Saturday, May 19, 2012

Rising for the Moon: Farewell to a Dear Friend

I have been teary eyed for much of yesterday and today.  No, it's not allergies.  It is springtime in the Foreign Service (FS), a season that brings tears of farewell as close friends pack to go, destined for new posts somewhere further down the FS corridor.  For that's the way it is; that is our fortune.

I met Nat on my first day in Bucharest in October 2010.  There I was, lost in the courtyard, puzzled over which of three buildings at our old Embassy might house the office of my new supervisor.  Nat took me under her wing and guided me through the labyrinth.

Nat has an engaging smile and laugh, a warmth that is irresistible.  She wasn't that much newer to Bucharest than I was, and she was doing a career adjustment of her own, an adjustment that played a role in my coming to Romania.  You see, Nat had worked for many years at State doing IT, but in Bucharest she was beginning her first-ever tour as a human resources (HR) officer.  She had traded in her computer hardware for human beings.  Anyone who knows Nat will find it hard to believe that someone so gregarious and full of life ever could have been a computer tech. 

As I came to understand in time, Nat was the first person in Bucharest who had heard of this political officer pacing the cage in Maine and wanting to do an IT job.  She saw my file and took it to the Management Counselor and then to Curtis, my soon-to-be department head.  It made perfect sense to Nat that a political officer might want to do something different.  After all, wasn't that exactly what she was doing in Romania?  Without Nat, I might have sat in Maine far, far longer than I did in search of a job.

I didn't know Nat well during my first months.  I was too self-absorbed with my post-divorce litigation and then with my first tentative steps towards transition.

This all changed in March 2011.  It was Kyna who brought us together when she proposed that I go with her to the theater, my first-ever evening out in Bucharest as Robyn (Stepping Out in Bucharest).  When I found out that Nat would be going along, I called her.  That was the day when Nat became the second person at Embassy Bucharest who knew I was contemplating gender transition.

Just imagine what it must have been like for Nat when I gave her this news.  Here she was, a first-tour HR officer who had never before encountered issues of gender identity, and now she would be faced with managing the first-ever gender transition of a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) at an overseas post.  Imagining our roles reversed, I could see myself thinking, "Please, anything but this."  Nat, on the other hand, took the news calmly.

I'm not sure Nat entirely believed or understood me at first, but this changed quickly.  Kyna, Nat, and I would go out together on weekends, just three girlfriends in Bucharest.  Or, as Nat would say, we were three gurlfriends out on the town.  It didn't take long before Nat knew me as she saw and experienced me, as Robyn, not as a photo and a name in a personnel file.

We put together the Gender Transition Committee in early summer 2011.  Nat chaired most of the meetings.  We worked closely together to understand guidance from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) on the Employment of Transgender Individuals in the Federal Workplace.  We studied the experience of USAID, NASA, and other departments and agencies that already had experience with gender transition.  We worked together on plans for announcing my transition to the local Romanian staff.

As my readers know, it all came to pass on November 10, 2011.  On November 12, Nat and I sat together at the Marine Ball.  From that day forward I have been legally, diplomatically, and very happily yours as Robyn in all aspects of my life.

But that was just the start of the story with Nat.  At work there was and still is much to do to complete the name and gender change in all personnel records.  Doing it for today's files was easy, but in accordance with OPM guidance, the records must also be changed retroactively.  In weekly meetings that sometimes include Department HR in Washington, we've been slogging through this and more.

It's much more than work and personnel records, however.  In the months since last November, we have become close friends.  Nat says she is a beauty school dropout.  She means it literally, having gone to beauty school at one point in her life.  Nat spent a Sunday afternoon with me in January, instructing me on the finer points of hair care products and proper use of a blow dryer.  We went clothes and shoe shopping together.  We became Friday night dinner and movie buddies.  It had been so long since I had last gone out to a movie, and now it was a regular end-of-the week tradition.

I knew it would be hard to see Nat go, and that is why I am so teary eyed.  Yesterday was Nat's last day, the last day for hugs and farewells.  She is off now for home leave and then her follow-on post.

We had our own private farewell a week ago.  We drove north about 50 miles beyond the city of Ploiesti, where we spent the afternoon enjoying a meal at a wonderful seafood restaurant.  Then we went shopping for glassware at Romblast, buying for pennies vases and bowls that at the tourist shops cost hundreds of dollars.  We talked over all we had gone through together.  We laughed, we shed a few tears, and we hugged each other.  We also talked of plans to meet again in Bangkok next January.  (Alert readers may already divine some future intent from this.)

