Monday, January 20, 2020

The Quads of Hope

2020 has come.  It arrived in the usual way on January 1 for most of the world that follows the Gregorian calendar, some 13 days later in the Old Style Julian calendar.  There's no escaping it:  2019 is in the past.  

What 2019 brought us, however, is alive and well with all the continuity of a spline interpolation fit.  The divisions in U.S. society are blooming in this winter as never before, something I now get to experience firsthand as I knock on doors in my conservative district on behalf of Democratic Congressman Jared Golden.  It's winter in America with little sign that our national vision will approach the acuity implied by the year.  Where will we be next November?  I was in Copenhagen when election morning 2016 dawned with the shock of a new reality, a nightmare that has engulfed us ever since.  Will this nightmare ever end?

My personal reality in retirement also has not been the rosy future I expected.  After one of the best month's of my life bike-packing from DC to Maine in September, my retirement was hijacked on October 4 by a legal issue involving my State Department pension.  What at first seemed like a simple, easily corrected error in the computation of my annuity has evolved into a legal morass involving attorneys with no end in sight in the near future.  For now, I am living on two thirds of the retirement income I expected.  That's more than adequate for rural Maine, but all thoughts of traveling back to Romania and Kazakhstan are on hold.  Moreover, October and November were consumed in their entirety by legal paperwork and the necessity of re-living some decidedly negative emotional episodes of my past.

The Quadrantids give me hope.  A meteor shower named for a constellation, Quadrants, that no longer exists on modern star maps, the Quads are elusive.  The peak lasts all of a few hours.  If one is not in the right place at the right time with a good, dark sky, it will be as though the Quads did not happen.  I remember a frigid January night in the 1970s with a friend on Long Island.  We stood in an open field in a park, rubbing our hands together and hopping from one foot to another in a vain attempt to stay warm.  Our hope of seeing even a single Quad proved just as vain. 

The years and decades went by.  I never seemed to find myself in the right place at the right time.  I never saw a Quad.  I thought I never would.

Then 2020 dawned.  The peak for the Quads was predicted for about 3am EST on the morning of January 4.  When I went to bed on the evening of the 3rd, the sky was completely clouded over with a forecast for the same through the 4th.  Another year goes by, I thought, as I turned in for the night.

Heating by wood in a small home in rural Maine saved the day.  I woke in my bed, feeling cold, and went downstairs to throw another log in the stove.  As I did, I noticed the time:  3am.  I looked out my window and with some surprise saw the sky had cleared.  Still in my nightgown, I pulled on a long coat, hat, and tall boots.  I stepped out onto my porch and looked up.  Within a minute I saw my first dim, swift meteor.  Then there was another much brighter one.  I started to count slowly from 1 to 60, my estimate of a minute.  Over 15 minutes I saw 15 meteors streak across the starry blackness of a Maine winter sky, the best count of meteors I have had since watching the Leonid meteor storm of 2001 with my son and friends.  

At a younger age I would have dressed even more warmly and headed out into my snowy field with a sleeping bag and reclining lawn chair.  I remember many a teenage August night in a field in Michigan staying up for hours to watch the annual Perseid shower.  Those days are in my past.  As the cold started to seep through to my skin, I smiled to think that at last, I have seen the Quads.  I went inside and returned to the warmth of my bed with a smile.

These were my Quads of hope, both for my personal, unexpected legal battle and for my country.  The wonder of a shooting star stays with us no matter what our age, who we are, or where we come from.  May that wonder lead us on to a better place.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Guest Blog: Comprehensive Statement for the Liberty of Gentle Peoples

Today I wish to draw attention to the excellent piece written in Quora by Emma Gabriel, a young writer who holds an M.A. in philosophy and rhetoric from Georgia State University.  Comprehensive Statement for the Liberty of Gentle Peoples is, as it's title implies, a plea against violence, a plea for understanding.  I highly recommend it to your consideration.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Three Cheers for the Department!

I have written my share of criticism of the Department of State on various issues, both policy and personal.  State was a second career for me that I began in 2004 after 25+ years in private industry working on NASA mission support.  Throughout my fifteen years at State, I often felt like Alice in Wonderland, marvelling at life in a government bureaucracy, alternately in awe at the good being achieved and aghast at the inefficiency and waste and at policies I disagreed with.  My companion web journal Alice in State has that name for a reason.

