!  Tell everyone to come on in.  You're in charge while I get dressed."

"Yes, that's me, I'm always in charge," Raluca sighed.  I know that as one of the most successful of the young Romanian transgender women I have met, Raluca is not boasting.  

Fortunately, Raluca knows my apartment and kitchen.  She got everyone settled while I went to get dressed, forgetting the shower.  Then Raluca came and helped me with the new dress I was having some trouble with.

"What happened?" I asked.  "Were you all arrested?"

"Yes, all of us."

Finally dressed, I joined the group.  I knew many of them.  Others I was meeting for the first time.  This wasn't going to be a transgender evening as such, but an LGBT post-demonstration decompression.  Chief among the friendly faces was that of Tudor Kovacs, one of the leading LGBT activists in Romania.  Tudor proceeded to tell the tale.

Several weeks earlier, many in the Bucharest LGBT community decided the time had come to protest the anti-gay laws adopted this year in St. Petersburg, Russia.  They applied to the Primariia (mayor's office) to stage a quiet, peaceful demonstration not in front of but near the Russian Embassy.  The Primariia accepted the application but then would not make a decision yes or no despite repeated inquiries.

So, according to Tudor, when the planned protest day came, 20-30 activists in this intrepid group decided to go ahead anyway with or without a permit.  When they arrived at the planned demonstration location, however, they found the police already waiting.  They had just enough time to get out a few home-made placards and a banner before the police began arresting them.  All-in-all the demonstration lasted fewer than ten minutes.  No one resisted arrest.  The demonstrators were ushered into a waiting police van, taken to the nearest police station, and detained for two hours before being released.

Well, there's no reason for me to tell the story when you can watch it right here:


Alexandra Carastoian, a talented young filmmaker and activist, shot this video.  It's Tudor Kovacs who is speaking at the beginning, and I see many familiar faces.

Raluca was part of the group, and the police station where they were detained happens to be just around the corner from my apartment, a two minute walk if that.  When they were released, Raluca suggested they all come over to my place.  About ten of them came along with Raluca.

I listened to the story as I put out drinks, bread, cheese, wine, and a bowl of spaghetti.  I was no longer embarrassed about having been caught without clothes.  Rather, I was glad I was there to greet these young LGBT Romanians who had decided to exercise their right of peaceful demonstration.

Raluca
I came to understand from Tudor and others that what had happened to their application to demonstrate is quite common.  When the authorities don't want to be seen publicly as prohibiting a demonstration, they simply do not reply to the application.  They do, however, send the police out on the planned day and time.  They quickly arrest anyone who comes to demonstrate on the grounds that they are demonstrating without a permit.

I said to the group that had I known, perhaps I should have joined them with a few posters in Russian.  Then I caught myself.  If I had joined in the demonstration, my diplomatic status would saved me from arrest, but since I would have been violating a host country law that I am duty-bound to observe, the police most certainly would have made a report to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).  I don't know if participating in a single protest of this kind would be grounds for the MFA to declare me persona non grata, but most certainly I would have been in hot water.

Sigh.  We watched more of Alexandra's video, and then there was another buzz.  It was Irina Nita at the door.  Tudor, Raluca, and the others told her the story of the protest, and then our evening gradually morphed into another Pride Month planning meeting.

It might not have been a transgender support evening, but it was an evening to remember nonetheless.  I am proud to know Tudor, Raluca, and everyone in this group that had at least tried to stand up against injustice in St. Petersburg, a city I have loved through the decades, a city that may now be off-limits for me.  I was happy that even if I could not be part of their action, I could open up my home and share a meal with them afterwards.

I will be keeping a close eye on demonstration plans for the rest of my time in Romania.  From the official point of view, protesting too much here is not much protesting at all.  The least I can do when friends subject themselves to arrest is keep my clothes on, prepare a bowl of spaghetti, and open my door.

