Monday, September 23, 2013

Bucharest and Roxana on the Potomac

Bucharest has been coming to the Potomac all summer long.  I arrived as one of the first refugees.  FT, SE, NP, and SD have arrived as well, and DD will arrive sometime later this fall.  (In case you have not figured out my shorthand, check with SC, who took over as GLIFAA Post Representative in Bucharest when I left.)  We are all caught in the Foreign Service transfer cycle.  Some of us are just passing through, some are in language training, and others like me have a work assignment in Washington.  We are all so busy that we haven't really had time to socialize, but I was very happy to see SE at the GLIFAA happy hour earlier this month.  I do hope that we will all see more of each other as summer turns to fall.

Bucharest was on my mind in another way last Wednesday.  For the first time since leaving Romania in June, the bicycle on which I had commuted daily on Bucharest streets was finally back together and ready for the streets of Washington.  Down Piney Branch I rode from Takoma Park.  Then it was a right on Arkansas and on into Rock Creek Park before coming to the Potomac itself.  Across the bridge and I was in another foreign country:  Virginia.  At least that's how we who live in Maryland tend to think of Virginia.  (Our Virginia neighbors pay us the compliment of thinking of us in the same way.)  Using leg muscles that had not been used since I was in Maine, I turned onto city streets and made my way to Crystal City.

There Roxana was, sitting and waiting in front of her hotel.  The last time we had seen each other was in Bucharest, where she lives next door to the LGBT rights organization ACCEPT.  Over the past decade she has been a dear friend to many of us who have passed through the U.S. Embassy.  Before that, she was a friend to many a Peace Corps volunteer who passed through her training when they arrived for their year in Romania.

My Evening with Roxana
I first met Roxana Marin on Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) in 2011.  My transition had been announced publicly at the Embassy the week before, and I was at ACCEPT for its modest TDOR observance.  I spoke about my experience to the small group that had gathered.  When the formal program had ended and the social hour had begun, an intense woman bubbling over with energy came up and introduced herself before launching into questions about documentation for transgender persons in the US.  That was our first meeting.

Roxana is a teacher at Cosbuc Bilingual High School.  (The word is college in Romanian, but the U.S. equivalent is high school.)  As the first from her Roma family to be sent to Bucharest to study in the final years of the Ceausescu regime, she knows what it is like to experience discrimination and harassment first-hand.  Perhaps that is what filled her with such boundless acceptance and love of diversity in all its forms.  How many students have sat drinking tea in her garden on a Sunday afternoon?  How many has she guided through difficult times?  How many has she inspired to great heights of creativity?  Just this spring one of her students won first prize in a human rights essay competition sponsored by the Embassy.  Roxana's smile and enthusiasm are infectious.

The first time Roxana had dinner with PE and me in my Bucharest home, she left behind a pair of earrings carefully hidden in a place where I would find them as I did housework.  Another time she gave me a blouse, and yet another time it was one of her dresses.  I think of Roxana every time I wear them.

Roxana and Jessica Wozniak, an American teacher also working at Cosbuc, got into some trouble last February.  It happens that February is LGBT History Month in much of Europe, and Roxana and Jessica had noted the month by including LGBT issues in the voluntary human rights curriculum sponsored by the school's Center for Action and Responsibility in Education (CARE).  When word got out, Bucharest's anti-LGBT forces were not pleased.  Before long, billboards went up near the school with the words:
Could you imagine your little boy being HOMOSEXUAL? Could you see your little girl being LESBIAN? On Olari Street, around the corner [at Cosbuc], certain things happen . . .
Anti-LGBT Billboard Protesting LGBT Inclusion at Cosbuc
Inspectors descended on the school, and for a time it seemed that both Roxana and Jessica were in trouble, perhaps faced even with the loss of their teaching positions.  Sober minds prevailed in the end, but the episode was a reminder that Romania is still not firmly in the European Union on all human rights issues.  Roxana and Jessica had pushed beyond the limits of what the Bucharest school authorities are willing to accept at this time.  That is the story of Roxana's life, always pushing the limits where most anyone else would fear to go.

Roxana was a comfort to me last spring when I went through several difficult and emotional weeks.  I was now the one sitting in her garden, drinking tea and being lifted back to a positive outlook just by being in Roxana's presence.  I challenge anyone to spend an hour with Roxana and not walk away refreshed and recharged.

I felt I was back in Bucharest as Roxana and I had dinner together last Wednesday.  I heard the latest news of all my friends whom I haven't seen since June.  Roxana told me about her busy summer program of Roma activism and projects.  She was so busy that she had not packed a suitcase until the night before her flight to the US.

Roxana is on her way to North Carolina where she is part of a Fulbright program that will have her working in a U.S. high school for the next two months.  Little do the teachers and students of Boone, NC, know what a treasure is coming to their town. 

