Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Bucharest Christmas

Summer and fall in Bucharest were brilliant in their sunlit days and blue skies.  From May until December, what precipitation there was fell at night or during the workday.  As little as three weeks ago I was riding my bicycle to and from work.  We were beginning to wonder, where is winter?

Then there was a week of fog.  Everything was shrouded in mist.  Temperatures dropped, and a drizzle turned to light snow.  Winter came, and now it is Christmas Eve.

This is my second Christmas in Bucharest.  A year ago it did not feel like Christmas, embroiled as I was in a legal battle that seemed without end.  I put up no decorations of my own and made no Christmas plans.  Then one day I came home from work, opened my door, and stopped short.  My apartment had been decorated!  There were Christmas wreaths, candles, ornaments, and Merry Christmas signs.  It was all the doing of my Bucharest friend K*, soon to be my best friend and one of the most significant people ever to appear in my life.  Unbeknownst  to me, she had gotten a key to my apartment and had decorated it along with her housekeeper without any hint to me.

A year ago I could never have guessed that this year I would be the happiest I have ever been in my 57 years.  This year I did my own decorating, putting up a small Christmas tree for the first time since joining the Foreign Service.  There are presents received and presents to give under the tree, and I am making the rounds from one buffet or dinner to another.  Santa Claus came to Embassy Bucharest on Friday, and I gave him the biggest of hugs.  This year Santa has given me what I secretly prayed for on Christmas Eve nights 50 years ago:  my womanhood.

I am far, far from the first person to walk this transition road, and much of what I write is familiar or even dull to those who have gone down this path long before me.  Yet for me all the milestones, even the small ones, are bright and new, each a shiny ornament for the season. 

My Childhood Christmas Creche (circa 1962)
One ornament came two weeks ago during the fog when I asked M* for a ride home.  "Of course," she said, "and then we'll go together to the book club." "What book club?" I asked.  She seemed surprised I knew nothing about it.  Later in the day I asked my friend N*, and she too reacted with surprise.  "Well of course you're coming, aren't you?"  With two such insistent requests in one afternoon about a group I had never heard of, I had to go and find out.

Mom and Dad's Christmas Village
It turns out that the International Book Club that has existed in Bucharest for years and years is known more informally as the Ladies Night Out Club.  Fourteen women, many from outside the Embassy and whom I had never met, gathered that evening, each bringing a dinner dish or dessert.  (I happened to have some chicken tetrazzini I had cooked the previous day, so I didn't have to embarrass myself by coming empty handed.)  Over wine and dinner, everyone talked about this month's reading, Galileo's Daughter, before digressing into general conversation about the lot of women then and through all times.  For me it was a magical evening that rivaled the Marine Ball.  "I can't believe I'm really sitting here," I thought as I pinched myself.  I had been accepted and was as much a part of the group as anyone there.

Then there was the Sunday afternoon when N*, who describes herself as a beauty school dropout, taught me the finer points of handling a blow dryer and brushes.  Other Embassy friends have been giving me makeup, hair preparations, and beauty advice.

Earlier this week one of my Embassy girlfriends came up to me and asked where I had bought my boots.  "Mine are worn out, and I love yours!" she said.  Another friend came up to ask where I had bought my skirt suit.  Then there was the handsome man, recently arrived in Bucharest, whom I met at a sweets and chocolate get-together last weekend.  When he heard we would both be part of a group that is going to a Christmas Day buffet, he said, "That's another good reason for me to go!"  I nearly blushed.

Santa has been good to me in smaller, practical things as well.  Much sooner than I expected, I received my new tourist passport this week, and just yesterday I received my new diplomatic ID from the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Indeed, it is a wonderful life.

Bucharest at Christmas reminds me of small town America.  Christmas lights hang over all major streets, and the markets are full of wonderful smells as people rush home with their last minute shopping.  Men carry Christmas trees, and women carry wreaths and holly.
It is a very, very Merry Christmas in Bucharest this year.  To my family and friends and to all who have found their way to these notes, may your Christmas be as merry as mine, full of warmth, love, and happiness.  And to those who find themselves down and hopeless, know that this is how I felt just one year ago.  If that is where you find yourself, may you have your own K* in your life who brings you cheer and hope in spite of yourself.