The moral?  If thy friends doth protest too much, do not remove thy clothes.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

My Guy, My Son -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 7

June 2, 2011, the day after my day in court, found me sitting nervously in an Irish pub near the Courthouse metro in Arlington, Virginia.  I had again pulled on my guy travel clothes and had slicked back my hair, trying to look normal.  I fidgeted with the menu, reading it line by line to calm myself.  I was more nervous than I had been in court the previous day.

Finally the restaurant door opened, and in he walked, dressed in his bicycling clothes.  Twenty-two years old, my son, my Guy, gave me a hug and joined me.

What was I going to say to him?  How was I going to give him this news?

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

His name is Matthew.  That's Matt for short, but my nickname for him has always been Guy.  I remember holding him in my arms only hours after he was born in 1988.  Passing him to my spouse, I had said, "Here he is, our little guy."  That's how I thought of him in those years, "our little guy," and so it is that to me he is still Guy even now when he is taller than me and can leave me in his bicycle dust on any road.

Our Guy can leave me in his dust on many other things as well.  He is better educated than I am and is gifted in everything from languages to literature to music to math to science.  To my own surprise, he has taken after me in many things.  He now works for Lockheed, the company that built Hubble Space Telescope, the project in which I had worked for more than a decade before joining the State Department.  An accomplished athlete who excelled and continues to excel as a swimmer, he would ride bicycles with me as he was growing up but with no sign that it would ever be a passion.  Then he joined the cycling team in college.  Like me, he is now mainly a bicycle commuter.

With My Guy, 1992
He also takes after his mother in many things.  It was she, not I, who pushed him to excel academically in school.  It was she who gave him an exposure to languages and to music that I never could.  Matt is fluent in French and Portuguese and once considered a college major in classics.  He plays classical guitar.

Although I have written little about my marriage out of respect for my ex-spouse and for the passions that surrounded our divorce litigation, I hope and think she would agree with me that the best thing about our marriage was our son.  Fight as we would through the years, we always agreed on that score even as we fought over the details.  Much of what was best in my spouse is now there in our son, and lest any reader think otherwise, my spouse had many good things to give.  I thank her for giving them to our son.

Miraculously, out of a troubled marriage, our son has taken the best of both of us.  Just as the Stalinist Great Purges produced Bulgakov and Kapitsa, towering figures in literature and physics, so too did our Guy rise above the pain to become a person who is better than either of us or the sum of the two of us together.

Our son's wisdom shone at its brightest during the years of divorce and post-divorce litigation.  He is close to his mother as he should be.  He never abandoned me either, coming to visit me in Uzbekistan twice at a time when the litigation passions were high.  He had a very wise, simple formula.  "When I'm with you, I don't talk about Mom; when I'm with Mom, I don't talk about you."  He managed to do the nearly impossible, loving and maintaining a balance with both of us even as the heavy guns of litigation artillery were booming.  The divorce and everything surrounding it were outside the bounds of his relationships with us.

It did, however, put me in an awkward position on June 2, 2011.  Since the fact of my being transgender was proclaimed loudly in the divorce papers, it was not something I could speak about with Matt.  It was part of the divorce.  During the winter of 2010-11, as it became increasingly clear that against all odds I might be able to walk the transition path, I became more and more concerned about this enforced silence.  When we talked by telephone, I would say instead that my personal life had taken an important turn that I needed to discuss with him once the litigation was over.

That day had finally come.  On June 2, 2011, we sat there in Ireland's Four Courts and ordered our lunch.  The menus taken, I took a deep breath and started into a prepared speech.  "Guy, I need to tell you now what I've wanted to tell you for months. . . ."

Matt stopped me.  "Dad, I know."

"You mean, you know that. . . ."

"Yes, I know.  It's OK."

For the remainder of our lunch I told the story that I've written here over many months.  Matt had overheard an argument in 2000-02 when I had attempted for the last time to find peace as a transgender person within my marriage.  (See NoTransition.)  How much else had he picked up from clues through the years even as I strove to do what is expected of a husband and father?  Over lunch I found he already knew or suspected far more than I ever could have guessed.

