Sunday, June 24, 2012

Proudly from Tirana

For friends and readers who wonder what's happened to my semi-regular postings and why I am slow to respond to e-mails, the answer is simple:  Pride Month.  This is the first Pride Month of my life that I am completely out to the world, and I can't get enough.  It's like Christmas in June.  I'm also like one of Santa's helpers in that I haven't worked so hard at volunteer efforts in years.  If you prefer, it's What Do Uranium and a Transgender Foreign Service Officer Have in Common? taken to the next level.  I'm exhausted, but it's a beautiful, peaceful exhaustion.

For me three of the most beautiful days of this month -- indeed, of my life -- were spent in Tirana, Albania.  Talk about a country I was sure I would never visit!  1981 found me briefly in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, not all that far from the fortified Albanian boarder.  Radio Tirana was the loudest station on the radio dial.  It was classic Cold War propaganda but with a twist.  They hated the Soviets; they hated the Chinese; they hated the US, they hated the Yugoslavs.  By 1981 I don't think Albania had a single ally left except perhaps for North Korea.

In 1981 I was also well into my personal Great Purge that followed my failed college attempt to come to terms with being transgender.  I was in deep hiding from myself and was in Durbrovnik fresh from two months in the Soviet Union.  I was already saying to myself consciously that transition was impossible but that I could channel myself into other pursuits such as Russian studies.  Indeed, I succeeded at doing so for nearly ten years until collapsing under the weight in 1990.

In Dubrovnik in 1981 I told myself there were two things I would never do in this life:  transition gender or visit Albania.  Now I have done both.

I arrived in Albania on June 13 along with Romanian LGBT activists Tudor Kovacs and Alexandra Carastoian for the Regional LGBT Workshop organized by the U.S. Embassy in Tirana.  This was the first event of its type organized by a U.S. Embassy.  Put together by Cindy and Jay, dedicated local staff, and Albanian LGBT volunteers, the workshop brought together about a hundred embassy staff and regional activists from seventeen countries for two and a half days of papers, discussions, and networking.  Nothing of the kind had ever happened before under U.S. auspices, least of all in this part of the world that is not known for being decidedly pro-LGBT.  My hat is off to everyone at Embassy Tirana for putting together an event that I know would be beyond my meager capabilities here in Romania.

Kevin Sessums Carries His Philosophy on His Arm
Kevin Sessums, eloquent author of Mississippi Sissy and speaker on gay issues, came as keynote speaker.  So did Mindy Michels, who lived and worked in Albania from 2006 through 2010 and who, with a small dedicated group of Albanian volunteers including Kheni Karaj and Arber Kodra, began the movement for LGBT rights in Albania.  To my surprise, I discovered that Mindy and I had lived walking distance from each other in Takoma Park, MD, for years at a time I was still deeply closeted.

I can't do justice in words to the energy and emotions of those two and a half days.  To anyone reading these lines who was at the workshop, I apologize for the deficiency.  This is a time I wish I was an artist who could show the emotions on canvas that I find hard to put into words.

With Arber and His Mom
If I had to choose a single moment that captures for me the meaning of those days, it would be a simple, very human one that came during the coffee break on the first morning.  I was to moderate a panel in the afternoon on Straight Allies, Family, and Friends:  Why They Are Needed and How They Can Help.  Mindy was to be on the panel to speak about PFLAG, and we had corresponded briefly a week earlier.  I also knew that Arber Kodra was to be on the panel along with his mother.  It was during the coffee break that Arber searched me out.  I asked if his mother was already in the conference hall.  Arber answered was that she was at the conference hotel but was sitting outside for fear of the cameras.  She had never spoken in public before about her son being gay.  My heart ached as I remembered my own mom and the few emotional words we had ever been able to exchange about me.  I asked Arber if he would introduce us.

Arber's Mom Speaks During Panel Session
The picture speaks for itself.  I felt an immediate human chord connected us, and I watched as Arber's mom moved from being fearful of the cameras to later sitting in full fiew as she spoke about her son and about her love and support of him.  Did I mention that LGBT conditions in Albania are somewhere back where they were in the US perhaps thirty years ago?  It was a brave and emotional moment.

I also had my moment in the spotlight in a talk that, not surprisingly, had the same title as this web journal.  (My talk along with others are available on-line at the conference web-site under workshop materials.)  I was stunned at the end of my 50 minutes to get a standing ovation, the first of my life.  I even lowered myself behind the podium for a moment in surprise.  

What most people in the hall did not realize was that this was the first time I had ever spoken in front of a group about my own life experience.  I skipped lunch that day for nervous last minute practice.There were panels about regional government action on LGBT issues, about outreach efforts at U.S. embassies, social media, pride parades and demonstrations, and more.  

With Ken Kero-Mentz and Kosovar Friend
There were evening receptions and informal meetings.  I know that for many at the workshop, this was just one of many they had attended through the years.  For me and for many others in the hall, this was the first.  It left an indelible impression.

Ken Reads My Acceptance Remarks
Shortly before the workshop in Tirana I learned that I would be one of two honorees to receive this year's Equality Award from Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA).  Both the award and the reaction to my presence in Tirana have made me feel increasingly like Peter Sellers as Chance the gardener in the 1979 film Being There.  I said it in my acceptance remarks for the award that were read by GLIFAA board member and friend Ken Kero-Mentz whom I got to meet for the first time in person in Albania.

I also said the same, in effect, at the end of my talk in Tirana.  I looked around he room as people stood and applauded, and I had to interject that the young people in that room were the heroes.  I have spent most of my life scared and in hiding.  I was born when Eisenhower was President, and it took me until two years ago to come out publically once and for all.  To you, my friends, the future belongs.  As difficult as conditions may be in your countries, things will get better because of you.  I am proud of all of you in Tirana and repeat the wish I expressed at the end of my talk:
May we all live in self-acceptance and peace no matter what our sexual orientation or gender identity.  
Life is too short to do otherwise.
To all readers of these notes, I wish you a Happy Pride.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Remove the Document, and You Remove the Man

"Нет документа, нет и человека," удовлетворенно говорил Коровьев. . . . 
"Вы правильно сказали," говорил мастер, пораженный чистотою работы Коровьева, "что раз нет документа, нету и человека. Вот именно меня-то и нет, у меня нет документа."  
"Я извиняюсь," вскричал Коровьев, "это именно галлюцинация, вот он, ваш документ," и Коровьев подал мастеру документ. 

"Remove the document, and you remove the man,” said Koroviev with satisfaction. . . .  
"You were right," said the master, amazed at Koroviev's efficiency, "when you said that once you remove the document, you remove the man as well.  I no longer exist now.  I have no papers." 
"Oh no, I beg your pardon," exclaimed Koroviev."  That is just another hallucination. Here are your papers!"

This has always been one of my favorite exchanges in the novel Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.  It takes place as Koroviev, in league with a devilish but benevelant Lucifer figure in the person of Woland, evaporates the Master's identity papers in the blink of an eye and hands him entirely new ones.  No longer will the Master have to live with the troubled identity of a person in trouble with the State who has spent time in a psychiatric institute for his writings.  Now he has a new identity.  The old one no longer exists in any office, in any directory, or in any archive.  The old identity has been replaced by the new one everywhere.  The old Master is no longer to be found.

I first read those lines in the early 1970s when I was in college, struggling but failing to come to terms with being transgender.  Now I reread the lines and think how marvelously appropriate the words are for any transgender person in the process of exchanging old documents for new ones.
My experience in obtaining new documents so far has been remarkable for its ease.  A Foreign Service friend I have know for years did the honors of adjudicating my new tourist passport in our Consular Section right here in Bucharest.  I had my new tourist passport in hand before Christmas of last year, only two weeks after my legal name change.  The Romanian Government issued my new diplomatic ID only a few days later.  Social Security processed my application and issued a new card out of their Rome office in January.  My new diplomatic passport took until March, but that is no longer than it takes for any normal case.

American Express wanted all documentation in writing but issued a new credit card as soon as the name change letter and a scan of my new passport were in their hands.  The same was true for my bank accounts.  Visa simply took my word for it over the telephone, a fact that leaves me wondering about their security measures.  The State of Maine has been very accommodating and is issuing a temporary paper license in my new name until I can next get to Maine in person for a photo ID license.  I won't even think about my birth certificate yet, as the State of New York still requires a surgeon's certification of SRS/GCS before it will issue a new one.

I'm sure there will be secondary and tertiary accounts that will be raising their heads for the next several years in a transgender-document-exchange version of whack-a-mole.  A transgender acquaintance at NASA told me that long-forgotten accounts continued to pop up five years after her transition.

But how far does the document exchange go?  What has fascinated me of late is Chapter 4 of the Office of Personnel Management's Guide to Personnel Recordkeeping, in particular the guidance on How to Reconstruct a Personnel Folder due to a Change in Gender Identity that begins on p. 4-5.  Seven pages of instructions guaranteed to warm the heart of a dedicated human resources officer (HRO) spell out every step in excruciating detail.  In Bucharest, it took my HRO friend Nat and me six weeks just to make heads or tails of it.  It was clearly beyond our understanding here in the Balkans, and we had to turn to OPM for explanations that we neophytes could understand.  When OPM was done explaining, the entire seven pages of instructions could be reduced to the following --
All traces of the former identity and gender are removed retroactively from all documents going back to the beginning of the employee's federal service.  The old personnel file is sealed and goes to the archives, replaced by a new file showing the new identity and gender back to the beginning of employment.
The concept is simplicity itself, isn't it?  One wants to stand back and marvel at both the audacity and the foresight of the author.  The reason why the guidance calls for the thorough eradication of the former identity is to avoid a hostile workplace and any inadvertent disclosure of an employee's gender transition to co-workers and colleagues years after transition.

I have already come to see the wisdom of the OPM guidance.  I am a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) working for the State Department, and my raises and promotions are decided not by my supervisors in Bucharest but by an anonymous panel back in Washington.  This panel looks at an FSO's current Employee Evaluation Report (EER) and up to the five previous ones when doing its review.  In my case this would mean that my gender transition would be disclosed to an anonymous EER panel that has power over my future.  Although I've made no secret of my transition, neither do I want my transition to be on the table during a discussion of my performance.  What if a member of the panel is hearing about the reality of gender transition for the first time?  What if this person is not accepting of transgender people?  Suddenly a performance discussion could be colored by panel members' personal views on transgender people and transition.
The Master and Margarita

So I applaud the OPM guidance and the foresight of the author.  Now I'm just waiting on the HR folks back in Washington to implement the guidance and change my name and gender in all prior EERs before this year's EER goes to panel.  I can imagine the pain this must be causing to those charged with implementing the guidance.  Going back retroactively and changing all documents related to my employment with the Department of State since 2004 is understandably time consuming and tedious.

I should like to see this burden on colleagues eased.  I call on Koroviev to return, to Washington this time instead of to Moscow.  I'm sure his eyes would sparkle devilishly behind his broken prince-nez.  He would look smugly at me and my HR colleagues and utter his simple phrase, "Remove the document, and you remove the man."  Then he would waggle his fingers and pull an entirely new personnel file out of the air and say, "Here are your papers!"

Life would be so much simpler that way, wouldn't it?