The past two weeks, however, give me cause to raise my head in pride.  It began with the appearance of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch before members of the House Intelligence, Oversight, and Foreign Affairs committees.  I raised my head higher still following the appearance of Deputy Assistant Secretary George P. Kent, but it was yesterday's appearance and opening statement by Embassy Kyiv Chargé d'affaires Bill Taylor that has me yelling "Yes!" and glowing with pride.

Washington Post columnist Dana Millbank described Ambassador Taylor as "straight out of Foggy Bottom central casting."  He's right.  Ambassador Taylor even looks like many of the senior diplomats I have supported as a mid-level Foreign Service Officer (FSO).  The haircut, the suit, the facial expressions, and the gait remind me of ambassadors, consul generals, and any number of Washington-based secretaries.  Perhaps this, much as Ruth Bader Ginsburg's dissent collar, will become a style statement affirming conscientious professionalism and dedication to service and truth*.

As in any organization, colleagues and supervisors at State run the gamut from the bad to adequate to stellar.  I was lucky during my fifteen years to work largely with the best.  That goes back to the beginning with my year on the Russia Desk (EUR/RUS) as the officer responsible for Russian Federation external relations.  Senior political officer Allen Greenberg kept me sane during that year with his combination of cool professionalism and humor.  I would not have made it through that career transition without his mentoring and support.  He has deservedly made it into the Senior Foreign Service and is now the Acting Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Curacao.

My lucky star placed me under Ambassador Bill Burns at Embassy Moscow in 2005-07.  I was only a 51-year-old, career-changing "Hey you!" junior officer at a large embassy, but Ambassador Burns knew me by name.  I served as his notetaker at a number of meetings, in particualar at Rosatom, and marveled both at his command of Russian and his positive management of a relationship that was entering a time of change.  He went on to become Deputy Secretary of State and, since his departure from State, has gone on to speak truth to power as a critic of the hollowing out of U.S. diplomacy during the Trump administration.

Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) John Beyrle did not lag behind Ambassador Burns by a single step and was just the right choice to become Ambassador in his own right when Ambassador Burns finished his Moscow tour in 2008.  A career FSO with a long history in Russian/Soviet affairs, he was something of a folk hero because of his father Joseph Beyrle.  Interned in a German POW camp that was liberated by the Red Army in 1945, Beyrle's father went on to fight in the Red Army through to the war's end.   That wartime connection meant Ambassador Beyrle could open doors that others couldn't in a Moscow that was increasingly turning away from the US.  President Obama's decision to replace him with Michael McFaul in 2012 ranks up there as one of the most questionable foreign affairs decisions made by a President I generally admire. 

I have a soft spot for Ambassador Dick Norland who had the unenviable task of saving something out of the ruins of the U.S. relationship with Uzbekistan following the cold war that followed the shooting of unarmed civilians by security forces in the Ferghana Valley in 2005.  Embassy Tashkent felt like a ghost ship when I was there in 2008-10.  The Uzbek government forced the Embassy to close all regional offices and refused to grant visas to most senior diplomats.  With only four years in the Foreign Service, I served as acting head of the Political/Economic Office for several months when I arrived in 2008.  I often accompanied Ambassador Norland and his DCM Duane Butcher to high level meetings and on regional travel.  I don't begrudge Ambassador Norland that he sometimes used me as a secretary in the old fashioned sense.  When he learned that I am proficient at touch typing in Russian, he would come to my cubicle and dictate diplomatic correspondence as he thought it through in real time.

Duane Butcher.  I have a special place in my memory and in my heart for Mr. Butcher.  He was my DCM in Tashkent and then again during my 2010-13 tour in Romania.  Ambassador Mark Gitenstein was a political appointee and a good choice to manage the relationship with Romania, but it was Duane Butcher who actually ran Embassy Bucharest.  Moreover, he oversaw my gender transition during my time there, setting just the right leadership tone to ensure that the changes in my life were accepted by both American and local staff.  With less sure leadership, I doubt this first-ever transition-while-serving would have succeeded.