I'll see you all again in 2012. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Looking for George Kennan -- or -- The Day My Universe Changed (2002-11), Part 2

It would take a transgender Foreign Service Officer (FSO) to put the names George Kennan and Jennifer Finney Boylan in the same sentence, but there you have it, another first for the transgender world of diplomacy.  Just as I admire Jenny Boylan, I have idolized George Kennan since college when I first read his books Russia Leaves the War and The Decision to Intervene.  It was through Kennan's writings that I first learned of the Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, and it was through Kennan's memoirs that I came to know something of what my new life in the Foreign Service would be like.  Although Kennan was writing of his years as an FSO in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, I was to find that much of what he wrote still applied in the 21st century.
It was with Kennan on my mind that I made my way to the heavy, gray State Department headquarters building -- known simply as Main State  -- on a Monday morning in early June, 2004.  Kennan had been the State Department's leading expert on Russia and the Soviet Union, the original author of what went on to become the U.S. policy of containment during the Cold War.  I was now to follow distantly in his footsteps, as my State Department career was about to begin in EUR/RUS, colloquially known to those who work there as The Russia Desk.

I had already been working for the State Department for six weeks, but this was taken up fully by orientation training.  The orientation class had an official name, but everyone called it A-100, a name that goes back decades to a time when the orientation was held in room A-100 of a building that no longer exists.  Most of those six weeks are a blur, taken up as they were by administrative tasks, language testing, and theoretical instruction that would not find practical application for months or years.  Most importantly, the new FSOs in this class would be informed of their first postings.

What would be my first post?  When I entered the State Department, I was still officially on leave from CSC.  Yes, I had had a farewell luncheon and had said my goodbyes, but in the back of my mind was the thought that if I were assigned to some dark corner of the world that held no interest for me, I could quit then and there in the orientation class.  To my own delighted surprise, however, I was assigned directly to a year as a political officer on The Russia Desk followed by two years in Moscow.  This was exactly what I was hoping for, a chance to use my Russian language and my Russian and Soviet studies background.  It was a dream come true.

It didn't feel like much of a dream, however, in the first days and weeks on the Desk.  I was one of three political officers in a high powered office of about a dozen people with years of State Department experience.  I had gone from being a respected, senior analyst at CSC to being "Hey, you!"  I was the most junior person on the Desk and deservedly so.  I could hardly find my way around the building, let alone navigate politics and policy.  One night during my first week I went home and spent the evening staring at the ceiling, talking to no one and wondering to myself, "What have I done with my life?  Was it like this for Kennan when he was starting out?"

The next day I got up and told myself, "OK, you chose this life.  You can do it no matter how hard and new it is.  You can start over."  I resolved I would not let the bucking bronco throw me, and if it did, I would get up and start again.

It was the most grueling work year of my life.  The pace was frenetic, and there was no predictability.  My portfolio was Russia's external relations with third countries, which ran the gamut from dull and peaceful to a state bordering on hostilities.  My life in particular came to revolve around Russia's relations with Georgia and the worsening situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  I threw myself into understanding the evolving events and applying that understanding to writing informational memorandums, reports, and instruction cables to FSOs in the political office at Embassy Moscow.  I arrived early and stayed late, doing all I could to prove to myself and to others that I could do this job.  When friends at NASA would ask what the new job was like, I would respond that it was like launch support for a mission in which everything that could go wrong regularly did go wrong.  The only difference, I would continue, was that at the State Department there was a new launch every day.

On Saturdays I would head to my old CSC office to complete a number of projects.  My old management was wonderfully kind to me.  Knowing that my salary at the State Department would be significantly lower than my CSC salary, they had arranged for me to continue working hourly.  I did this for almost a year.  Thus I had only one day a week, Sundays, to take care of everything that was not work.

My life was not made any easier at home.  CSC had been an escape from the home situation, and the work was almost always fun.  Now work was hard and exhausting, and the career change had not made me popular at home.  "How can you look at yourself in the mirror?" was a phrase I heard more than once.  That had been true in the literal sense for all my life -- something many transgender people are familiar with -- and hearing it stated brought nothing but pain.

