Wednesday, November 28, 2012

November Postcards

It's been a very busy several weeks in Bucharest, my home town.  Several times I began writing a post for this journal only to have it overtaken by events.  Rather than throwing up my hands in despair, I'll weave together the various incomplete jottings, my postcards if you will, before December intervenes and brings the first snows with Christmas not far behind.

Riding the CfR Rails on the Bucharest-Brasov-Cluj Line

Clickety-clack, the slow CfR train just passed through Rupea, bound for Bucharest another 3-4 hours down the line.  Alexandra C., Monica, and Oana doze in our 2nd class compartment as I write and watch the Romanian countryside pass by our window, a countryside of rolling hills, farms, and woods.  It is a landscape that reminds me yet again why I feel so at home in Romania, so strong a resemblance it bears to the countryside of the northeastern United States.  We are halfway home to Bucharest even as I feel I could step out of the train and find myself somewhere in New England.

Between Brasov and Cluj
We journeyed the other way just three days ago, departing from Bucharest's North Station an hour before sunrise.  Our destination was Cluj-Napoca, eight hours and a different historical reality away.  A part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, the city still proudly bears witness to the days of grand empire.  Historic buildings carry carved inscriptions in Hungarian, and the feeling is still as much Budapest as it is Bucharest.

It's not my first visit to Cluj.  I was here in 1978 en-route back to Western Europe from the Soviet Union.  As I stood on the central square in front of the Roman Catholic Saint Michael's Cathedral on Thursday afternoon, I remembered the scared young student then deep in purge and self-denial who had stood on the same spot 34 years ago.  It was the summer when I had thrown my heart and mind into Russian language and literature, consciously telling myself that it was a socially acceptable channeling of the feelings for a different life, a different reality.


In Front of St. Michael's
How very different this visit.  The four of us had come to Cluj for Romania's largest annual LGBT film festival.  For the ninth year a small, dedicated group of volunteers working with a shoestring budget had pulled off what some now say is in the top ten of such festivals in Europe.  From Monday through Saturday, movies played each evening at three different venues, pulling a couple of hundred moviegoers and activists to the heart of Transylvania from as far away as the UK and Spain.  The movies ranged from locally produced documentaries and activist spot messages to art movies from Thailand, Israel, and Portugal.  A few played to standing room only audiences.  When the lights came back on each evening, many adjourned to Delirio, Cluj's one LGBT club, to dance the night away.  Our Bucharest foursome was seriously impressed.


With Alexandra G.
It was also a chance to renew old relationships and begin new ones.  Alexandra G. picked us up early Friday  afternoon and drove us outside the city to a mountaintop restaurant with one of the nicest views I have seen in Romania.  Alexandra and I had met last spring when she came to Bucharest for two days, but this was the first time we had truly had a chance to talk and get to know each other.  Alexandra is well progressed in her transition and quite beautiful.  It is hard to imagine her as the construction worker she once was.  Alexandra says that it was when the worldwide recession forced the closure of her construction company that she came face to face with the transition question.  As it has been for me and for many others, it was that recognition of loss that spurred her forward.


Reflections with Alexandra C.
On Saturday I met Mihai and Andy, two handsome and intelligent transgender men.  They are both university students and active with the Cluj chapter of Transgender Advocacy Organization Romania-Moldova.  They are dealing with their identity issues just as I tried to during my own university years long ago.  The longer we sipped coffee together, the more I came to believe that they will succeed where I failed those many decades ago.  They will overcome the many hurdles that stand in their way.

Living Libraries

November 20.  It was a dark and chilly evening as I made my way from our Embassy to ACCEPT, the Romania LGBT rights organization.  This is one day of the calendar known to all transgender persons.  It's the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), the day when we remember those who have died in hate murders over the preceding twelve months for the "crime" of being transgender.

What a difference a year can make.  When I went to the TDOR observance at ACCEPT a year ago, I found that I was the only transgender person who had come.  We watched a short film, and then I spoke for some time to tell the assembled cisgender men and women what it means and how it feels to be transgender. I was unspeakably grateful to ACCEPT executive director Irina Nita for holding the evening event even as I felt lonely to be the only transgender person in the room.