"Dad, it's alright."

I told Matt about my double life and my hopes to transition gender in the workplace later in the year.  I told him about my visits to Whitman Walker Clinic and my desire to start hormone replacement therapy.

"Dad, it's OK."

After High School Graduation, 2006
And it has been.  I'm still Dad and always will be.  It's what I'm proudest of from over 25 years of marriage.  The photo in which I stand next to my son after his high school graduation is on the same table as the photo of me in a long blue gown with friends as I celebrated my transition at the Marine Ball last November.  Beside both of them stands another photo in which Matt sits between me and my sisters Irene and Gail last September, just two months before that transition to full time as Robyn.
September 2011

Our relationship will evolve, of course.  I'm in Bucharest, and he is living in northern Virginia.  We talk via Skype, his calls to me as frequent as mine to him.  The last time we spoke, we were twenty minutes into talking before he told me that he had been in an accident in which he had slammed into the rear of a car and had gone over his handlebars, landing on top of the car.  I almost had a heart attack when he told me, and there he was, laughing that the car driver was more shaken up than he was.  I'll see Matt again this summer, and he is hoping to come to Romania for a visit with his girlfriend. 

Lunch over on that June 2 afternoon, we hugged each other goodbye.  I watched as Matt rode off on his bicycle, a stronger rider than I ever was.  There he went, our Guy, the wisest, most loving and accepting young man I know.

I turned on that sunny and bright June afternoon and walked slowly to the Metro, my step the lightest and happiest it had ever been.  In a few days I was to fly back to Bucharest.  With my son's love and acceptance as support, no obstacles remained.  I now knew that this -- my fourth lifetime attempt to transition -- would succeed.

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

Follow these links for more of the retrospective story: 
Previous entry -- Stepping Out in Court -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 6
Following entry -- Mâine -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Epilogue

Monday, April 16, 2012

Voice: The Acid Test

Voice.  It's one of the acid tests for anyone walking the male to female transition path.

Does anyone of my generation remember how they sounded before puberty?  I may be one of the fortunate few who does.  Here's a sample:

video

Yes, that's me in the cub scout uniform, and that's how I sounded in 1965.  In those years we had a reel-to-reel tape recorder that we would turn on during family events.  Those tapes are lost now, but before they disappeared, I extracted a few of the sounds to make a CD as a Christmas present for my Mom and my sisters in 2001.

After male puberty kicked in in the late 1960s, I thought I was doomed.  My voice dropped from alto to somewhere between baritone and bass.  When I made my first abortive attempt to come out as transgender in college in the 1970s, it was my voice that kept me in the shadows, away from other people.  I was already self-conscious enough as it was about my looks, but more than anything else I feared what would happen if I had to open my mouth and speak to another human being.  Here's a sample of my 2001 voice from the same Christmas CD:


video

Doomed.  There was no way anyone would take this as a female voice no matter what I did.  My voice had dropped in pitch, and there was no way to raise it back.  As I read the literature in my abortive attempts at coming out in 1990 and in 2000-02, I came to understand that hormone replacement therapy does nothing to raise pitch.   Some resorted to surgery, but the results were poor to mixed at best.  The vocal folds, once thickened by testosterone, are not thinned by estrogen.  I came to envy those walking the transgender path in the other direction.  Regular treatment with testosterone will lower even a soprano to normal male range.

Hopeless.  That's how I felt about my voice when I began my fourth attempt at transition in 2010.  I found some websites with advice and practice lessons, but on my own I might as well have been learning to play the violin by reading a book.  The best I could come up with was a falsetto that Kyna graciously tolerated until my friend Shannon and her friend Caroline gently disabused me of it over a year ago.  It was Caroline who first told me the importance of resonance, although in Romania there was little I could do with this knowledge.

When I was in the US in May, 2011, I made me way to Tish Moody,  a speech therapist in private practice who has worked in the transgender voice program at George Washington University.  It was a start, but it was only two sessions.  I had hoped I might be able to work with Tish by Skype once back in Bucharest, but it never worked out.

