Sunday, September 30, 2012

Turning to the East

The next time I board an early morning plane at Bucharest's Otopeni Airport, my ultimate destination will be to the east.  Skirting the Caspian and Aral Seas, I will fly over Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the country where I had already begun walking a path towards transition in 2008-10 without quite knowing it yet.  (See I Wish I Was in the Land of Cotton.) Tashkent,  my home for two years, will pass below.  Perhaps I will see the Charvak Reservoir to the east of Tashkent, the scene of so many weekend trips with friends and especially with F1 and F2 to escape the burning Central Asian summer heat.  Then we will cross into Kyrgyzstan as the mountains rise higher and higher.  Soon we will fly over the highest mountains of all, the Himalayas, as we hurry on ever eastward.

The final destination is Thailand.  If the route is familiar to me, it is because it won't be my first visit.  In 2008, still fresh to the U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan, I boarded a plane in Tashkent and flew to Bangkok for a regional conference on economic issues.  It was a week of seminar talks, small group sessions, and evening dinners.  I had two suits tailor made.  I walked the city by night and on the weekend, my first time ever in an Eastern country and culture that is so different from my own.  I was enthralled.

I was also sad.  I had known for years if not decades that Thailand had become a mecca for those seeking gender confirmation surgery (GCS).  It was a bittersweet thought that here I was in that mecca but that GCS was further removed from my reality than ever.  I had contemplated transition three times in my life and each time had failed.  A fourth time there would not be.  Impossible.

After the Bangkok Economic Conference, 2008
But as readers of these notes have learned, the fourth time did come.  Against all odds, I succeeded just as I thought I had lost everything.  I am now approaching the one year anniversary of my transition to living full time as a woman, and with that anniversary behind me, I will fly to Thailand not for an economic conference but for the GCS that seemed out of reach only four years ago.

In July I wrote about my decision making on which surgeon I would choose for GCS (Looking for Spa Therapy) and advertised that I would make my choice by mid-August.  A few dedicated readers may have been wondering all through September, "Well, what did you decide?"

Indeed, I have my destination for GCS, my spa therapy, and it is with Dr. Sanguan Kunaporn at the Phuket Plastic Surgery Center in Phuket, Thailand.  It was a difficult choice to make, as all five of the surgeons I was considering are leaders in this field.  I had good rapport with all the clinics on my list, and  I particularly enjoyed meeting Kathy Rumer in Philadelphia in early August.  I had a delightful correspondence with a staff member at Dr. Suporn's clinic who had once herself lived in Bucharest.

So why Dr. Kunaporn?  First of all it was his willingness to correspond with me directly by e-mail without going through his office.  Then there was a referral from an independent surgeon who spoke highly of Dr. Kunaporn and the many testimonials on the Internet from others who had been to him for GCS.  As I sat speaking with Kathy Rumer in Philadelphia, the word came to me that crystalized why I would head east:  Nadine.

I have heard from many people how important it is to have a close friend in attendance during GCS, someone to help you through the recovery period.  At first I saw this as a reason to go to the US for surgery, where Philadelphia is not that far away from my two sisters in Maryland.  Another transgender friend cautioned me, however, that no matter how supportive one's family members might be -- and mine are very supportive -- they will have conflicted feelings.  Far better, she said, to go with a friend who knows me only as I am today and who may herself be walking the same road.  For me that person is Nadine.

The even better news is that between donations, Nadine's savings, and my own funds, we will have enough for us both to have GCS.  Our surgeries will be two days apart in late January, and then we will help each other through recovery.  Depending on my physical condition after surgery, I may also have some limited facial feminization surgery (FFS) about two weeks after GCS.  Overall I expect we will be in Phuket for 5-6 weeks.

Crossing the Himalayas, 2008
Almost four months remain before Nadine and I fly to Thailand.  There is much to do, much to prepare between now and then, yet time is moving forward inexorably.  Tomorrow the calendar turns another page to the first full month of autumn.  A crispness has entered the morning air, and already I need to turn on my bicycle lights for part of my morning and evening commutes to and from Embassy Bucharest.  Before long the leaves will be changing color as thoughts turn towards the holidays, and then there will be the first snowflakes of winter.  As those snows come, Nadine and I will pack our bags and fly eastward over Tashkent and the Himalayas to fulfill the dream that has been with both of us since earliest age.  Only this time it will not be a dream.

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

Although our funds are nearing what we need for both Nadine and I to have GCS with Dr. Kunaporn in Phuket, they are not quite there yet.  Please consider making even the smallest donation to the fund I have established to pay for Nadine's GCS.  You can find a PayPal link at Nadine Chilianu GCS Appeal.