I miss my friend and wish her the most wonderful home leave.  You have earned it, Nat, and I know I'm just one of many at Embassy Bucharest who would say that.  I'll leave you with a few words from a 1975 song by British singer Sandy Denny and the group Fairport Convention.  She might be singing about what it is like to be on the road as performer, but so much of what she says applies to us also. 
I travel over the sea and ride the rolling sky,
For that's the way it is, that is my fortune.
There are many ears to please, many people's love to try,
And every day's begun rising for the moon. 
There's a heart in every place, there's a tear for each farewell.
For that's the way it is, that is my fortune.
I'll lure you as the lace that the wayward gypsies sell,
With the sinking of the sun, rising of the moon.
Drum bun, dear Nat.  Tootles, gurlfriend.  May you continue to live each day rising for the moon and thereby touch a star as you have touched my heart.

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



Friday, May 11, 2012

A Reader's Guide to Transgender in State

Welcome to the reader's guide or, rather, table of contents that should make it easier to navigate the chronology of my story as I relate it in this web journal.

Over the course of ten months beginning in July 2011, I wrote 24 posts of a retrospective nature that give historical background about my life experience as a transgender person.  I intermixed these with an equal or greater number of other posts describing my life as it was moving forward in 2011 and 2012.  That intermixing makes it difficult to decipher the chronological progression.  My hope is that the table of contents below will make this task easier for anyone who may wish to know the full story, chapter by chapter, from beginning to end.  From 2012 onward, the progression is mainly chronological in nature, describing my life in Romania, my journey to Thailand for gender confirmation surgery, and my year in the US when I served as president of GLIFAA, the official employee association for lgbt+ employees at the Department of State, USAID, and other foreign affairs agencies.

This web journal ends in September 2014 but has its continuation in a follow-on web journal that can be found at http://attitude-maneuver.blogspot.com/.

Best to all from Bucharest . . . and from Washington, DC, and from my adopted state of Maine!

NOTE:  Parts 1-3 give historical background.  The posts therein were written between July 2011 and May 2012.

Part 1 -- So How Far Back Does This Go (1954-2002)? 
  1. The Early Years
  2. Where Were You on July 22, 1972?
  3. WahooWa!
  4. Under Transylvanian Moons
  5. CSC:  The Only Limitations Are the Ones You Bring with You
  6. My Great Purge
  7. Hubble Goes Up, I Go Down
  8. Heaven Can Be Yours Just for Now
  9. NoTransition
Part 2 -- The Day my Universe Changed (2002-2010)
  1. A Dinner Conversation
  2. Looking for George Kennan
  3. Povorot
  4. Mission to Moscow
  5. Decision on Gros Morne
  6. I Wish I Was in the Land of Cotton
  7. Pacing the Cage
 Part 3 -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011)
  1. Kyna
  2. The Education of a Transgender Rip Van Winkle
  3. Fortochka
  4. Liftoff
  5. Stepping Out in Bucharest
  6. Stepping Out in Court
  7. My Guy, My Son
  8. Mâine 

NOTE:  Parts 4 and beyond were written in real-time and describe daily life and events beginning in July 2011.

Part 4 -- Looking Strange and Enjoying It (June - November 2011)

  1. My Coming Out Letter to my Friends at NASA
  2. Electrolysis in the Land of Vlad the Impaler
  3. Письмо моим русскоязычным друзьям; A Letter to my Russian Speaking Friends
  4. Thank You, Madam Secretary
  5. Looking Strange and Enjoying It: Two Months of HRT
  6. Interlude:  Bucharest by Bicycle
  7. How We Kidnapped Irina Nita
  8. Tears for a Colonel
  9. On Finding and Losing a Boyfriend in Seven Days
  10. A Bushel and a Peck and Up Around the NEC
  11. The Odd Joys of International Travel while in Transition 
Part 5 -- Real Life Experience (RLE) (November 2011 - December 2012)

  1. The Big Day:  A Letter to My Sister
  2. After the Ball
  3. A Bucharest Christmas
  4. Of Friends, Mammograms, and Van Gogh
  5. Old Clothes and Transgender DADT
  6. Transitional Bicycling and a Night of Lunacy
  7. What Do Uranium and a Transgender Foreign Service Officer Have in Common?
  8. March 8 and Me
  9. Diplomatically, Socially, and Congestedly Yours
  10. Voice: The Acid Test
  11. If Thy Friends Doth Protest Too Much, Do Not Remove Thy Clothes
  12. Rising for the Moon: Farewell to a Dear Friend
  13. Remove the Document, and You Remove the Man
  14. Proudly from Tirana
  15. Proudly from Bucharest
  16. Looking for Spa Therapy
  17. 3F@RM's, Stepbystep_ts, and Our Transsexual Summer
  18. Try to Remember
  19. To Peris(h) by Bicycle
  20. Foreign Service Bidding and Transgender DADT
  21. Turning to the East
  22. Autumn Comes to 45-deg N
  23. An Exclusive Halloween Ogre Just for Us
  24. Love Is but a Song We Sing: A Message of Peace and Love to Friends
  25. My First Anniversary
  26. November Postcards
  27. Hamlet and Healing