Duane is a Management Cone FSO and is in the Senior Foreign Service, but if ever there was an example of someone who rose through the ranks almost too quickly, it is Duane.  I mean that in the sense that ours is an up-or-out system, and promotion opportunities and choice assignments that lead to them become ever scarcer the higher one rises.  At my FS-02 level, I could go on for a decade without worrying about my next up-or-out promotion, but at Duane's level, that window is much shorter.  Moreover, it is rare for a Management Cone FSO to serve as Ambassador.  DCM is normally about as high as a Management Cone FSO gets.  Thus it was a great joy for those of us who worked with him that Duane got to serve as Chargé d'affaires in Bucharest for over two years after Ambassador Gitenstein's departure.  It is my sincere hope that Duane Butcher will get to serve as a full-fledged Chief of Mission, as Ambassador, before his next promotion window closes.

These were my senior colleagues, and there are others I am equally proud to have served under.  Steeped in the tradition of the Foreign Service as modeled by George Kennan, the leading U.S. diplomat of the 20th century, they faithfully managed diplomatic relationships with foreign states under all Washington administrations that came and went, Democratic as well as Republican.  It was an honor to serve with them, and I know any one of them would follow the courageous examples of the past week and speak up for diplomacy and truth when their country calls.

The mists that shrouded what I sometimes called the Foggiest of Bottoms are lifting.  State has found its voice and is standing up for sane, consistent foreign policy, for diplomacy, and for the truth.

*I must wonder, however, if Ambassador Taylor does not sometimes dress down like some other senior colleagues, substituting a colorful bow tie for the traditional, conservative necktie.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Be Safe Out There?

During my month on two wheels from Washington, DC, to Maine, people I met would again and again wish me, "Be safe!" 

I have written before about the disconnect between living overseas for most of the past fifteen years and the reality of life in the US today.  Things change.  I remember coming home on R&R in 2010 and looking for a Blockbuster store where I could rent a DVD.  My favorite independent DVD store in Takoma Park, MD, had closed its doors.  During my posting in Uzbekistan for more than two years, I had missed the collapse of DVD rentals in the US in favor of on-line streaming.

After coming back from Kazakhstan in 2017, I was telling my sisters a graphic story about an unfortunate incident that had happened to me.  One of them interrupted by saying, "That's TMI."  I asked her to explain what TMI means.  I had never heard the expression used in Central Asia.

Those are trivial examples.  More substantive were the changes in political landscape in the US.  I was at the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen for a conference on the day of the presidential election in 2016.  The results were apparent as our conference got underway.  Stunned silence reigned in the halls of the Embassy.  Several of us went out that evening to drink our sorrows away in a jazz club.  When the Marine Ball took place at Embassy Astana two weeks later, more alcohol was consumed than I had ever seen consumed at an Embassy function.  We all wanted to forget even if only for a moment that our own country had changed in ways we never saw coming.

A month on two wheels as I worked my way through Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Ontario, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine was the perfect way to let go.  I had no time to follow the news.  Even if I had, for much of the trip I was in areas without cell phone coverage.  Life consisted of me and the road together with the morning and evening routine of breaking and setting up camp.  News was to be heard only faintly from a radio or TV in the cafes and diners where I stopped to eat.

"Be safe out there."  I thought that a strange greeting when I first heard it.  Then it was repeated again and again.  At first I would reply, "Thank you," but later I changed that to "You, too, be safe out there."  On continued thought I changed my reply again to "Be audacious and live fully!"

Have we become a country in which safety is now Concern No. 1?  Given the gun violence of the past several years, perhaps we have.

Still, in my estimate the chance that I will fall victim to a gunman are about the same as being hit by a meteorite or lightning.  Of course it could happen, but am I going to live my life accordingly in a state of fear?

Or perhaps those who saw me, a single grandmother on a bicycle, thought I was doing something inherently dangerous?  As someone who was certified as an instructor by the League of American Bicyclists some 20 years ago, I know the statistics are in my favor.  Hour for hour, the chance of my being seriously injured on a bicycle are about the same as they are if I am behind the wheel of a car.  The point is that one must know how to operate a bicycle as a vehicle with proper lane positioning and communication with other vehicle operators.  Just like skydiving, operating a bicycle requires training.  It is not what most think they remember from riding a bicycle in childhood.

