Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Proudly from Bucharest

It may be July, but I am still beautifully albeit exhaustedly aglow with the spirit of Pride Month.

June was the first true Pride Month of my life.  In June of last year I was already "out" in the US and was invited to participate in the Washington Pride March.  I missed it because my flight back to Bucharest was a week prior.  The Bucharest Pride March had taken place the week before my return, and in any case it was still just a small circle of Embassy people that was in the know about my transition.  Thus this year, 2012, was my first.

I also found myself at the head of our all-volunteer Pride planning committee at the Embassy.  We had our first meetings in March.  I remember well how one Friday evening we met together at my place to lay out plans.  We in this case included Kevin and Rob from the Embassy, Andrew and Tibbi from the British Embassy, and Irina Nita and and Daniela Pri from ACCEPT, the Romanian LGBT rights organization.  When we were done and everyone had departed, I stood in front of my wall calendar and went pale to think how much we had just committed ourselves to accomplish in only three months.  I went paler still to think how much I had committed myself to.

But you know what?  We did it all.  Everything we sketched out in March came to pass and succeeded beyond my wildest hopes for this, my first-ever foray into LGBT outreach and activism.

The month began with a bang at the U.S. Embassy.  Dozens of high school students gathered that day for a digital video conference (DVC) on bullying in high schools.  Dozens more students joined in via video link from American Corners in other Romanian cities.  From the US, an educator from the Fairfax, VA, public school system spoke about how bullying is being handled in the US, and she fielded questions from our very involved and interested Romanian audience.  The idea for the DVC came from Rob, and it was Eddie from our Cultural Affairs office who brilliantly carried out all planning and execution.  It was a great way to begin the month.

Next was the regional LGBT conference in Tirana that I wrote about in my previous post.  Romanian activists Tudor Kovacs and Alexandra Carastoian went with me to a workshop that none of us will forget soon.  Putting together my presentation took me two weeks of evenings to get right.

Back from Tirana, I put the finishing touches on an op-ed for our Ambassador.  We had a great starting point in a brilliant editorial written by a colleague in Sofia.  Kevin and Eddie made our own changes and did deletions and additions to make it relevant to Romania.  It was published under the Ambassador's signature on June 29, the day before the Pride March.  Kevin and I wrote two Pride Month articles for our own internal Embassy newsletter.

My biggest days personally were June 26-27.  Tudor had received PEPFAR and other funding to hold a day conference on transgender issues on the 26th.  A dozen transgender men and women from across Romania along with OD from Moldova gathered in Bucharest, their first meeting as a group since the transgender congress in Brasov in March of last year.  

Most stayed the night and came to the Embassy the next afternoon to be in the audience for a transgender DVC.  A 3-person panel consisting of Mara Keisling from the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), Valerie Meyer from the Department of Justice, and Martha Harris from the Banyan Counseling Center had gathered early in the morning at the State Department in Washington, DC, for this 90-minute DVC.  On this Bucharest afternoon we had a similar 3-person Romanian panel covering equality, legal, and mental health issues.  Irina Nita covered equality in the large, while a Romanian attorney covered legal issues and Iulia Molnar from ACCEPT covered mental health.  In fact, the Romanian attorney joined us not in Bucharest but via video link from Embassy London, thus making this a 3-way DVC.  Our Bucharest audience also had a chance to ask questions directly of the experts.

I was nervous before the DVC.  This had been my solo project.  Would it work?  As is usual for me, I became calm only as I opened the DVC and introduced all the participants.  When I introduced Mara, I said that I believed this to be the first such DVC every conducted at a U.S. Embassy, but I added with a smile that I hoped Mara might contradict me.  She didn't.  For the next 90 minutes we discussed the issues, made contacts, and began to give our young transgender audience a glimmer of an understanding of what can be achieved in the struggle for transgender rights when people work together.  The DVC may only have been an "introduction to an introduction," but it achieved my goal of introducing my transgender Romanian friends to conditions in the US.  I hope it also inspired them.

When the DVC was over, almost everyone headed straight to the Ambassador's residence for an evening reception in honor of Pride Month.  I had started putting together the guest list nearly two months earlier to include both LGBT activists and community members along with political, social, and even religious leaders.  All-in-all about 75 people came, about twice the number who had come to the previous year's reception hosted by the British Embassy.  (Indeed, this was the first time that the U.S. Embassy had hosted a Pride reception.)  We began with a showing of Secretary Clinton's Pride Month message, after which both our Ambassador and the British Ambassador delivered remarks.  I had goosebumps when I looked around at my Romanian LGBT friends.  I knew most of them had never expected to be a guest at such a reception hosted by the U.S. Ambassador.  From that point and continuing for the next three days, I became teary eyed again and again to think that we had done it and were part of something bigger than ourselves.

The high-point of Pride Month in Bucharest was the entire last week of June, known here as GayFest.  There were events every day all around the city.  I again participated as a book in a living library.  David Tiser from the Czech Republic came to show his film Roma Boys to a standing room only audience.  (Did I ever mention that I actually did succeed in writing a report on what it means to be both Roma and gay?)  The Friday evening screening of the British film Becoming Penny about the transition experience of Penny Panagi was a personal high point.  Penny herself had come to Bucharest, and I regretted only not having met her a few days earlier to bring her into our Bucharest transgender events.

Getting Ready to March
Finally the big day had come.  In the late afternoon on Saturday the 30th, somewhere between 200 and 250 of us gathered in downtown Bucharest for the Pride March.  That may sound small, but remember that Pride marches in Bucharest began only in the mid-2000s.  In past years they were marked by counter-demonstrations and even violent outbursts from those opposed to LGBT rights.  The police presence was heavy, but as we looked around at the sidewalks, we saw that passers-by were waving and smiling.  We relaxed, smiled, and waved our rainbow flags as the samba drums and music began.  Over a dozen of us from the Embassy joined our Ambassador behind a banner whose design I had stolen from the lovely banner used at the Tirana LGBT workshop just two weeks earlier.  Loredana, sometimes known as the Romanian Madonna and this year the first-ever Romanian LGBT Ambassador, marched side-by-side with our Ambassador at the start of the march.

We March (Ambassador and Libby at the left; Loredana to my right)
That's when my joyful tears really began.  Our little committee had done it.  In just three months of volunteer work, we had put our U.S. Embassy at the front of the parade.  Kevin, who had done so very much to make this happen, carried one end of our banner.

Irina Nita
And my Romanian friends had accomplished more than any of us.  I looked around and saw Tudor shining and dancing with his Eu Sunt!  Tu? flag.  Raluca was there, proudly wearing the emblem designating her as a parade marshal.  There walked Irina and Daniela from ACCEPT, both looking exhausted but beautifully happy.  Irina and Tudor spoke to the crowd, and Loredana performed.  Michael Cashman, an openly gay British member of the European Parliament, took the podium to speak inspiring words of hope and acceptance.  I looked around at my American and Romanian friends in this crowd, so many of whom have played a direct role in the transformation of my own life.  My tears came again as our rainbow cloud of balloons took to flight.  What a joy it is to be alive, to have become myself fully and openly, and to be part of this Bucharest Pride.

Tudor Carries the Flag


Kevin (right foreground)


Greetings to all of you, my friends and readers.  Robyn from Bucharest wishes for you that the spirit of Pride remain in your hearts and minds all through the year to come.  Peace.

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