This year I was not alone.  In addition to myself, eight members of Bucharest's transgender community had turned out, and they had themselves planned and organized the evening.  The names of those who have died over the past year scrolled on the projection screen, and the transgender symbol hung from the wall, covered with origami flowers.  Posters announcing the evening had been hung in several locations, and thirty or so supportive LGB and straight men and women had shown up.  The heart of the evening was a living library, something I had first heard of during LGBT history month last February, in which I and the other young transgender women and men moved between small groups, told our stories, and answered questions.  When the time came to leave, we did so in groups.  We were well aware that a group of volunteers had been attacked violently in the street after an LGBT play and discussion at a Bucharest university the previous week.


Just two nights later on Thanksgiving Day, several of us did a reprise of the living library at a Bucharest high school.  Together with several LGB Romanians and expats, we rotated between small groups of students to answer questions and tell our stories.  The event began at 5:30pm with one group of nearly 100 high school students who were replaced at 6:30 by a group of another 100.  Many from the second group did not leave until well after the advertised 7:30pm end time.  A dedicated high school teacher, Roxana Marin, has been organizing this extracurricular event together with her colleagues for several years running.  If anything, this living library was even more gratifying than the one two days earlier at TDOR.  The students with whom we were speaking are Romania's future.  In another decade or two, they are the ones who will be leading Romania.

Thanksgiving

The rest of my Thanksgiving Day was spent cooking.  I had advertised a Thanksgiving Open House on Saturday the 24th, and I had already spent many a late evening preparing.

Thanksgiving, to my mind, is the best holiday that we have in the United States.  There is nothing political about it, nothing religious.  It does not commemorate any president, and it does not imply a night of rowdy drinking the way New Year's does.  It's just a day to give thanks and as such is the most exportable U.S. holiday we have.  Both in Russia and in Uzbekistan, friends marveled at the simplicity of the idea when I explained it to them.  Ever since I went overseas for the first time in 2005, Thanksgiving has been the most important holiday in my annual calendar.

Two years ago Thanksgiving was a rather lonely affair as I was newly arrived, knew almost no one, and was deeply immersed in post-divorce litigation.  Last year I had a warm and wonderful evening with several of my close friends who had been intimately involved with and supportive of my transition.  It was my chance to give back to Irina, Tudor, Iulia, and others without whom I might not be here today.  I had reason to give great thanks for the new life that had become mine just two weeks earlier on November 10.


With Embassy Friends on Thanksgiving
This year I decided to take the leap, fling the door wide, and announce a Thanksgiving Open House.  I placed an announcement on Facebook and sent e-mail announcements to many friends both old and new not on Facebook.  I had no real idea how many people might come and therefore no idea how much I should cook.  "Never mind," I thought, "Turkey, ham, and pumpkin pie freeze well."  I prepared an extra large batch of Harvard beets, and a fresh supply of Brazilian black beans just in case.

My doorbell rang for the first time just before 4pm.  It was a paper plates and plastic cup affair, but it was a wonderful evening as so many friends both from the Embassy and from the city came and went.  In the end I believe there were more than twenty friends who came through that evening, many bringing flowers, a bottle of wine, tsuica, or a dish of their own to share.  Around 9pm we turned up the stereo volume and began to dance to everything from classics to LGBT music to traditional Roma tunes.  The last guest left around 2am.

Sunday brought with it the peace of a holiday evening that had been well enjoyed by all.  Oana and I gradually brought the apartment back into order.  Another friend who had spent the night worked with us as we drank coffee and ate leftover pumpkin pie.  Later we lounged on the couch to watch a movie as the cold of a deepening autumn kept us in the comfort of indoors.

Tonight will be another evening for friends when we get together to eat the leftovers.  In Romania as in the US, it all tastes so much better the day after.