But as the months went by, I found I was no longer a danger to myself and those in near proximity.  Part of it was me, but part of it was the people I worked with.  AG, the senior political officer, was my own age and knew how to balance serious business with humor.  When I would be at my most tense, a look from him, a rolling of the eyes, would be enough to tell me to relax and could even get me laughing.  JK in the economic department became a friend with whom I am still in touch.  Gradually, I became known around the building as the junior officer who had jumped into one of the toughest offices and had shown a depth of knowledge and ability that no one had expected.  After only six months I was shocked to receive a Meritorious Honor Award for my handling of the Russia-external portfolio.  I realized then that not only wasn't I a danger, I could really do this job!  I began to relax and find my own humor in the seriousness, writing an item for our "Daily Activity Report" with the title Pith Helmet Diplomacy based on a statement made by Russian President Vladimir Putin.  I received a mock award for this from a neighboring office with a certificate saying, "Best DAR We Wish We Had Written."  I followed up by buying styrofoam pith helmets for everyone in the office.

Pith Helmet Diplomacy
Did I think of being transgender that year?  If I did, it was only in my dreams.  The new career had allowed me to do what I had done so well so many times in the past:  self-medicate with work.  I was too busy and too exhausted to think of anything beyond the basics of get up, get to work, do the job, get home, eat, and go to bed.  That's the way it was for twelve months.

Then one day I walked out of Main State at lunch time and stopped short.  Spring had come!  The sun was bright and the air was warm.  I walked to the Mall, bought a hot dog, and walked around the Tidal Basin.  The cherry blossoms were in bloom.  Where had the winter gone?

With the coming of the spring, my friends and colleagues on the Desk started telling me to slow down, stop concentrating so much on the job and turn instead to my next task, getting ready to transfer to Moscow.  Before I knew it, only a year after leaving CSC, champagne bottles were opened and I was at another farewell party with jokes, smiles, and words of parting.

As I left Main State that day, I summed up the year to myself.  I had done something most Americans would never contemplate.  I had switched careers at age 50 to a field completely unlike the one I had been in.  I had gone from being senior to being junior and had proved myself all over again.  It had been difficult, but I had risen to the challenge and succeeded.  Life was not preordained to go on as it had.  I had reinvented myself in the world of work.  I had, with effort and determination, changed my life.

If I had been able to do this at work, might I one day be able to do the same in other parts of my life? . . .  No, in the summer of 2005 I was not ready to think about this possibility, but I was getting increasingly excited about the next phase of my life:  Moscow!  I was about to return to Russia, not to visit but to live and work there for two years.  A part of my life that had petered out after years of publishing on Russian history had found a rebirth.  I would continue to follow distantly in the diplomatic footsteps of George Kennan.  What surprises, good and bad, would the next two years bring?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Dinner Conversation -- or -- The Day My Universe Changed (2002-11), Part 1

It was just a dinner conversation.  No, not even that, it was an after-dinner remark.  It was a warm spring evening in 2002, and two friends had come for dinner.  When the time came to leave, Bob stood with me waiting for his spouse, who was saying a long goodbye.

Casually, Bob said, "I signed up for the Foreign Service exam today."

"What's that?" I asked.

"Oh," said Bob, "it's the exam you take to join the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer.  It's free to take, and I try it every year to see if I can pass.  Why don't you take it also?  We'll go together.  You've got nothing to lose."

Laughing, I allowed Bob to walk me over to the computer, and the next thing I knew, I had registered.

Scout Camp, Summer 2002
The exam was not until many months later, and I nearly forgot about it.  Summer came and with it came those things I like best about normal family life, a week at the beach and a week with my son's Boy Scout troop at the Broad Creek Scout Reservation north of Baltimore.  The scoutmaster now knew about my being transgender, but he told me he knew me as a gentle person who loved the troop and had always acted properly.  It was to be my last summer with my son at scout camp, and I treasure the memories of the sounds and smells, the heat of the summer, the practical jokes, the lazy conversations, and the gentle friendship of being far away from urban life.

By autumn all was again not well at home.  The brief honeymoon following my capitulation in March had ended.  I had in effect agreed to unconditional surrender.  Always a second fiddle, I now had almost no say in the decision making.  This was particularly true in financial matters, where our not-too-abundant retirement savings were now to be diverted for another home renovation and addition.  I signed the refinancing documents, put down the pen, looked around, and said quietly to no one in particular, "I've just lost my home."