Friday, September 21, 2012

Foreign Service Bidding and Transgender DADT

Ah, bidding season.  It's a ritual in the Foreign Service.  As a tenured Foreign Service Officer (FSO), I may have a more-or-less guaranteed job unless I fail to perform or commit some egregious transgression, but yet I must find a new job every two or three years.  It's a bit of a contradiction.

Here's the way it works.  When I entered the Foreign Service in 2004, I was an entry level officer (ELO) even though I had had a prior 25 year career.  Like many other FSOs for whom the Foreign Service is a second career, I threw my accumulated private sector seniority to the wind.  It's part of the price we willingly pay to begin again in a new field.

ELOs have only a limited say in where they are assigned.  They are directed to their assignments, and thus my first postings to the Russia Desk and then to Moscow were nothing but the best of luck.  I was tenured and promoted shortly after leaving Moscow in 2007, but my follow-on assignment to Uzbekistan still came under the ELO umbrella in that I was directed to this assignment before receiving tenure.

Only in 2009 did I bid as a mid-level officer for the first time.  As anyone who has read Pacing the Cage knows, that bidding season ended in a fiasco.  My eventual assignment to Romania was accidental or, as I now prefer to view it, evidence of a gentle and loving intervention by a higher power.

A year ago I bid again as a mid-level officer, and I successfully lobbied for and received a one-year assignment to Washington, DC, that will begin in the summer of 2013.  At the time I said nothing about any impending changes in my life, as I knew that everyone who interviewed me for the position would be long gone by the time I arrived.

So what happens to me in 2014?  Yes, the time has come to bid yet again.  Bidding season began in early August with the publication of the official list of openings for 2014.  It remains open until early October.  During this season it is the responsibility of those bidding to lobby the various embassies, consulates, and offices to express their interest in a given position.  One must also provide 360 references from supervisors, colleagues, and staff that, one hopes, will support the argument that you should be selected for the position.  Some positions attract five, ten, fifteen, or more bidders.  The competition can be stiff, so it is never wise to put one's eggs in a single basket.  The official bidding system allows an FSO to enter up to fifteen bids, and the wise FSO will lobby seriously for many or all of the positions on  his or her bid list.  The opposite side of the coin is that one should never bid on a position that one is not willing to take if selected.  If one fails to heed this advice, Murphy's Law will intervene and see to it that this is precisely where one will end up.

So here I am, bidding as a mid-level officer for the third time, searching for the dream posting that will be my life from 2014 to 2016 or 2017.  There's nothing to worry about, is there?  It's just another 2-3 years of my life, nothing to be concerned about, right?  Gulp. . . .

Let's see, is there anything different about me this bidding season that was not there a year ago?  Now what is it?  Hmm, my hair is much longer, I wear a dress and earrings, I've developed an acceptable female voice, and all important ID documents proudly highlight the letter F.  That's right, I've transitioned gender!  How could I have forgotten?

So does this play any role in bidding for my next post?  Aha, here we go again with transgender don't ask, don't tell (DADT).  (See also Old Clothes and Transgender DADT.)  Who needs to know of my transition, and when do they need to know it?

As far as bidding is concerned, I started from the view that my transition is no one's business, especially since the State Department's human resources' office in Washington finished rebuilding my personnel file in late July.  My record of federal employment has been modified all the way back to my summer internship at the U.S. Naval Observatory in 1976.  There is no evidence anywhere in any accessible written or electronic file that anyone other than a woman named Robyn McCutcheon has ever worked for the U.S. Government.  That includes all past performance appraisals, in which not even one errant pronoun of the incorrect gender remains.  My old personnel file was sealed and sent to an archive that in my mind's eye is the warehouse at the end of the original Raiders of the Lost Ark.  (See also Remove the Document, and You Remove the Man.)

So far so good.  I don't need to say anything to anyone as I bid for 2014 positions.  Unless, of course, they knew me back when.


Yes, although I have been thorough in coming out to family, friends, and all current and many former work colleagues, there was no way I could come out to everyone I had ever worked with.  Sure enough, a few of these people who are not in the know have turned out to be at the center of my lobbying attention for several positions.  Sigh.  My e-mail letters to them included sentences such as --

You may remember me from the days when I worked on the Russia Desk (or in Moscow or in Uzbekistan).  I am very interested in bidding on position XXX in country YYY.  By the way, you may have noticed that my name has changed since we last worked together.
In a few cases I have left it at that.  When I was in Washington, DC, in August, however, I visited Main State twice to lobby in person.  In this case I had to add another sentence to my e-mail --
There is something else you should know before I come by your office.
All my meetings went well, and only once did I feel a few surreptitious glances with the implied question, "So this is what it is to be trans?"  Still, there is no way I can know what was in the minds of these gatekeepers on the road to my future assignment. I can just hope for the best.