Finally, late last year I made my way to Linda Siegfriedt, a speech therapist who is also from the GW transgender voice program.  We began working by Skype in early January.  I felt I was back in a cross between learning a language and learning to play a musical instrument.  Exercises, exercises, and more exercises.  Resonance, breathing, pitch glides, strengthening and balancing, functional expressions, and intonation.  It was slow going and frustrating at first, but then. . . .

Perhaps a month and a half ago I began to notice that no one was saying "Sir" to me on phone calls to customer service desks in the US.  It was "Ma'am" from the get go, whether or not I had given my name.

Then on one fine Monday morning in March, the G-Man walked into our office, stopped, and looked at me closely.
I had a dream about you last night, and I realized something.  I no longer have any memory of you as a man.  I have a dim memory of seeing you on the stairs the day I arrived over a year ago, but I can no longer picture you.  I don't even remember what you sounded like.
The G-Man asked if I could still speak in my old voice, but I already knew that I couldn't even if my life depended on it.  It's gone, pure and simple, just as I once thought my childhood alto was gone forever.

The G-Man then asked if I had any recordings of my old voice, and that's when I remembered the Christmas CD that I hadn't listened to in years.  The G-Man's jaw dropped when I played it to him.  "Was that what you sounded like when I met you?"  He was incredulous.  Then a co-worker walked in, and the G-Man asked him if he could guess whose voice this was on the CD.  He couldn't.

A voice changes slowly through hard, persistent work.  While I was sick with no voice at all in late March, I went back and listened to the practice recordings I had made at the beginning of January.  I hadn't sensed it from day to day, but the comparison between the first and last recordings was striking.  Where I had once felt hopeless and doomed, I now hear a voice that is acceptably female.  This is still a work in progress, but OK, well, you be the judge:

video

Linda tells me I am one of the lucky ones who seems to have grasped and applied the concepts quickly.  She even asks me what I think accounts for such quick progress.  The only answer I can come up with is the study of foreign languages.  Russian is very different from English, and I've spent thirty years making my tongue and mouth do things they never do in English.  I also speak some Portuguese and Uzbek.  Could it be that learning to speak in a female voice draws on those same parts of the brain that both madden and gladden us as we struggle to learn foreign languages?

Still, hearing the G-Man's compliment was one thing.  The same applies to hearing "Ma'am" during blind phone calls and to the reactions of sales people in the stores of Bucharest.  What would a group who knows nothing about my past think about me after hearing my voice not for a minute but for an hour or two?

My acid test came a week ago Friday.  I went to a Romanian high school as part of the Embassy's Meet America program.  What did I talk about?  No, it wasn't about LGBT issues or even about American diplomacy.  I spoke about what it is like to be a bicycling diplomat!

I rode my bike to the school, dressed in a nice new skort and a lavender summer jersey.  The director came out to greet me and introduced me to the English teacher whose class I would be visiting.  Then we went to the classroom, a nice young man carrying my bicycle up to the second floor.

There they sat.  First there were about ten, and then more came in.  In the end there were 20 or so of the most discerning, critical, and quick to speak their minds individuals on the face of the earth:  high school students.  If ever there was to be an acid test, here it was.  We put up a poster of President Obama, and I handed the CD containing my talk to one of the young men who loaded it onto a laptop.  

I was nervous that my voice would not carry.  Even if it did, would it last?  I had been sick only a week earlier, and I was still going off into coughing fits.  I started by asking if everyone could hear me in the back of the room.  "Yes," was the answer, "We hear you."

"Who here rides a bicycle?" I asked.  I like to get as much audience involvement as I can when I speak to groups, and this class of Romanian students jumped right in.  Hands went up, and I started calling on the young women and men.  For over an hour we talked about bicycles, bicycle safety, and how a small committed group of activists can band together to change bad laws.