The notice came in the mail reminding me of the Foreign Service exam that fall.  I wasn't at all sure I would go, but the night before the exam had given rise to a fruitless argument.  As Saturday morning dawned, I thought to myself, "I can stay home and continue the argument, or I can go take this exam."  I got up, got dressed, and drove to Catholic University to join several hundred other, mostly young hopeful exam takers.  When it was over, I drove home, uplifted by the diversion of having put my mind to a task that, upon reflection, had been unexpectedly fun.

I forgot about the exam quickly enough, but I was reminded six weeks letter when I received an envelope from the Department of State with a form letter notifying me I had passed the written exam and was now invited to a full-day oral assessment that would take place in January.

Again I was uncertain I would take the exam.  The written exam had taken place on a weekend, but the oral would be given on a Monday.  That would require me to take a day off from work.  It was only the night before the assessment that I decided to go.

I had no expectation that I would pass the oral exam, but I was intrigued.  How far will this go?  The day consisted of a variety of group and individual exercises conducted by a group of expressionless examiners who took copious notes.  Two dozen of us were being assessed that day.  In the late afternoon we all sat in a common room and were called in by the examiners one by one.  The room was nearly empty when something different happened.  Instead of calling a single name, an examiner called my name and that of one other person.  We followed him into another room where several other examiners were waiting.  The door closed behind us, and suddenly the examiners were all smiles.  Amazingly, two of us out of two dozen had passed.

What happened next was that I was given a conditional offer of employment.  As I read the fine print, I realized I had taken the day off from work for nothing.  The odds of real employment with the State Department were slim and were contingent on medical and security clearances.  "This could drag on for years," I thought, but then I decided there would be nothing wrong with getting a free physical exam.

It was six months later, in the summer of 2003, that I received a letter informing me that my clearances had come through and that my name had been placed on the register of candidates who had been cleared for hiring.  In fact, my scores had put me somewhere in the top ten of those listed on the political register.  "Gee," I thought, "is that significant?"

My Office at CSC
The Call came within days.  I was in my office at CSC.  "Mr. McCutcheon,  could you join the next group of incoming Foreign Service Officers in the orientation class that will start next month?"  It was a Human Resources (HR) representative from the State Department who had called.  I was speechless.  "Mr. McCutcheon?. . ."  After a long pause, I answered quietly, "No."

I must credit the HR officer with an ability to read the feelings behind the words.  "Mr. McCutcheon, is that a real no, or is that an I need to go home and think about this no?"  I said it was the latter, and she said she would call again the next day.

I did not sleep that night.  Almost age 50, I had just been offered a chance to turn my life upside down.  Would I take it?  I loved my work for NASA, and the people I worked with on Hubble were almost more family to me than my real family.  Still, Hubble had been launched thirteen years earlier, and one day the mission would end.  Many of my friends had already left for other projects.  More troubling, CSC no longer seemed interested in NASA contracts, and some of my departed friends now found themselves on contracts that had nothing to do with NASA, science, or engineering.

I consulted a trusted CSC friend.  "Take the State Department offer," she said, "because this company will lay you off one day.  CSC is a business, not a family, no matter how many friends you may have here."

The next day the same HR representative called back.  "Have you thought about it, Mr. McCutcheon?  Will you join us?"  This time I replied, "Yes, but I need time to put my affairs in order."  "When can you start?" she asked.  "Sometime in the first half of 2004" was my answer.  "Good," she replied, "I will call you again in six months."

Last Day at CSC, March 2004
The months passed by, and I got ready both financially and emotionally.  Joining the State Department would mean a significant salary cut for at least the first year, and I had to save extra hard over the next six months to have enough to tide my family through.  After twenty-five years with one company and more than half of that on Hubble Space Telescope, the time had come to say an emotional, tearful goodbye.  My farewell luncheon took place in late March, and in April I bought the suits, ties, white shirts and other business clothes I had never had to wear at CSC.

At the end of April I went by myself to Little Orleans, Maryland, where I rented a small cabin I had come to love through the years.  For a week I took long walks along the C&O Canal, went on bike rides through the hills, and lay on the grass at night, marveling at the Milky Way just as I had as a child.   "What will my future be like?" I wondered.  I was nervous and fearful, sensing more than knowing I had cast my career and family into the unknown.  "What will become of me?  What will become of us?"