* * * * * * * * * *

Those are my November postcards from Bucharest, where all the women are strong, the men are good looking, and . . . if you are a fan of Garrison Keillor and Prairie Home Companion, you know the rest.

Belated but warm Thanksgiving wishes to all.

Friday, November 9, 2012

My First Anniversary

Tomorrow, November 10, marks one year since the workplace announcement of my full-time transition to living as a woman.  Like many who have had a similar life experience, I now think of November 10 as more of a birthday than my real birthday.

I've written through the year of how my life has changed.  What had seemed impossible has become reality, so much so that I can scarcely remember how it felt to be me before November 10, 2011. When I look at old photos, I know intellectually that the person in them was me, but I can hardly believe it.  What is normal is who I am today.  The reflection that greets me each morning is my own.  Could there ever have been a different one?

The mechanics certainly have become easier.  The morning quick change after riding my bicycle to work takes only slightly longer than it did back then.  Applying makeup is now as much a ritual as my use of a razor must once have been.

Along with this one year anniversary comes a sadness, as with it comes the realization that my time in Romania will come to an end in little more than six months.  Surprisingly, it was good news earlier this week that brought this home to me.  On Monday I learned of my onward, post-Washington assignment that will begin in the fall of 2014.  It will be in Astana, Kazakhstan, and carries responsibilities that will have me traveling throughout Central Asia.  It is a position that has long been of interest to me.

The sadness came over me when I saw Oana that evening.  Suddenly the tears started to flow, and they kept flowing.  "I can't believe I am going to leave you," is what I sobbed through the tears.  As I thought of others to whom I have become very close in Romania, the tears came ever faster.  As any reader of this web journal knows, I found it difficult to leave my previous posts in Moscow and in Tashkent, but here I already have a much deeper sense of impending loss.  The reasoning side of my brain has switched off; now I am all feeling.  Many of the friends I will be leaving are far more than that.  Some have become family.  How can it be that I will leave?  Yet I know that I will.  My eyes become moist again as I write these lines.

But tomorrow I celebrate!  Indeed, I started celebrating earlier this week at the Embassy's election night event.  Through a long evening and into the morning hours we talked and waited for the results to start coming in.  When they did, I knew that the policies that allow my very existence would continue.  What an amazing time to be alive!

I can think of no better way to mark this one year anniversary than to repeat below the letter that I wrote to my sister Mary one year ago.  Am I still as excited each day as I was when I wrote that letter?  I have the answer to that in one simple word:  absolutely.  


* * * * * * * * * *
11/12/2011

Hi Mary,

Your good thoughts and energy got me through a long sleepless night from Wednesday to Thursday, so worried I was that after all these years, the biggest day of my life might not happen.  After three strikes -- college in the 1970s, 1990, and again in 2000-02 -- could this all be just a dream from which I would wake to find it was all a mirage?

It was only when I parked my bicycle in the Embassy parking lot on Thursday morning that the fog and worries vanished.  I turned on my cell phone and saw the one word that I still needed from one key person to let the day's events unfold.  That word was the simplest, shortest, happiest word I have ever seen:  YES.

Mary, it was the happiest day of my life.  The manager of the section I work in handled the announcement so beautifully at the special staff meeting he had called for 10am.  He opened by saying that today's meeting wasn't really to talk about work but to discuss the new management policy that had come out last week in which gender identity had been added to the anti-discrimination statement.  He asked if anyone had any idea what gender identity meant, what it meant to be transgender.  Our local staff just shrugged their shoulders, and he proceeded to give a short but good explanation.  He continued that all eyes were on Embassy Bucharest this day, as ours is the first U.S. Embassy we know of at which an American staff member had declared himself or herself to be transgender.  Then he paused and added, "She is sitting in this room.  I would like to introduce you all to Robyn."

I spoke for a good half hour.  Jaws dropped, and there were looks of incredulity on many faces when I began.  By the time I had finished, the expressions had changed to compassion, and I could see a tear or two.  People from whom I had never expected it told me how brave I was, and there were many handshakes and hugs.

