Saturday, August 24, 2013

Chelsea Manning, Roasting Vegetables, and Me

Chelsea Manning's announcement that she will henceforth live openly as a woman has been big news in the US for over a day now.  The various U.S. media outlets have been tripping over Chelsea's name, gender pronouns, and themselves in their rush to publish.  The political leanings of many a publication can be discerned by their choice of pronoun, the more socially conservative publications tending to note Chelsea's announcement but then continuing to refer to her as Bradley and he.  Not even the more typically moderate and liberal media have been immune, with National Public Radio notably using male pronouns.  Overall there is confusion all around, once again showing that although U.S. society has gotten used to people coming out as gay, it has a long way to go before a person coming out as transgender seems ho-hum.

WikiLeaks and the Manning case have been in the background of my mind for some time.  I don't believe that anything I wrote as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) was in the materials leaked by Manning, but I would not have to go far to find a colleague whose writings were among those that made their way to WikiLeaks.  As an FSO, I recognize that we write our reports in the expectation that they will be circulated only to a small, select readership.  It's that expectation that allows us to write candidly to educate and influence decision makers about conditions in the countries where we serve.  Some of the materials leaked did make our work more difficult.  What foreign government official will want to speak openly with an embassy official if a summary of the conversation might appear in a mass-circulation publication?  As an FSO, I tended to look at WikiLeaks as an embarrassment, but then I moved on, allowing the Manning case to drift into the background of my consciousness.

I don't remember when I first heard that the defense had begun to make an issue of Manning's gender dysphoria.  I know I grimaced slightly at the time, thinking that this is just what the transgender community needs, a controversial figure who may be coming out as transgender.  Then I turned the page and went about my own business.

In the aftermath of her announcement and the ensuing media frenzy, however, Chelsea Manning has been very much on my mind.  I believe Jennifer Finney Boylan has it just right in her Washington Post article when she writes that she wishes for the day when "Chelsea and I seem boring."  Amen to that.

It seems that many of us who make the difficult decision to be public and live in the gender with which we identify do so after loss.  I know I did.  Turning around the words of Janis Joplin, "Nothing left to lose is another word for freedom."  It was that sense of having lost most everything I had spent a lifetime trying to build and preserve that propelled me forward in 2010.  Most of my life savings were gone.  I expected my career would soon follow.  After all, in my lifetime I had seen that this was the usual fate of transgender persons who came out or who were outed.  I felt I truly had nothing further to lose, and that is what allowed me to walk across the threshold and to begin living as I had always wanted to live.  With a 35-year prison sentence awaiting her, could that be Chelsea Manning's feeling as well?

My transition in Romania was not as public as Chelsea Manning's, but it was news.  It took a number of weeks following my announcement in November 2011 before it dawned on me that I had, indeed, become a public figure of sorts.  I was not and am not an actress on the main stage, but go around that stage to the more distant meadow or nook stage in this theater of life, and you will find me in the lineup there.  It was not a place I ever expected to be, but finding myself there, I have tried to be an example to others even though I know I am not above reproach in this life.  In my new role as president of Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, I am aware that my mere presence is a validation, a statement to other State Department colleagues in our far flung posts that is OK to be transgender.  If that makes life even slightly easier for someone who might otherwise hide as I did for decades, then my visibility is worth the price.

Since transition, however, I have found that the most gratifying, happiest moments have nothing to do with being a public person.  They have been the private moments, the family moments.  Being called mom and working side-by-side in the kitchen with my emotionally adopted daughter in Bucharest, chopping and preparing vegetables for roasting -- those are my precious memories.  A little stuffed donkey named Buffy sits by my bed and greets me each morning as a reminder of close friends on the other side of the ocean.

Chelsea Manning is giving U.S. society a teachable moment.  With time the publicity will fade.  Although it may be many years in the future, the time will come when she, too, will find herself at peace and happy in the private moments that make up our lives.  May the time come for all transgender persons when we are seen as boring, left in peace to roast our vegetables and live our lives without fear.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

In Homage to Allyson Robinson

So let's see. What's new?