When I was done with the talk, I opened up the conversation.  "Ask me anything you want.  Ask about America, what it's like to work in an Embassy, or about my own life."

I got the usual good questions.

"As an American, what do you think we need to do to improve life in Romania?"

"What do you like most about living in Romania?"

"What do you miss most from home?"

"Being a woman, what was it like to work in the space program?"

Gulp.  

"Well, one of the nicest things about working with NASA was that there were so many women engineers, programmers, and scientists."

I told them about my friend Marilyn, now at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL.  Marilyn was part of the Messenger mission to Mercury last year and is one of the best engineers I know.  When I took over the Mission Scheduling system for Hubble in 1995, it was Marilyn who handed it to me before moving to Huntsville.  Then there were Deborah and Mahin and Kelli and Mary, an excellent engineer and the best manager I have ever worked with.

"Good," I thought to myself.  "I had an answer for that one."

"Any other questions?" I asked.  A young woman raised her hand.

"As a mother, can you tell us something about domestic violence and how domestic disputes are handled in the US?"

Wow.  I knew for sure at that moment that no one had guessed even in the slightest about my past, and in answer I recounted the experience of a friend who had taken herself and her children to a battered woman's home to get away from an abusive husband.  

Then there were handshakes and photos before I headed on my way.  Almost two hours with high school students, perhaps the most critical, discerning class of people on the planet, and here they were asking me about domestic violence and what it was like to work as a woman engineer.  

I rode home that sunny day with the biggest of smiles.  My voice had survived two hours of public speaking to a group of teenagers, an acid test if ever there was one.  As I rode the streets of Bucharest, I heard first one appreciative whistle and then another for this middle aged woman in a summer jersey and a skort, but nothing could compare with my two hours in a high school classroom.  My voice has arrived.

*********************
Working with Linda Siegfriedt has been so much fun that I find it hard to think of her just as a voice specialist and myself as her client.  Although we have seen each other only as video images over Skype, I think of her as a friend who visits me each Saturday afternoon.  I think you will find the same.

Speaking of which, here is how you can reach her --

Linda Siegfriedt, MED, CCC, SLP
Voice and Speech Specialist

New Leaf Center for Self Expression
P.O. Box 255
Centreville, VA 20122
703-966-6232

newleafcenter@ymail.com
Just tell her that RM from Bucharest says "Hi!"

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Stepping Out in Court -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 6

Judicial Center, Rockville, Maryland
On the morning of June 1, 2011, a middle-aged woman in a long skirt and blue blouse arrived at Circuit Court in Rockville, Maryland, for the hearing that would end the years of litigation with her ex-spouse.  Her two sisters had come with her as support, but she was as nervous as could be notwithstanding.  Only four months earlier she could not have imagined being out in public anywhere in a skirt, yet now this felt more natural than the suit and tie left hanging in the closet.  Robyn's day in court, perhaps the most bizarre episode in her nine month coming out story, had come.
 
Although my divorce had been finalized in the summer of 2010, I had found myself thrown into new litigation over support after my scheduled ongoing assignment for the State Department had been mysteriously canceled.  (See Pacing the Cage.)  I had been on leave without pay for nearly a month as I scrambled to find the replacement posting that took me to Bucharest, where my salary would be one third lower than it had been.  This meant I would not be able to meet my monthly support payment of over $3000/month, and through my attorney I had asked for an adjustment.  In response, my ex-spouse's attorneys had cited me for contempt.  We, in turn, went to court with a formal motion to adjust support.  A new cycle of litigation had begun.

Interrogatories and replies to document requests dominated my long winter of 2010-11.  Our requests to open negotiations were rebuffed, and if there was any response at all, it was in the form of demands sent not to me but to senior staff at Embassy Bucharest.  Overtures that we made while I was in the US in February were ignored.

Thus it was that on a Friday evening in early May I went upstairs to say goodbye to Kyna.  The next day I was to fly to the US for a settlement hearing.  I was very hopeful that once in the negotiating room, we could come to an agreement. 