Then there is the matter of those former colleagues who are serving as my 360 references.  They all know my story and are very supportive, but a full three quarters of them serving in far-flung corners of the globe have yet to see the real me in person.  How likely is it that not one of them will make an absent minded slip with a gender pronoun when corresponding or talking about me with a potential future supervisor?  How likely is it that not one of them will call me by old name at least once?  I would say it's about as likely as a winter of no snow in Romania.  I can already imagine the perplexed look on that potential future supervisor's face should an errant pronoun float into view.

What we have here, dear friends, is another instance where theory and reality go their separate ways.  In theory my gender transition should not enter into the bidding process at all.  In reality, I'm certain that all potential future supervisors will be aware of my transition by the time the bidding process is complete.  It feels inevitable.  The question is, will that awareness play a role in their decision making?

Transgender DADT is real whether I wish to acknowledge it or not.  With time I'm sure it will play an ever decreasing role in my life, but it will never go away entirely.  It is a tangible burden, although when I think of the burdens I carried before transition, I smile and move forward.  Wherever this bidding season and fate should send me two years from now, it is the real me who will go there.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

To Peris(h) by Bicycle

"We are going to perish by bicycle."  Bucharest friend and bicyclist Rupert Wolfe Murray got my attention with those words a week ago.

It's time for another bicycle interlude.   Although this web journal carries the subtitle The Adventures of a Transgender Foreign Service Bicyclist, I've written so infrequently on bicycle themes that I'm scarcely justified keeping bicyclist in the title.  Looking back, I see just a handful of postings in which the bicycle has rolled out to center stage.

New readers interested mainly in transgender and transition-related issues may wonder why they should read about my bicycle adventures.  The answer is simple.  I would not be a bicyclist today if I were not transgender.  My life as an adult cyclist began in 1990 in the aftermath of my week in a psychiatric ward following my attempt to speak openly of being transgender.  As I succumbed to pressure and retreated to the closet, I fell into a deep depression.  I owe my emotional survival in the 1990s to a friend who both accepted me and recognized the pressures I was facing.  It is this friend who put me back on two wheels for the first time in many a long year.  (See Hubble Goes Up, I Go Down -- or -- So How Far Back Does This Go? (Part 7).)

Since 1990 the bicycle has been my primary mode of transportation.  Before joining the Foreign Service, I rode 5000-7000 miles per year, most of it as a daily commuter.  My annual mileage has dropped to half that since I went overseas due to shorter daily commutes and good public transit, but in Bucharest just as in Washington, DC, the bicycle gives me the wings I need to live as a mobile woman of the modern age.  My Rivendell Atlantis takes me everywhere both by day and by night and is nearly an extension of myself.

Riding a bicycle in traffic also taught me an important lesson that became my guiding principle during my transition:  Be visible and be predictable.  In transition as in riding a bicycle, safety is counter-intuitive.  Hugging the curb and staying out of the way for fear of traffic, that's what will get one hurt on a bicycle.   Remember that and riding as an urban cyclist will be a breeze.  Staying in the shadows for fear of how friends and family will react is a recipe for failure in gender transition.   Visibility and predictability are as important in transition as they are in riding a bicycle.  At least they were for me as I rode my bicycle and transitioned gender in Bucharest, Romania.

So back to Rupert, whom I know to be very sane and not prone to talk of sudden death.  

"No, not perish, but Peris(h)," Rupert said as he spread out the map.  "It's a small town north of Bucharest."

We headed out on Saturday morning into the weekend traffic that in its character is little different from weekend traffic in Washington, DC.  In Romania as in the US, weekends are the time for families to run the errands that accumulate during the week.  Traffic was as heavy as on any weekday.

But not for long.   Within 30 minutes we passed the city zoo and entered an oak forest on Bucharest's northern edge.  On the road I set the pace, but in the woods I lagged far behind.  My Atlantis is a touring bicycle built for the road, and I have little off-road riding experience as it is.  Rupert waited patiently for me at key turning points, and a number of times he had to wait longer still as I had to dismount and walk my bicycle around ruts, mud, and other obstacles beyond my riding limits.  But in the saddle or on foot, it was a lovely end of summer day to be in nature, outside the city.