The least of my fears was my safety as a bicycle driver.  Perhaps the "Be safe" wishes were for my physical safety as a single older woman?  That, too, leaves me scratching my head.  Assault and rape do happen in this world.  It has happened to me . . . at the hands of a policeman on a ferry from Georgia to Ukraine.  The risks in my own country seem much lower than in many of the places I have served overseas . . . and I challenge any would-be assailant to keep up with me on two wheels.

Then there is gender transition.  For anyone who has navigated this path successfully, is there anything left in life that rises to the level of danger and fear of what we passed through?  I find there to be a good parallel between successful gender transition and effective, safe bicycle operation.  Be visible, take your lane politely but assertively, and move forward.  It's hugging the shadows during transition, hugging the curb when on a bicycle, that leads to danger and injury.  

Can one be hurt while out and visible?  Can one be killed?  Of course one can.  Just look at the homicide rate for transgender women of color.  Still, I assert that the danger of being hurt while out and visible is far less than when one is hugging the shadows.  

The same applies when operating a bicycle on roads.  I have had no indicdent of any kind as a bicycle driver in Russia, Romania, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan.  After those countries, I find conditions in the US to be refreshingly comfortable.

Forward I now go into retirement.  It's too early to know where this new phase will take me.  Whereever I go, I will remember my own greeting to others during my month on the road:

Be audacious and live fully!

Friday, October 11, 2019

Two Wheels Out of State

This web journal has Foreign Service Bicyclist prominently in its title, and thus it should surprise no one that I chose to celebrate my official retirement on August 31 by setting out on my longest bicycle tour to date.  I left Washington, DC, on August 31 and arrived at my retirement home north of Bangor, Maine, on October 2.  It was a journey of just over a month and 2495 km (1560 miles).  

Since it is somewhat off-topic for Transgender in State -- as of today renamed Transgender Out of State -- I have posted the day-by-day journal I kept along the way in my companion journal, Alice Out of State.  It is a chronological account focused on the technical, physical aspects of the journey and may prove useful to others who set out on such a long tour:

If any of my readers are interested in bicycle touring, I look forward to hearing from you!

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

July 19, 2019

The Sun is descending over the hills of western Maryland, and I watch from the observation car of the Capitol Limited, bound from Washington, DC, to Chicago.  It is July 19, 2019, and I am celebrating.

It is the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11.  The 19th, as I recall, is when Apollo entered lunar orbit.  The 20th will find me in Chicago, wandering a city I have not been in since 1990.  The hour of the Moon landing will find me ducking into a movie theater to watch the new Apollo 11 documentary.

It's not just the Moon landing anniversary that I am celebrating.  Some time ago I chose July 19, 2019, as the last day of my Foreign Service career.  Even in this 21st century world, we have mandatory retirement for age.  I reach that age in August.  I have had my farewell in our Office of Global Programs; Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.  It has been a very good year, a year for which I am indebted to NLL, BL, and UCB.  Without them, I would have resigned a year ago.  IW, an impressively talented young woman, is fully trained and takes over for me on Monday.  My office life, a life that began on the Monday after Thanksgiving in 1978, is over.

Has it really been over forty years?  If this is a life changing moment, it can't be retirement.  It must be high school graduation.  Nixon is still in office, isn't he?  Watergate is only on the horizon, and scarcely anyone outside of Georgia has heard of a certain peanut farmer named Carter.  My life is still ahead of me, a life full of promise but clouded by a secret for which I scarcely had a word in 1972 America.

The choice of watching the sunset from the Capitol Limited on this July 19, 2019, is intentional.  It was after another space first that I watched the sunset from this observation car in August 1990.  Hubble Space Telescope had been launched in April, and I like many on the project had been working all out with launch and early mission support as we struggled to get beyond Hubble trouble.  With that as backdrop, I had applied for and received a one week research fellowship at the University of Illinois to complete my Slavic Review article on the 1936-37 purge of Soviet astronomers, the second career that had consumed my non-Hubble hours for six years, in the process giving me a way to run from myself by being fully occupied all the time.  It was on the train to Chicago that I came to grips for the first time with the reality that I could no longer run from myself.  I had to tell my long-suspecting spouse and my family.  That decision led to the deep, dark valley of a psychiatric ward with many more peaks and valleys to come.

I watched the 1969 Moon landing from the home of my aunt and uncle in Michigan.  It was the space program of the 1960s that led to my first career as an attitude analyst.  It was my inner secret that gave me a lifelong love of Russian literature, culture, and history.  In the days of the Soviet Union, Russian society differed entirely from the one I had grown up in, an other that was as different from U.S. reality as my outer, public face was different from the inner face I kept carefully hidden. 

Watching the 2019 sunset from the Capitol Limited is an entirely joyous experience.  Thanks to that decision taken with such trepidation in 1990, I have made it through.  I have become myself, no longer with inner secrets.  I have had a second career and have traveled and lived in almost all the Russian-speaking world.

A new phase is beginning.  The 1969 Moon landing and high school are both behind me now.  With, I hope, many more sunsets to come, I turn my thoughts to where this next phase may lead.

Harper's Ferry from the Capitol Limited

Saturday, May 25, 2019

A State-less Pride

The guidance came on May 16:  "The Department will not transmit an ALDAC for IDAHOT and LGBTI Pride Month this year."

I think most people reading this journal know that LGBTI stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex.  LGBTI is the official formulation at the Department of State.  IDAHOT, of course, is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia that is observed every year on May 17.  In countries where lgbt+ persons are most subject to discrimination, IDAHOT is often the most important commemoration of the year.

For those who do not regularly walk the halls of Foggy Bottom, let me explain that Department is shorthand for Department of State.  ALDAC stands for All Diplomatic and Consular posts.  Left out of the guidance was the implicitly understood word cable following ALDAC.  All official communication between Washington and embassies and consulates around the world takes place in the form of cables.  A cable is little more than a for-the-record e-mail to which State-specific meta-data have been added, but the Department of State is nothing if not tradition-bound.  What was sent 50 years ago using the world's telegraph network is still called a cable in these 21st century Internet days.

Having parsed the preliminaries, let me get to the meat of the May 16 guidance:  the Department of State will not be sending a cable encouraging U.S. Missions to engage in outreach to lgbt+ communities on IDAHOT or during Pride Month this year.  The guidance continued that despite the lack of a cable, there has been no change in policy.  Posts are expected to use all tools available to them to advocate for the human rights of all persons, members of lgbt+ communities included.  

Why is this significant?  As an FSO who has spent most of the past 15 years at U.S. embassies in Russia, Romania, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, I can attest that cables, especially action cables directing an embassy to do something, receive attention.  General statements that "existing guidance stands" receive much less.  If an embassy or consulate does not have staff with a passion for a particular issue, in the absence of official direction from Washington it is quite likely no action will be taken.

Moreover, a U.S. embassy is not a democracy.  All embassy staff come under Chief of Mission (COM) authority.  That's usually the Ambassador.  In the case of IDAHOT or Pride, even passion on the part of lower-level embassy officers may not be sufficient unless the COM approves.  A case in point, I can point to our commemoration of IDAHOT in Kazakhstan.  In 2016 the Ambassador declined my request to display the Pride flag inside the embassy.  In declining my request, he averred that he could only authorize official flags even though he personally understood the significance of Pride.  Thus we were unable to display the Pride flag in 2016.

Fast forward to 2017.  That winter I contacted the drafters of the annual Pride ALDAC and asked if it would be possible to include a statement in the 2017 cable to the effect that COMs are authorized to display the Pride flag.  They did include such a statement, and in 2017 I renewed my request to the Ambassador, pointing to the ALDAC cable that gives him the authority.  The flag was displayed prominently in the embassy atrium throughout the day on May 17.

So that's why an annual IDAHOT/Pride ALDAC is important.  It empowers lower level officers at U.S. missions to take action even when a COM is not initially enamored of the project.  Without such an ALDAC in 2019, I can only wonder how many initiatives will not come to fruition.

Where did the decision not to send an IDAHOT/Pride cable come from?  I feel certain the staff responsible for writing the annual cable are just as committed to lgbt+ human rights around the globe today as they have always been.  I believe the decision came from higher up, perhaps from the very top.  That would be consistent with what we have been seeing overall since the 2016 election.  Day by day, a death by a thousand cuts, our rights as lgbt+ Americans are being eroded with the removal of a guidance here, the rewriting of a policy there, or just the quiet disappearance of a web site.  It should come as no surprise that this erosion would happen also at the U.S. Department of State.

Happy Pride. . . .