Part 6 -- Gender Confirmation -- or -- The Exclamation Point (December 2012 - March 2013)

  1. My White Romanian Christmas
  2. So You Want to Be in Pictures?
  3. The Journey Begins
  4. Our Day at the Beach
  5. OD Checks In; I Check Out
  6. Fates that Intertwine
  7. Like a Natural Woman
  8. All in the Zadnitsa
  9. Simple Gifts
  10. Collapse of the USSR
  11. A Matter of Depth
  12. We Interrupt this Program
  13. Vodka without Beer?
  14. My Million Baht Body
  15. My Own General Contractor
  16. Home Sweet Home in Romania


Part 7 -- Romania Farewell (March - June 2013)

  1. Back in the Saddle
  2. Radio Days
  3. On Losing a Daughter
  4. Both Sides Now
  5. The Carpet, Too, Is Moving Under You
  6. Bucharest Farewell
  7. Mâine, a Reprise
  8. Standing Proudly with Friends, 2010-13

Part 8 -- Bringing Myself Home (July 2013 - September 2014)

  1. A Tale of Two Katahdins
  2. In Homage to Allyson Robinson
  3. Chelsea Manning, Roasting Vegetables, and Me
  4. On Reading "Middlesex"
  5. Bucharest and Roxana on the Potomac
  6. Rising from the Ashes
  7. Our Exclusive Halloween Ogre Visits Again
  8. November: What I've Lost
  9. November: What I've Gained
  10. JFK, LBJ, and Their Gift to Me
  11. Our Winter Love: Thailand Anniversary and Return to Bucharest
  12. Please Continue to Hold During the Silence
  13. Proudly from Washington, Proudly from GLIFAA
  14. Bringing Myself Home

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Mâine -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Epilogue

Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known.
Saturday evenings in the 1980s, the first years of my marriage, listening to Garrison Keillor and Saturday evening radio broadcasts of Prairie Home Companion.  Thinking back to those years, I remember languid Washington, DC, summers and the growing fear and then painful certainty that I had deluded both myself and my spouse through marriage.  I had no idea when I finally gathered the courage to speak in 1990 that I was beginning a process, boarding a roller coaster that would ride on for 21 years.

It came to a halt on June 2, 2011.  The words spoken and accepted, I watched as my son rode away.  "I'm free," I thought.  "Incredibly, improbably, I'm free.  My life is my own to take where I will."
I spent my few remaining days in the US in an airy dreamworld that had become reality.  I was floating.  I had lunch with my friends Shannon and Mary and attended part of Capital Trans Pride.  I stopped at a Piercing Pagoda and walked away with two stud earrings that, I was warned, should not be removed for at least six weeks to keep the piercing from closing.  On June 5 I drove to my special spot, the Big Schloss outcropping on the Virginia - West Virginia border.  Looking out on the 270-degree view of the valley below and watching as hawks rode the thermals, I swallowed my first tablets of estradiol and spironolactone.  HRT and my summer of Looking Strange and Enjoying It had begun.

The close people in my life all knew and accepted that I would transition gender.  If anything, I believe my sisters were relieved after watching years and decades of personal and marital pain.  I began phoning and writing old friends and co-workers.  The e-mail subject line usually read, "Put down that cup of coffee before opening this message."  No one took me up on my offer to pay dry cleaning bills in the event my warning had not been heeded, but to this day I fear that a few suits and dresses may have been badly stained.  For the next several months I peeled the onion outward from the center as I moved from close friends and coworkers to others I had not seen in some time but whom I expected I would see again.

E-mails and letters flew around the globe.  How many countries had I lived and worked in?  Where now were my co-workers from the the U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan?  From Embassy Moscow?  From the Russia Desk?  I had to find each one.  Everyone needed to hear this in my own words.  No one was to be surprised by a nugget through the grapevine.  A few never wrote back, but most did.  The most wonderful notes were from my women friends and colleagues, many of whom I had worked side by side with in my NASA contracting years.  Several included the words, "Welcome to our world."

Then it hit me.  "Why not start a web journal?"  I had written a travelog for friends and family when I served in Russia, carefully maintaining a list of e-mail addresses and sending updates every few weeks.  Now I would write a travelog of a different sort.  Family, friends, and colleagues could follow me on the journey of a lifetime.  Transgender in State was born ten months ago on Independence Day, when I posted My Coming Out Letter to My Friends at NASA.