It was a quick goodbye.  After all, I'd only be gone a few days.  As I started to leave, Kyna stopped me.  "Promise me something?"

"Of course.  What is it?"

"Promise me you will cut your hair, trim your fingernails, and put on a good suit when you go to court."

After all the help and encouragement Kyna had given me in coming out over the preceding months, here she was with a serious admonishment.  She was worried for me.

"Of course," I answered.  I didn't now yet that my own attorney would ask me to break that promise.

I arrived in the US on Saturday, and I met with my attorney on Monday.  The settlement hearing was scheduled for the next day.  Elyse was optimistic that everything would be resolved.  She already knew that I was coming out openly as transgender, so she was not surprised by the long hair and fingernails even as I sat there in my old guy travel clothes.  Since that settlement hearing would take place in the presence of a retired judge and was not a formal proceeding as such, she said my appearance would not be a problem.

So early Tuesday I put on the suit and tie, slicked back my hair, and drove to Rockville, Maryland.  The first sign that it would not be an easy morning came when the judge decided that we should not all meet together in one room.  The passions, at least on the side of my ex-spouse, were too great.  Instead, the judge shuttled between two rooms, urging and looking for an agreement.  He proposed a settlement that I agreed to quickly, a settlement based on the salary I was actually earning and that I could live with.  In the course of the coming hour he tried to get the other side to agree, but they would not budge.  I offered a little more than the judge had proposed, but the answer was still no.  By noon the judge gave up.  The hearing was over.  There was no settlement.

Elyse was as down and disappointed as I was.  She had expected an agreement.  Instead we would be going to trial later in the month.  Elyse asked me to stay in the US to prepare.

That's how it happened that I never got to say goodbye to Kyna.  Her assignment in Bucharest was ending, and she was scheduled to depart in the middle of May.  I had thought I would be there to help her pack and to repay the hug that had meant so much to me the previous November.  (See Kyna.)  Now I carry that debt with me, hoping for the day when I will again see my friend and celebrate with her this new life that she did so much to make possible.

The next two weeks were filled with hours of preparation and written answers to still more interrogatories.  When not preparing for court, I went on long walks with my sister Irene.  Outside of the courtroom I was myself, Robyn, and the thought of wearing a suit and tie was already beginning to seem strange.  I worked on hair styling and makeup, and Irene would suggest and teach.  We went clothes shopping, Irene helping me find outfits and combinations that worked.  One afternoon we drove to see my sister Gail, who already knew but who had never seen me as Robyn.  We went to the movies.  Although Gail repeatedly stumbled over name and gender, she was wonderful, warm, and accepting.  It was the beginning of a new friendship, a new love between us.

I also found myself in downtown Washington many times.  I had lunch one day with a member of the GLIFAA board, and on another morning I had coffee with Sharon McGowan, the attorney who represented Diane Schroer in the case that let to a federal court ruling that discrimination on the basis of gender identity is a form of sex discrimination.  

I found my first voice therapist, Tish Moody, and began working to develop a feminine voice under the guidance of a professional.  Resonance, resonance, and still more resonance.  No longer would I use a falsetto or a nearly voiceless whisper.

One day I took the Metro downtown.  As I went up the escalator, two men going down saw me, pointed, and started laughing.  To my surprise, passing in Washington seemed more difficult than in Bucharest.  Could it be that Americans as a group are sensitized to transgender people and that Romanians, by contrast, simply accept that by definition anyone in a skirt is a woman and that anyone in a suit is a man?  There were other instances of pointed looks, but I didn't care.  What was important was how I felt about myself.  As I became more confident, the uncomfortable looks diminished.  Soon I was just a part of the crowd, no more worthy of notice than anyone else.

"I'm here because I would like to begin hormone replacement therapy."  I had made my way to the Whitman Walker Clinic (WWC), the wonderfully accepting medical center that specializes in LGBT healthcare.  Kyna had arranged my blood test while I was still in Bucharest, and now Barbara at WWC was looking over the results and at the letter sent by my therapist Martha Harris.  "Everything looks in order," Barbara said.  "When would you like to begin?"
 
