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.
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Follow these links for more of the retrospective story: