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  The old identity has been replaced by the new one everywhere.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?

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