I wanted to jump, dance, and cry for joy.   The door had opened, and I could walk through it if I was ready. 

"I need to wait a few weeks," I told Barbara.  I didn't want to start anything new before going to court, and there were still a few important people in my life who needed to know my plans, a few important conversations that needed to take place.  
May 2011

"Fine, call and make an appointment when you're ready."  Barbara sent me on my way.

A few days later I was back in my suit and tie and in court with Elyse.  This wasn't the trial but a hearing on a motion to dismiss that my ex-spouse's attorneys had entered.  They contended that my support agreement was non-modifiable and that the court should cancel the trial and order me to pay back support.

I didn't need to do anything at this dismissal hearing other than sit and observe.  Elyse did the talking, as did my ex-spouse's attorney.  My ex-spouse had not even chosen to attend.

My shock of the day was that the judge almost granted the motion.  According to the terms of the agreement, he observed, support could be modified in the event of death, debilitating illness, or involuntary unemployment.  There didn't seem to be anything that covered a severe drop in income.  His face and his words as he looked at me could be summed up in two words, "Sorry, but. . . ."

It was then that Elyse began to show the brilliance that I had hoped for.  "Yes," she said to the judge, "but it is our contention that the my client's ex-spouse and attorneys may have played a material role in this reduction of income.  They are not innocent victims."  I don't remember Elyse's precise words, of course, but they were something very much like this.

After two or three minutes the judge cut her off.  "Alright, I won't comment on the merits of the case, but I will allow it to go forward to trial.  Motion dismissed."

I was elated, but my relief lasted only a few minutes.  Once we were a safe distance outside the courtroom, Elyse turned to me and said in words I remember exactly, "Our case sucks.  The judge almost granted their motion."

Elyse paused, looked at me, and said something I never expected to hear.  "Would you be comfortable coming to trial as Robyn?"

In the days to come it was Elyse's turn to get comfortable with the new me.  She was one of those who had known yet had not seen, and I now came to her office not in a suit but in a skirt and blouse, my face and hair made up to the best of what I could manage.  Together we worked and prepared.

Over the winter we had found evidence that a letter in which my ex-spouse had outed me to a friend several years earlier may have been circulated more widely, perhaps even inside the State Department.  We had no proof, but we had tantalizing inferences.  Could this letter have played some role in the mysterious denial of my scheduled posting the previous summer, my leave without pay, and my assignment at lower salary to Bucharest?  To this day I don't know the answer, but the inferences remain.

"There is a family law attorney in Montgomery County who is transsexual," Elyse told me.  "All of the judges and masters know and respect her."

Elyse told me that it was one thing for me to be in a suit and tie and for her to argue dryly about this letter that may have played a role in changing my career.  It would be an entirely different matter, she said, if it was Robyn who came to the courtroom.  Moreover, it was the last thing my ex-spouse and her attorneys would expect.  This would unnerve them and throw a wrench into whatever strategy they had planned.

And so there we were, three sisters arriving at the Circuit Court in Rockville on June 1.  Security presented no problem, just the usual metal and jewelery into a tray and a walk through the metal detector.  Irene, Gail, and I found the room where the trial would take place and waited outside.  Elyse appeared several minutes later, but there was as yet no sign of my ex-spouse or her attorneys.  We talked for several minutes, my sisters and Elyse helping to calm my nervousness.

I excused myself to use the ladies' room.  My morning coffee and jittery stomach had taken their toll.  As I started walking back, I rounded a corner and distantly heard a familiar voice, more accurately a gasp.

"Oh shit.  Oh sh-i-i-i-i-i-t. . . ."

