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.

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