Rupert
Out of the woods and back on the road, we pushed on northward.  As we did, I watched Rupert with his shirt blowing in the wind and thought to myself, "You know, he really is rather handsome."  Slowly but perceptibly, my perceptions of men and of male beauty are changing.

Then we were in another forest.  Here it was a dirt road, not a forest path.  We should have suspected something from the smooth surface and something further still when we went around a barricade.  There were no vehicles of any kind other than us on the road, and the only sounds were those of the forest and of our own wheels on the gravel . . . until a pack of barking dogs bounded around the bend to tell us we were unwelcome.   We dismounted, walked around the bend, and discovered we had come to the road's end at a run-down looking military facility. Rupert inquired in Romanian whether we could cross to get to the road on the north side of the woods.  The guard's gestures alone were enough to tell me the answer was "No!"  Instead, we backtracked, found a spot where we could exit the woods into a field, and stopped for lunch in the shade.  After that we walked our bikes across a harvested field, the remains at our feet telling us it had been a field of sunflowers.

Country roads took us the rest of the way to Peris(h).  The accent is on the first syllable, and the "s" is a Romanian "s" with a cedilla underneath telling that it is pronounced as "sh."  When Rupert had shown me the town on the map, I realized I had already been there in 2010 on the weekend after I had first reassembled my Atlantis in Bucharest.  It had been a chilly November day, and I had ridden entirely on-road.  I was already surreptitiously cross-dressing but was uncertain whether I should reach out to anyone.  Nervous brooding filled my mind for that entire ride. My fateful conversation with Kyna was still two or three weeks away.  (See Kyna -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 1.)

So why go to Peris(h)?  I learned the answer when we pulled up to the gate before a Romanian home on a side street.  A woman walked out to greet us in American English with a Texas accent.

Rupert introduced us. "RM, this is Nancy."  Minutes later we were seated on her porch sipping Coca Cola that tasted so wonderfully American after a long ride.

Nancy's husband is a well known Romanian artist and architect, and everything about their home shows this.  They designed the house themselves, and artwork hangs everywhere, even in the bathroom.  Nancy had worked at a university in Texas, where she met her husband in the late 1980s when he had the status of a political refugee on the run from Ceausescu's regime in its brutal final years.   Now they live on the plot of land in this small Romanian town that had belonged to his family before World War II.  Everything about their home speaks of a deep love that has transcended nationalities and politics.

They also live in Romania for very practical reasons.  

"Here my pension is worth something," Nancy told me. "I wouldn't be able to live on it the US anymore."  

That part of Nancy's story caught my attention as I also grapple with the fact that I have lost most of my savings.  I am now less than seven years away from my mandatory retirement from the Foreign Service.  Might I decide to spend my retirement in Romania or Moldova?  That idea is starting to sound more and more reasonable to me.

With Nancy and Her Grand-Nieces
The family picture was rounded out when Nancy's two grand-nieces drove up.  Now the conversations were about their jobs, parties, and boyfriends.  I felt I could have been on a front porch anywhere in the heartland of my own country.

The autumnal equinox is not far away, and I saw from the clock that it was 6pm, time to leave if I did not want to be caught on the road long after dark.  Rupert was staying in Peris(h) for the night, but I had things I needed to do on Sunday.  Reluctantly, I got back on my bike and went on my way, this time entirely on-road.  I paused a short distance outside Bucharest where the highway crosses the railway tracks on a tall, arching bridge in Buftea.  I stood at the top and watched as the sun sank to the horizon.  I thought back on the distance I had come in the nearly two years since I last crossed that bridge.  I looked at the odometer and saw that it would show 100km by the time I reached home, but in my heart I knew that the odometer lies.   In the two years since my last ride to Peris(h), I have journeyed a lifetime, a distance no odometer can measure.

Then I turned on my lights, threw my leg over the top tube, and pushed off for home . . . and the future.




* * * * * * * * * *

For other bicycle-related postings in Transgender in State, see --


Rupert writes for the Huffington Post and is also an prolific blogger.  You can find Rupert's personal web journal, which includes a number of posts about bicycling in Romania, at www.productive.ro.  

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Try to Remember

Try to remember the kind of September.  With those musical words, El Gallo opens The Fantasticks, the longest running off-Broadway musical of all time.  I first fell in love with the score of The Fantasticks in the early 1970s, when I would skip gym class at my all-boys high school in midtown Manhattan in favor of the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts.  It wasn't until 1975 that I found myself in the Sullivan Street Playhouse to see the play along with two of my sisters, our tickets a summer gift from our mom.  I've seen it two more times since at other theaters and continue to enjoy the simple story and light, lyrical score.