I flew back to Bucharest on June 7.  I'm sure many are wondering, "So how did you manage this gender transition inside a U.S. Embassy?"  Ours being a U.S. Government facility, the answer should be obvious:  by committee, of course!  We called it the Gender Transition Committee (GTC).  As human resources officer, my friend Natalie chaired most meetings.  Peter represented our MED unit and quickly proved to have a heart as large and loving as that of my dear, dear Kyna who had departed Bucharest in May.  Curtis was there as my department head, as was our management counselor and our equal employment opportunity officer.  The front office was represented, as was our security office and the consular section.  At the eleventh hour we thought to bring in the press officer as well.

"How will the local Romanian staff react to the news that an American supervisor is changing gender?"  "How will the Romanian Government react?"  These were the types of questions that were uppermost in many minds.  Those at the Embassy who had not yet seen me as Robyn were concerned that I might come to physical harm in the streets of Bucharest.  Curtis and Natalie shook their heads and replied, "No one will know.  She looks fine." 

Everyone on the GTC understood that the eyes of Washington would be on us.  We studied the experience of NASA, USAID, and other U.S. agencies and departments.  In May, the Office of Personnel Management had issued guidance on gender transition in the federal workplace, and we knew parts of it almost by heart.  Still, we knew that as instructive as those experiences might be, things could be different for us.  No American Foreign Service Officer (FSO) had ever gone through gender transition while stationed overseas.  How the local staff would react was a worry, and the Romanian LGBT rights organization ACCEPT came to the rescue by offering to conduct seminars for the local staff if the reactions should be negative.   

Our Embassy was scheduled to move in the fall from its old location in downtown Bucharest to a New Embassy Compound (NEC) on the outskirts.  We decided that one stress at a time was enough and that we should not announce my transition until the NEC move was history.  We settled on November 10.  I would speak personally to the local staff in my department at a special meeting, and I would write an e-mail letter that would go to all Embassy staff.  A special Farewell and Welcome notice would be published in our Embassy newsletter, the Dacian Dispatch.  It all unfolded beautifully as I described in A Letter to My Sister.

But I've written about this all before.  With these notes  today, I come to the end of my memoir, my retrospective.  When I began to write my history last July, I never imagined that it would take ten months to complete.  Now there is only today and the future.

Lessons learned?  Oh yes, there have been many, but I'll list just two.

"Be open, visible, and predictable."  I learned this one the hard way.  In the 1970s, 1990, and 2000-02, I fearfully hid in the shadows when I attempted to come to terms with and speak of being transgender.  It took me until the sixth decade of my life to apply a lesson I learned from bicycling in the 1990s:  "Those who hug the curb for fear of cars are the ones who get hurt.  Taking the lane and being visible and predictable is far safer."  I applied that lesson to my transition in 2010-12.  Everyone in my life knew what I was doing, and I did it openly and visibly with a smile on my face.  I think that smile alone convinced many that I was doing what was right for me.  Happiness is contagious and wins allies.

"Failing once or twice or even three times is not the end."  That's the second lesson.  When I failed in 2000-02, I thought life was over.  I had failed three times and that was that.  Three strikes and you're out.  There was no use trying again.  I am my own living proof of how wrong I was.

Now I look back in wonder at the past two years.  In the spring of 2010 I thought I knew my future.  I knew I would be going to another Russian speaking post, only to have that post pulled away from me in late summer for inexplicable reasons.  I was Pacing the Cage, thinking my career and life as I knew it were over.  Coming to Romania, a country whose language I do not speak and about which I knew next to nothing, was an accident.  I needed a job, and Embassy Bucharest had an opening.  I arrived with a single suitcase on a cold and rainy October day.

Garrison Keillor was right.  Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have.  The people of Embassy Bucharest and of Romania opened their hearts to me.  They accepted me and helped me in one of the greatest journeys a human being can make.  I am smart enough to see today that coming to Romania is what I would have wanted in 2010 had I known.  Romania, te iubesc.

In a funny way, Garrison Keillor was also wrong.  You see, when all seemed lost in 2010, I repeated to myself again and again, "If I'm to be unemployed, let it end right here in Maine." In saying those words, I was thinking of a refuge, a reclusive life in Maine away from the world, living on what little money I had.

I knew not a word of Romanian when I came to Bucharest.  I still don't speak the language, but I have picked up words and expressions.  I had been here over six months before I discovered that the Romanian language has a word very much like Maine.  It's just that the word in Romanian comes with an accent:  Mâine.

I got my wish in Bucharest, where I live in a mâine of a type I could never have imagined but would have begged for on my knees had I known in 2010.  You see, mâine is a very simple word.  It means tomorrow.

To all my family and friends and to all readers of these notes, may your mâine be all that you dream of and more.  Robyn has found hers.  May yours be as happy, fulfilling, and full of love and peace as mine.


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

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