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 (  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.

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