Our evening over too soon, I retrieved my bicycle and got ready to ride to my day of work that would start at 11pm on the night shift.  We both remarked how it felt like old times, as though I was at ACCEPT and was getting on my bike for the ride home.  Then Roxana handed me a small gift, a pair of earrings that I am wearing as I write this and think of her.

Drum bun, draga!  May your path be a smooth one, dear friend!  I know that you will leave a mark on the hearts and minds of many in Boone, NC, just as you have left a mark in my life.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

On Reading "Middlesex"

I just finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex.  I'm about eleven years late, given that the novel was published in 2002, but much of my life today can be described as The Education of a Transgender Rip Van Winkle.  With only short, fleeting exceptions, from 1976 until 2010 I kept myself purposely isolated from any literature having a theme bordering on transgender.  I'm still playing catch-up.

Cal, born Calliope, the central character and narrator of Middlesex, is not transgender but intersex.  Still, I think it would be hard for any woman or man of transgender experience to read the novel without emotion.  There are just enough overlaps with my own life to make the experience of reading it that much more personal.

As the adult narrator telling the story of his life, Cal is a Foreign Service Officer with the State Department.  That fact becomes evident in the first pages and helped to pull me in.  He grew up in Detroit, the city of my father's birth, not far from Monroe, the town where I spent so many summers in my youth with my aunt, uncle, and cousins.

Callie is raised as a girl when the family physician fails to recognize that externally feminine genitalia hide undescended testes.  She has a happy girlhood.  When puberty comes, she at first experiences distress as she fails to develop as a young woman and fails to begin menstruating.  When she finds herself attracted to her closest girlfriend in physical ways that she can not understand, she is confused.

There was no ambiguity regarding my genitalia at birth.  I was clearly a boy and was raised as such, albeit with no particular emphasis on the masculine.  I have written already about the gender confusion that began to enter my own consciousness by age five, a confusion that was full blown by age ten when I was praying nightly to wake as a girl in the morning.  I also knew even at that young age that I could tell no one.  If Callie felt herself a monster when she first learns of her intersex condition, I secretly feared that I was a freak who had to hide deeply all the feelings that were on the inside.

Despite these childhood differences, there is another intersection between Cal's life and my own:  John Money.  Cal's story in Middlesex is a milder version of the real life story of John Money and David Reimer.  Dr. Peter Luce, the New York specialist who treats Callie at age fourteen, is clearly modeled on John Money and his gender identity clinic at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

John Money became notorious because of his involvement in the treatment of David Reimer.  After their son was mutilated at birth through a botched circumcision, Reimer's parents took him to John Money, who recommended that they raise their son as their daughter Brenda.  Money believed that nurture, not nature, was most important in the formation of gender identity.  Reimer, however, began to manifest a male identity after puberty, ultimately renouncing his female identity entirely.  The case is described in John Colapinto's As Nature Made Him:  The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl.  Reimer committed suicide in 2004.  His case figures large in the intersex community and the movement to allow intersex children to develop as they are born, giving them the right to choose their own paths when they are old enough to do so.  Money is described by many as unethical for his treatment of Reimer, but there are a few, if not many, defenders as well.  One thing that is clear about John Money is that he was one of the founders of gender identity studies.  It was Money who first distinguished between sex and gender, in the process coining the phrase gender identity.

My own brush with John Money and the gender identity clinic at Hopkins was fleeting but real.  It was 1975. Jan Morris' Conundrum had just been published, the first book that let me know I was not alone in that pre-Internet world.  I was devouring everything I could on the subject of transsexuality in the science library at the University of Virginia.  It was there that I first read about the clinic at Hopkins.  I wrote a letter and received an answer inviting me to come to the clinic for evaluation.  I doubt the letter was from Money himself -- more likely it was from someone on his staff -- but I remember the excitement of holding that reply in my hands.  As the ensuing months were to show, I did not have the nerve to follow through.  I was just too scared.  Who knows what Money would have thought of me had I gone?  In those days sexual reassignment surgery was approved only as a last resort and only for those who exhibited behavior that was clearly at variance with their birth sex.  I, on the other hand, had learned to hide, but perhaps Money would have seen below that surface?  In 1975 I looked to Hopkins as the miracle clinic where maybe, just maybe, someone would understand.

Calliope runs away from her parents and from Dr. Luce when she learns she is intersex.  Cal embraces his male identity, choosing to live his life in his own body.  My own transgender experience and that of many transsexuals is just the opposite, the experience of hating our bodies and avoiding mirrors.  Still, there is much that is familiar in Cal's story.  He has lived in both halves of our still largely bi-gender culture and has absorbed both.  Looking back at his life, he writes, "I remain in essential ways Tessie's daughter."  Although the female identity was always there in me, I learned against my own inward nature to function and live as a man.  Cal and Calliope, Robyn and Robert, we both have had the gift of seeing and experiencing life in two genders.  It is a gift, one that most of those we know, even those to whom we are closest, can scarcely imagine.