I had set my e-mail announcement to all Embassy staff to be sent automatically at 10:30am, and thus by the time we walked out of our staff meeting at 11am, everyone knew.  We have a weekly Embassy newsletter, and it appeared at 2pm.  Whenever someone arrives or departs from our Bucharest family, there is a "welcome" or a "farewell."  This week it said, "Farewell Robert," and right next to it were the words "Welcome Robyn."

I did no work for the rest of the day as I was deluged by congratulatory e-mails.  I couldn't walk the halls without someone stopping me and expressing support.  I received personal e-mails from the highest levels that I could not have imagined the day before.  All day long the words were, "Welcome Robyn!"

I continued to walk and dance on air all Friday and Saturday.  I had the first professional pedicure and manicure of my life, somewhat amusingly having to invent a tale to explain why my feet have so many callouses.

Next I went to the hairdresser.  Andrea and I have been working towards this day for nearly six months.  I was with her for three hours as she colored, highlighted, and styled.  I put on my glasses and looked at myself in the mirror when she was done.  My own reflection took my breath away.  For the first time in my life I felt and looked beautiful!


The big celebration, the event at which I came out into society, was the annual Marine Ball on Saturday night.  The same handsome, brave marines who day in, day out, had greeted me with the words "Good Morning, Sir!" now stood in a receiving line in their dress uniforms and greeted me, "Good Evening, Ma'am!" as they presented me a with rose.

At the Ball
Mary, I drank champagne and danced like I had never danced before.  I felt like Natasha Rostova in War in Peace who goes to her first ball.  At age 57 my dreams -- the dreams of any 13-year-old girl -- were coming true.  I danced and twirled and floated in my gown and high heels.  How I want to learn to dance for real now!

Oh, Mary, how good it is to be alive!  After all the years, the decades of hiding and pain, I'm me.  I'm no longer an artificial construct living for others.  I've been a Foreign Service Officer for seven years now, serving and representing my country to the best of my ability, but never have I been so proud to represent the United States as I am this day.  I am living proof of how far we have come as a diverse, accepting society in my lifetime.

Now it's a quiet Sunday.  I look at the rose from last night's ball and know it's not a dream.  Tonight there is no need to frizz up my hair and take off the polish.  I don't need go back to looking like the "mad scientist."  Tomorrow it is I, Robyn, who goes to work.

What a wonderful, magical time to be alive!

Love,
Robyn 

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

You can find my announcement letter to Embassy staff as well as the "farewell/welcome" notice in our Embassy newsletter at the following links --

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Love Is but a Song We Sing: A Message of Peace and Love to Friends

A week ago I had the great good fortune of finding myself at the European Transgender Participation Symposium in Dordrecht, the Netherlands (www.etp-symposium.eu).  Two weeks prior I received a phone call out the blue from David Pollard of Amsterdam-based Workplace Pride asking if I could be part of a panel on International Employment Experiences.  I owe it to Richard Kohler, Policy Director for Transgender Europe (TGEU), for giving David the nudge.

I don't know the exact count, but there were at least fifty successful transgender men and women who had converged on this historic university town for the event.  The Dutch Government along with well-known international corporations such as IBM and Accenture gave financial support and sent out high-level officials to voice their support for transgender inclusion in the workplace.  My own panel session included very successful women from Accenture and the logistics firm TNT, and moderator Richard Kohler adeptly drew out of us what had worked and not worked for each of us in our transition and post-transition workplace experiences.

Suffice it to say that Dordrecht was a heady experience.  The prime organizer, Transgender Netwerk Nederland and its chairperson Carolien van de Lagemaaat had produced what in my book was a chart topper.  It ended with publication of the Declaration of Dordrecht, a ten-point call to action for full inclusion of transgender people in the workplace.

Time and again over the past year I have marveled at the circumstances that have frequently placed me at the front of the room, so to speak, when it comes to talking about my transition experience.  As regular readers of this journal know, I fully expected in 2010 that this road would lead to unemployment and an early retirement in my home state of Maine.  I expected I would eke out an existence on what little savings were left to me after expensive divorce and post-divorce litigation.  Instead, I received a major award last spring and now find myself being invited to speak at conferences and symposiums.

