Sunday, November 6, 2016

Five Years: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Astana:  November 6, 2016

Five years.  I turned around, blinked, and now see the past five years in the rear view mirror.  It was on November 10, 2011, that we announced my social transition to the U.S. Embassy community in Bucharest, Romania.  There have been many important dates in my life, but this rates at least as highly as the birth of my son.  My passport may still list the date of my physical birth, but for me it is November 10 that is the important date, the date worth celebrating.  And when better to celebrate and take note than when I turn five years old?

I've debated writing in this web journal again.  The spotlight that was on me that day five years ago as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) transitioning gender while serving overseas has moved elsewhere.  After serving for a year as president of GLIFAA, our lgbt+ association for employees of U.S. foreign affairs agencies, I too have moved on.  For over two years now I've been serving in Kazakhstan covering environmental, science, and health issues both within Kazakhstan and in other countries in the region.  The job is a challenging one.  The hours are long, the meetings are many, and I travel frequently in the quest of making this planet a better place for our children and grandchildren.  I'm not that much different from other FSOs who are in the field doing their best to serve our country.

On a Winter's Day in Astana
So why write here now?  In part it's because five years is a nice round number, what Russian speakers would call a round date (круглая дата).  In part it's because I know friends who supported me in Romania would like an update.  (Romania, te iubesc!)  And surprisingly, it's also because I don't want to fall into the type of stealth where covering my past becomes a primary aim.  Not wanting to trumpet my past on a daily basis is one thing; trying to cover up that past is something else entirely and is, indeed, impossible in this age of electronic media.

I have in fact fallen nicely into a form of stealth.  I can go days or weeks at a time now without thinking back on the transition challenges I faced.  To most of the people I know in Kazakhstan, I'm just an American woman who is well preserved, even attractive for her years.  Most people I work with both within the Embassy and outside it have no idea that there is a long story behind the woman sitting across the meeting table from them.  And in fact there's no reason for them to know.  There's scarcely even reason for me to remember.

Being stealth without actively pursuing it has in its way been wonderful.  I'm one of the lucky ones with passing privilege.  I've found that men find me attractive, and I even had a steady boyfriend for a year when I was in the US.  I'm part of a women's group, and I lodged an official complaint when a woman I work with at another Post in our region was the object of what I perceived to be gender-based discrimination.  

I've made many local friends in Kazakhstan.  I rather expect many of them would not believe me if I told them my story.  And why tell them?  It's not relevant to what we do together, to where I am today.

But Summer Does Come Even Here!
There have been personal challenges serving in Central Asia, but the challenges I face are the same that any other divorced woman my age would face.  The greatest of these is distance.  Kazakhstan is eleven time zones away from the East Coast of the US.  I miss my sisters, my son, and my granddaughter, and I now recognize that an intimate relationship lasting more than a year will have to wait until I return home for good next year.  The reverse challenge is that I would like to bundle up many of my local friends and take them home to the US with me, but I know that is impossible.  Just as with my dear friends in Romania, my relationship with friends here will be reduced a year from now to Skype, e-mails, and Facebook postings.  The joy of being an FSO is meeting new people in new countries and cultures.  The sadness is that we are always saying goodbye.

But sometimes there are reminders of my roots.  The political turmoil in the US seems strangely distant when one is this far overseas, but echoes do reach me.  The controversy over transgender persons in North Carolina makes me wonder if I should ever visit that state . . . and also makes me wonder if any of my friends who do not know my past would understand why.  The outcome of the current presidential election (I'm writing on November 5) could have a direct effect on whether my rights will be protected throughout the country.  I feel I have a personal debt to one of the presidential candidates whose actions ensured that my employment as an FSO did not end in 2010-11. 

Other reminders are local.  If the status of the Romanian LGBT community is similar to that in the US some 20-25 years ago, then the situation in Kazakhstan lags by 50-100 years.  I have had the pleasure of coming to know many gay, lesbian, and transgender persons here.  I admire many of them and was devastated earlier this year when my closest friend in this country, a natural leader who could have united individuals into a movement, died well before his years.  The lot of transgender persons is particularly difficult in a system that makes obtaining new identity documents if not impossible, then at least extremely difficult.

So here I am, a privileged American with a particular background serving her country while local friends with similar backgrounds struggle simply to exist.  Central Asia may not be Africa, but serving here has given me an appreciation for Chloe Schwenke and what she has written about the lack of rights for her transgender sisters and brothers on that continent.  (You can find Chloe's journal at  On days when my privilege stands out starkly following a diplomatic reception or high level meeting, I think of my local friends who are no less deserving than I am.

On a Museum Visit
I do what I can.  I do quiet work both official and unofficial to improve conditions for the local T and LGB communities, but their situation is not going to change by much while I'm here.  Moreover, with thoughts of being an Ugly American on my mind, I know this is a region where my U.S. and even Romanian experience may have only limited application.

Thus I turn back to the official job I was sent here to do and take joy in that and in the friends I have made.  I look to the coming winter, to me one of the true joys of being in a severely continental climate at the same latitude as the northern tip of Newfoundland.  (Yes, I love winter!)  I look forward to our annual tradition of doing a New Year's snow shoe night hike under a full moon on the frozen river outside Astana.

And if anyone was wondering, I would never go back.  The joys and even heartaches of the past five years are woven into the fabric of my life more brightly than anything that came before.  Surprisingly, November 10 this year will find me on a work trip to Copenhagen.  PE will fly up from Bucharest to spend my birthday and the following weekend with me.  Two Danish girls, temporarily at least, we'll pause, think back on what we lived through together and since, and raise a celebratory glass.  Life is good, and life is as it should be.

1 comment:

  1. Happy Birthday Sweetie! I celebrate my fifth birthday on November 27.
    Deanna Joy Hallmark