Well, I am now living in an empty apartment in Takoma Park, MD, just over the line from Washington, DC.  My furniture consists of a folding table and two folding chairs loaned by my sister, and my bed is an inflatable mattress on the floor.  My dressers are several cardboard boxes and the two suitcases I have lived out of for almost two months now.  My household effects are somewhere in transit between Bucharest and Washington.  I can almost see the container ship rolling in the waves of the North Atlantic.

My youngest sister came from Arizona, and we had a small reunion at my oldest sister's vacation home in western Maryland. We don't see each other nearly enough.

I hear nothing but good news from friends in Romania.

I was down with what I think was my fourth cold of the year, perhaps in part the product of the stresses of moving around the world so much, not to mention sleeping on the floor on an inflatable mattress?

I was elected president of Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA).

I began my new work assignment two weeks ago in an operations center environment that allows me to use of my Russian.

"Slow down!" you say.  "What was that about GLIFAA?"

Yes, yours truly is now the president-elect of GLIFAA.  You might say that I'm GLIFAA's lady in waiting as the stupendous outgoing president and board finish their work.  The elect will be dropped from my title on August 22nd at the next business meeting.

"Isn't it presumptuous of you," you ask, "to take the lead position in an organization you knew almost nothing about five years ago?" Well, yes, perhaps, but I was asked to run by more than one respected member of the outgoing board.  Also, membership organizations of this type depend on members who have been active, committed, and effective.  In my own minor way, I fulfilled this description as GLIFAA's post representative in Bucharest.  I rather did expect to have something to do with the board as I came to Washington for a year, but the presidency?

I do get the symbolism.  In its twenty year history, GLIFAA has had only one woman serve as president.  I will be the second.  (My predecessor writes one of the best-known web journals on foreign service life and on occasion has been known to look at these jottings.)  I will also be the first transgender person to lead this organization made up primarily of gay and lesbian members and straight allies.  Note that there is no "T" in GLIFAA.  Well, OK, neither is there a "B" or an "I" or any of the other letters that are becoming common after "LGBT."

Note that I wrote, "I will be the first transgender person to lead this organization made up primarily of gay and lesbian members."  In 2012 Allyson Robinson was appointed executive director of OutServe-SLDN, the association of actively serving LGBT military personnel.  That made her the first transgender person to lead a large LGBT organization.

Gulp.  Am I following in the footsteps of someone I admire as much as Allyson Robinson?  Although GLIFAA is orders of magnitudes smaller than OutServe-SLDN just as the Department of State is orders of magnitude smaller than the combined arms of the U.S. military, the fact is that I am, in effect, following Allyson Robinson's example.  Although there has been some turbulence of late in the board meetings at OutServe, Allyson set a mark for other transgender activists to match.  Gulp.

All humor aside, this will be a very busy year.   In meetings with outgoing and incoming board members, I am coming to grips with the issues currently in play and those that are likely to rear their heads.  Although the Supreme Court threw out the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional in June, the devil, as they say, is in the details.  As many organizations are finding, it's not as simple as declaring that all rules and policies concerning heterosexual couples now apply to same-sex couples.  It's much more complex with many layers of nuance.  At State, much of this nuance will be worked out in consultation with GLIFAA.

As a transgender person, I am learning the depth of the issues of most concern to GLIFAA's gay and lesbian members.  I will be representing their interests to the best of my abilities hand-in-hand with my fellow board members.  I will also be working to make transgender issues more visible within the Department.  At this time I can count the transgender foreign service officers I know on the fingers of one hand.  I doubt that I would exhaust the fingers of the other hand if I were to add in Civil Service, yet I expect there are more who have as yet chosen not to become visible.  It is my goal that by my example, some of those yet in the shadows may choose to become visible.

I do not plan to make this web journal a forum for GLIFAA business.  That will remain within the confines of our board discussions and business meetings.  If my postings to this journal become infrequent, know that it is because I'm doing my best to serve an organization that has made my life possible.  If not for the work done by previous GLIFAA boards, I might not be writing this journal at all.  It is time that I return the favor.  It will be a very busy year, one that I know will be both exhausting and fulfilling and, I pledge, successful.