I tell my friends in Romania and Moldova that if I had transitioned in the US rather than in Romania, I would be the one sitting at the back of the room at events such as the Dordrecht symposium, doing all I could to learn from the experience of successful transgender people.  To a great extent, what has happened with me happens to all Foreign Service Officers serving overseas.  We are for the most part average people who just happen to be in a career that brushes us broadly with the title diplomat.  Our jobs within the embassies or missions where we serve may be quite modest, but outside embassy walls, many look upon us with a respect and awe that we know in our hearts is largely undeserved and has accrued to us only through circumstance.

Just such circumstance has placed me in an unexpected position with my Romanian and Moldovan friends in the transgender community.  It was many months after my workplace transition a year ago that it dawned on me that unintentionally or not, I had become a symbol.  The fact that an American diplomat had transitioned gender right here in Bucharest was big news for a disenfranchised group that faces discrimination on a par with what I might have expected in the US fifty years ago.  When you come down to it, transgender people worldwide historically have been loss leaders, not chart toppers.  We have some of the highest suicide and unemployment rates of any minority group.  Thus anyone who succeeds even modestly becomes a symbol of hope to others.

When I arrived in Bucharest two years ago, I found little by way of an organized transgender community.  So it was that I started hosting a transgender open house at my Bucharest home on the third Friday of each month.  I reasoned that if there is no support group such as the Washington, DC, Metro Area Gender Identity Connection (MAGIC-DC) in Bucharest, I would just have to start my own.  I had no goal other than to establish a safe place where transgender people, especially those early in transition, could come and be themselves without constraint.  It took some months for the idea to catch hold, but by last spring, 3rd Friday @ Robyn's had taken root.

Over the summer a small group of Romanian friends decided it was time for something more than 3F@Robyn's.  Instead of meeting at my apartment, the community now meets on the third Friday of the month at the Bucharest headquarters of ACCEPT, the national Romanian LGBT rights organization.  A bi-national umbrella organization appeared, Transgender Advocacy Organization Romania-Moldova (TAORM [formerly StepbyStep_TS]), uniting local transgender groups in Bucharest, Chisinau, Cluj, Arad, and elsewhere.  When I was in Dordrecht last week, I took every opportunity I could to tell people that TAORM had delegated me in an honorary capacity to inform the symposium of the new organization's existence.  Indeed, I was honored to spread the news.

TAORM has had growing pains.  Like any new organization, it suffers from little funding and divergent viewpoints, but I have great hopes.  TAORM has the potential of doing for Romania and Moldova what the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) does in the US:  advocacy at the national level.  At the same time, local groups such as the one in Bucharest provide the type of support on a personal level that I found at MAGIC-DC.

I have just a few words of advice to offer my Romanian and Moldovan friends in my capacity as the Big American Sister --
  • Respect each other.  If we don't respect each other, who will?
  • Help each other.  If we don't help each other, who will?
  • Exercise the democratic gift of negotiation and compromise.  That's what democracy and diplomacy are all about.  As Churchill said, democracy is the worst system there is except for all the other forms that have been tried.
  • Hang together as much as divergent viewpoints will allow.  If you don't, you may prove the old American adage that those who don't hang together today are likely to hang separately tomorrow . . . from the gallows.
  • It's amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.
Work together in that spirit, and in a few years time I will expect to be invited back to Romania for a symposium such as the one I just attended in Dordrecht.  I will sit in the back of the auditorium this time, where I will listen in chart-topping awe to the stories of successful Romanian and Moldovan transgender men and women who changed their world and the attitudes of the society around them.  Romanian and Moldovan government officials will speak to those assembled and tell of what they are doing to end homophobia and transphobia.  Managers of corporations will speak about what they have done to include transgender people in the workplace.

Is this an impossible dream?  I think not.  Just listen and remember . . .


You hold the key to love and fear
all in your trembling hand.
Just one key unlocks them both.
It's there at your command.