It was my ex-spouse.  We had been married for twenty-five years when I asked for a divorce in 2007, and she had known I was transgender for seventeen of those years.  To keep our marriage together, I had kept my word and had done all I could to turn my back on my own self.  I had done it for love, for her, for our son, and for myself, even believing that the psychiatrists of 1990 might be right, that there is no such thing as a transsexual, that I was deluded by a phantom.  In all those years, my spouse had never seen me as Robyn.

I found Elyse and my sisters.  We went into the courtroom, my sisters sitting in the back and Elyse and I sitting at our table.  My ex-spouse and her attorney came in a minute later.  Then the judge entered and took his place.  Entirely laid back, he started into an amiable chat with Elyse and the opposing attorney.  This went on for several minutes before he got to the business of the day.

"There is no reason this case should be in my court."  That was the essence of what the judge had to say.  "We can go to trial later this morning if that's what we must do, but first I want you to try one last round of negotiating."  My appearance did not phase him in he least.

The judge sent us off to separate rooms.  Over the next two hours, the attorneys shuttled back and forth, the judge serving as arbiter.  When my ex-spouse's attorney would enter our room, he could not bring himself to look at me.  He would avert his gaze or look fixedly at Elyse, doing everything he could not to look in my direction.

Things began to move.  The opposing position that had been frozen into a stance of no negotiation three weeks earlier began to soften and flow.  Back and forth, yes, no, and how much and for how long?  A lump sum?  A buyout?  Well, maybe.  Why not?  How much?

In the end that's what we did.  We threw out the old agreement that called for monthly support until I was age 65 and replaced it with a lump sum payment.  It would be a hefty payment, over $200,000 out of my retirement savings, but it would be over.  Doing the math in my head, I realized that this would almost the same as the agreement advocated by the settlement judge three weeks earlier, the only difference being that this would be a lump sum instead of a monthly payment.  I could live with this.  Deal.

The negotiating over, we went back to the courtroom.  The judge was just as amiable as he had been earlier, if anything more so.  He summarized the agreement.  My ex-spouse stood and affirmed her agreement.  Then it was my turn.  I stood before the judge in my long skirt and said yes, I agree.  It was over.

My sisters rushed forward and hugged me.  Then I hugged Elyse.  The torment that had lasted nearly four years and that had followed me across oceans and continents had come to a final, negotiated end on June 1, 2011.  It was over.

My ex-spouse and her attorney were gone in a flash.  My sisters, Elyse, and I walked out of the courthouse into the light of a beautiful spring day.  There were more hugs and even a tear or two before we parted, Elyse to her next case of the day, and my sisters and I to find a restaurant where we could celebrate.

So what had happened?  Had Elyse's strategy worked?  I'll never know, of course, but I think it did.  My personal theory is that one look at me had convinced my ex-spouse and her attorneys that I had gone completely out of my mind and that it was better to take what they could get today rather than risk finding me out of work and in a psychiatric ward in a year.  You know.  "A bird in hand is better than two in the bush."

As relieved as I was, I was also conscious of how much material wealth I had lost.  The family home had gone to my ex-spouse, leaving me with a dilapidated cabin in northern Maine.  At age 57 I was left with less than $100,000 in retirement savings, and half of my defined-benefit retirement would go to my ex-spouse.  My four-year legal bill to Elyse and her firm amounted to nearly $70,000.  

"Don't walk the transition path unless you are prepared to lose everything."  That is what a friend had told me several months earlier.  In the material sense she had been right.

But none of that mattered anymore, and it was the furthest thing from my mind as my sisters and I celebrated on that early June afternoon.  My sisters had accepted me, and more and more friends in Bucharest and in the US had embraced me.  I had gained everything.

I knew that much depended on one more important conversation that must take place, but this could wait until tomorrow.  For the remainder of that happy June 1, I floated weightlessly in the glow of my sisters' love and celebration.  A new future I had dreamed of longingly and achingly decades earlier beckoned.  I had become myself.

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

Follow these links for more of the retrospective story: 
Previous entry -- Stepping Out in Bucharest -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 5
Following entry -- My Guy, My Son -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 7