Those opening words from The Fantasticks come on my mind each September.  Once again that time of year has come.  Do I still remember?  

In August I was in the United States for vacation and a training week.  I found myself one day at Main State, the State Department's headquarters building in Foggy Bottom.  As I walked the hallways, I thought back to my first year at State in 2004-05.  I had just left a career of long standing to start anew, and I walked those hallways in a suit and tie.  Most of the time I had a knot in my stomach as I tried to prove myself in my new profession.  (See Looking for George Kennan -- or -- The Day My Universe Changed (2002-11), Part 2.)  But do I remember what it felt like?  Walking those same hallways in 2012, I found the memory had faded, overwhelmed by a happier present.


Reunion Lunch with CSC/NASA Friends
Another day I had a reunion luncheon with co-workers from my first career.  Over a dozen people came, including several I had not seen since since leaving in 2005.  Although all knew of my transition, none had yet seen me as I am today.  We talked over old times and good memories.  I told the story of what had happened to me after the launch of Hubble in 1990 when I spoke out loud of being transgender for the first time . . . and found myself in a psychiatric ward for my pains.  (See Hubble Goes Up, I Go Down -- or -- So How Far Back Does This Go? (Part 7).)  I recalled for one old friend and colleague how we had walked around the lake at Goddard Space Flight Center one day that hot summer not long before I stepped forward into disaster.  How I had wanted to talk with someone that day, but the fear overpowered the need.  Looking back, I wonder how it would have been different had I had the strength to speak that day.  Try to remember, but mercifully, even the emotional pain of that summer has faded.


With My Marvelous  Son
My marvelous son is now quite the independent young professional man.  We spent two evenings together, and the memories that came were the good ones.  I remember lying on the floor to give crawling lessons when he was just months old.  Then there were bike rides, school projects, scouts, swim meets, and the first high school dance.  I hope it is those same good memories that come effortlessly to my former spouse as they do to me on these September days.


With Kyna, Repaying a Hug
And there was Kyna.  My best friend and helper on the road to transition in the winter of 2010-11 is in Washington now, and  I was finally able to repay the hug I owed her from over a year ago.  (See Kyna.)  The fearful memories of that long winter have faded even as the memories of a good friend to whom I owe so much remain.


My Little Home in the Maine Woods
At Home in Maine
From Washington I made my way north to Maine.  My neighbor Kelli met me at the bus stop; two years ago it would have been her husband Frank.  Kelli left me off at my little cabin just as the sun was setting.  When I went in, I saw the calendar hanging as I had left it nearly two years ago, the page still showing October 2010.  Should I try to remember the fear and outright panic I experienced in August and September of 2010 as my career and my life unexpectedly unraveled?  I remember the pain, but the emotional memories are beginning to fade even as I continue to live in amazement that that somehow, miraculously, this fourth lifetime attempt to transition gender has succeeded.


With My Sisters in Maine
Three of my sisters joined me in Maine two days later.  For a week we lived in delightful isolation from the Internet and even cell phones.  They rented a house not far from me on one of the many lakes in that part of northern Maine.  This time trying to remember required no effort at all.  As we sat outside looking at the water or the clear Maine sky, I remembered many a day with them at mountain lakes in New York in the early 1960s.  I smiled in those old photos, still in the magical thinking that although I knew myself to be different, it would all work out.  I can feel the sand and hear the transistor radio from those years.  Those good memories of childhood remain.

After Maine it was back to Washington for a week of training.  As I sat in a room with two dozen strangers, I thought how wonderful it was that no one knew my life story and that there was no need to tell it.  I was simply RM from Embassy Bucharest.  As I walked the streets near the Courthouse Metro one evening, it dawned on me that I no longer wonder anxiously whether I pass and that if I perversely wanted to attract stares, I would need to put on a suit and tie.

Try to remember the kind of September, When Life was slow and oh, so mellow.  As much as I loved the score of the Fantasticks through the years, those words never seemed to apply to me.  My life was always full of carefully hidden inner turmoil.  As I landed at Bucharest's Otopeni Airport after my four weeks in the US, I knew I had come home to the magical land where, at least for me, dreams are kept beside your pillow.  Oana, Raluca, Nadine, Kyna, and so many others here both in the LGBT community and at the Embassy have made my dreams come true.  If I should look back deep in December in some still-distant future, the ache I will feel will be for the beautiful memories of these friends, these times.  The beauty of my present will be the memories of my future.  May this be true for us all.


* * * * * * * * * *

Jerry Orbach sings Try to Remember from the original cast recording of The Fantasticks.