In the movie Being There, Peter Sellers as the gardener Chance finds himself propelled to great heights simply by virtue of being there. That is how I felt when I received word on the overnight train from Romania to Moldova that I had been selected to receive the GLIFAA Equality Award. Just for being who I am, I find myself in the exalted company of Jeremy Curtin and Secretary Clinton. It is not a place I ever expected to be.
Many have praised my courage at becoming the first Foreign Service Officer to transition gender at an overseas post. I assure you, however, that Dr. Chloe Schwenke at USAID was right. Gender transition requires the same courage that it takes run out of a burning building. Yes, it is scary to run through those flames to fresh air and life, but as any transgender person who goes through transition will tell you, we reach a point where there is little choice. We've tried the simpler remedies and watched as the flames only grew higher, ready to consume us and make casualties of those near to us.
Two years ago I returned to the US from my posting in Uzbekistan and faced that decision: stay in the burning building or make the dash to life. I knew myself to be transgender from the earliest age before I even knew there was such a word. It was a very lonely place to be as I forced myself to conform to societal norms but avoided looking in the mirror at a reflection that I felt deeply was not mine.
When I approached transition in the summer of 2010, I did so in desperation. I had failed three previous times to transition gender: once in the 1970s, in 1990, and again in 2000. Each time the obstacles were too great to overcome. I was well aware that being openly transgender in those years meant joining the ranks of the unemployed and facing discrimination at every turn . . . if I was lucky. I knew that for many it was far, far worse.
Having worked in the space program for twenty-five years before joining the Department of State, I should also like to remind you that Alan Shepard peed in his suit before going into space for 15 minutes on Freedom 7. Then he went to New York for a ticker tape parade celebrating his achievement as the first American in space. I think I now understand how he must have felt.
I suppose it took courage for Shepard to climb into that capsule, but he had faith in the engineers who built it. The engineers who built the capsule that I climbed into in 2010 should be standing here today, as it is thanks to them that I am receiving this award. Beginning in 2008, Chloe Schwenke, Ajit Joshi, Bob Gilchrist, Anna McCrerey, Anthony Cotton, and other GLIFAA members worked tirelessly on transgender issues. The culmination of their work came in the summer of 2010 when Secretary Clinton added gender identity to the Department's Statement on Discriminatory and Sexual Harassment. I am merely the first transgender astronaut to ride into space and my new life in the vehicle they built.
I am deeply conscious that the GLIFAA Equality Award comes with responsibility. Both within the Department and in the countries where I serve, people will judge what it means to be transgender by what they see in me, by what I do, and by how I live my life. I will be the yardstick by which many who see me will judge our affirmation that "LGBT rights are human rights." I assure you that I will strive in all I do to justify the confidence you show in me today.
Counselor Mills, TJ, GLIFAA Board members, friends. With great humility, with deep thanks to those who paved the way, and with full knowledge of the responsibility it brings, I accept the honor you have bestowed upon me today with the GLIFAA Equality Award. Never have I felt as proud to serve and represent my country as I do at this moment.