Saturday, December 27, 2014

A Stealthy Guest Appearance

It's the end of the year, the week between Christmas and New Year's, and the view from my apartment window in my part of the world -- same latitude as northern Newfoundland -- is most definitely white.  Two weeks ago I got my first good break since arriving here at the end of September, and I spent it on a group snowshoeing hike in deep snow.  It was a new experience for me, but I hope to be doing more of it.

I had declared in September that I was done writing in this web journal, but I've decided to return here for a stealthy guest appearance.  Most of my limited writing since arriving here has been in my other journal, Alice in State, and that's where most of the writing will stay.  However. . . .

An interesting thing has happened since I left the US that is better written about here.  Against all expectations, I find that I am slipping more and more into stealth regarding my transgender background.  Yes, I know, it sounds strange to write about stealth in a publicly accessible web journal, but the fact remains.  As best I can tell, no one here reads this journal, and thus I can write freely without breaking the stealthy silence.  Moreover, I don't want to write on a trans* theme in Robyn in State, as there are some who read that journal who have no idea about my prior life.  The longer I'm here, the more I think I want to leave them in blissful ignorance.

I'm not stepping away from public activism, but I have come to realize that there is precious little activism one can accomplish in this very lgbt-phobic part of the world.  What activism there is will be found not in marches and public meetings but in quiet attempts to influence opinion.  Those activists and members of the lgbt community whom I have met keep a low profile.  In fact, several have asked me to do the same and just not tell anyone about my past.  If there's one thing I've learned as a Foreign Service Officer, it's never to get ahead of the local community, and thus I honor that request by slipping into stealthiness.

This has turned out to be remarkably easy to do.  At the Embassy where I work, only three people know about my prior life.  Two of them are people I worked with in the past, and the other is our nurse.  All are sworn to secrecy, and our nurse has put my medical records in a safe to which only she has access.  As far as anyone else is concerned, I'm just another overworked, mid-career, middle aged woman with a busy portfolio at a busy Embassy.

This has led to some odd moments.  Two of my divorced women friends have shared their divorce stories with me.  When I tell mine in return, I try to stick to ex-spouse or simply ex, but the questions I get are always about my ex-husband.  I have even found myself slipping into referring to an ex-husband from time to time.  In fact, it has begun to feel as though my ex was once my husband even in my memories of what it was like to be married.

At home I have carefully not put up NASA awards in my old name.  I already have a new copy of my UVa diploma from the 1970s, and it would take a sharp eye to see that the name of the university president on the diploma is Teresa Sullivan, today's president, not Frank Hereford who was president in the year I took my degree.  I should have new copies of my MS and MA degrees from Yale and Georgetown in the next month.  If I can figure out how to scan those NASA awards, change my name, and reprint them in high quality, I will.  I am proud of those years of my life and have the fondest memories of the friends and colleagues I worked with.  I don't want to turn my back on those years.  At the same time, I don't want to have to tell my life story to the next new acquaintance who visits my apartment for the first time.

I could have found myself facing just that necessity when I had a mixed group over for Christmas dinner.  A new friend and I sat in recliners in my office room and talked about our lives, our boyfriends, and our experiences in this country that is new to both of us.  She had already noticed my photo with Secretary John Kerry, and I went no further than to say that I had served as GLIFAA president, have many gay and lesbian friends, and in fact have had a tinge of B in my past.  I was happy those old NASA awards were safely in a closet.

Moreover, as time goes on, I find I don't want to tell anyone about my past any more than I would want to tell about having my wisdom teeth pulled.  Did I really go through transition?  Isn't the present that I live today the only reality there has ever been?

I'm still willing to talk about my experience if there is a point to doing so, but in 99% of my interactions with others, there's no point.  Only twice have I been asked, once with a good outcome and the other not quite so much.  The latter was when I was speaking to an English language group concerning my research into the 1936-38 purge of Soviet astronomers.  A young man in the audience had an iPad or similar, and he used it to do a google search on my name and the subject.  He raised his hand in some confusion to ask about the links he found in my old name.  I muttered a few words about being transgender, and it was clear from looking around the room that no one understood what I had said.  Two people did get up and leave, so perhaps they had heard.  As to the rest, they were happy to have me return to the subject of the evening, oblivious to what I had said.

The better instance was when I was with a young diplomat from one of the countries in the region I serve.  He had done his homework.  As we were in a car, he switched to English and asked about my work as an LGBT activist.  I told him about GLIFAA, my experiences in Romania and in the US, and my work as a trans* activist.  His response was that he hoped for better conditions for LGBT rights in his own country and would work toward that end.  He wanted to learn, and thus my opening up to him might make a difference both for him and for others.

A Wintry Nighttime View from my Window
I still have some uncertainty in my personal life as to when a friend crosses the threshold of intimacy where it is wiser to tell rather than risk the friend feeling deceived if the fact should come to light at a later date.  Good attitude analyst that I am, I hope I can determine the correct loss function and minimize it.  In this I trust I will learn from other late-life transitioners with long personal and work histories.  For the most part, however, I'm finding that the transition that dominated my life in 2010-13 has less significance in 2014 and perhaps little to none in 2015.  The age of post-transition stealthiness has arrived, and it's an age I'm coming to enjoy.

As the stage lights dim on my personal but very public transition story, I think on all who have helped me on my way and of those whom I may have helped along the way.  The winds howl across the steppe at this northern latitude, but there is warmth inside.  For those who are in the cold dawn of their own transition struggles, may you, too, find the warmth of a future post-transition life.  May the day come when those struggles are little more than a memory.