Little Orleans Retreat, April 2004
The stars shone brilliantly.  The gentle Maryland night embraced me.  A light breeze rustled through the branches and caressed my face.  Somehow, I thought, this will work.  I got up, went inside, and slept the last full night's sleep I would know for many, many months.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

After the Ball

Two weeks ago I wrote about the excitement of transition day at our Embassy in Bucharest and the glamor of the Marine Ball.  "OK," you say, "We believe the excitement and glamor part, but what about real life?  How has it been?"

The answer can be summed up in one beautiful word:  normal.  It's been absolutely, wonderfully normal.  I get up a few minutes earlier, true, to be as well groomed as I can before walking to the bus stop and waiting for my bus, just another professional woman on her way to work.  I walk through the Embassy gate, and the marine on duty greets me, "Good Morning, Ma'am."  I make my way to my office, greeting and being greeted as I go.  "Good morning, Robyn," I hear again and again.

I go through my day as always, but now with a smile and a much lighter step.  I had avoided our cafeteria and other public spaces for months, but now I break for lunch at noon or 12:30, grab the sandwich I brought from home, and down to the lunch room I go.  It's been wonderful to talk with so many of my colleagues who until two weeks ago hardly knew me.

First Day at Work
A member of our local staff with whom I work closely told me how stunned he had been by my announcement.  He said he went home that night with a heavy weight on his mind and told his wife, "My boss is becoming a woman."  She turned around, looked at him, and said, "So what?"  From that moment, he said, he realized that I was still the same person who had been evolving before his eyes without him knowing it.  Not once has he failed to call me Robyn, not once has he used the wrong personal pronoun by mistake.  I had been so worried about losing him, and now, realizing how wrong I had been in this worry, I want to hug him each time I go to speak with him.
Our HR office took a new photo of me for the Embassy registry, and I have a new badge with my new name.   My name has been changed in all directories and in the computer systems.  A colleague from Ankara with whom I worked long-distance for several days wrote a letter to my manager, telling him how grateful he was "to Robyn for her assistance in solving a problem that had plagued us for days."

Woman in a Red Hat
I spent last Saturday with good friends and bought a new hat.  I've been to an art reception this week and to Thanksgiving dinner at the Ambassador's residence, where I sat next to a Peace Corps volunteer who had been to Central Asia.  We talked about the never-ending water issues in that part of the world while stuffing ourselves with those deliciously awful foods that could size me out of the wardrobe I bought just two months ago.

Now my kitchen is filled with Thanksgiving aromas as I prepare for my own celebration with a number of local friends on Saturday.  I think back to the Transgender Day of Remembrance observance that I participated in a week ago at ACCEPT, the Romanian LGBT advocacy organization.  As troubled as my own life has been, I am one of the lucky ones.  I am alive!  I have more to give thanks for this year than ever before, for in this year, with the help and love of friends, family, and co-workers, I have become myself not just in the secret recesses of my own hopes and imagination but in the real day-to-day life that we all live.  Transition can happen even in the fifth decade of life, even in the State Department, and even at an overseas Embassy.  Life is normal, just as it should be, for the first time.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!  Robyn sends a hug from Bucharest.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Big Day: A Letter to My Sister

Hi Mary,

Your good thoughts and energy got me through a long sleepless night from Wednesday to Thursday, so worried I was that after all these years, the biggest day of my life might not happen.  After three strikes -- college in the 1970s, 1990, and again in 2000-02 -- could this all be just a dream from which I would wake to find it was all a mirage?

It was only when I parked my bicycle in the Embassy parking lot on Thursday morning that the fog and worries vanished.  I turned on my cell phone and saw the one word that I still needed from one key person to let the day's events unfold.  That word was the simplest, shortest, happiest word I have ever seen:  YES.

Mary, it was the happiest day of my life.  The manager of the section I work in handled the announcement so beautifully at the special staff meeting he had called for 10am.  He opened by saying that today's meeting wasn't really to talk about work but to discuss the new management policy that had come out last week in which gender identity had been added to the anti-discrimination statement.  He asked if anyone had any idea what gender identity meant, what it meant to be transgender.  Our local staff just shrugged their shoulders, and he proceeded to give a short but good explanation.  He continued that all eyes were on Embassy Bucharest this day, as ours is the first U.S. Embassy we know of at which an American staff member had declared himself or herself to be transgender.  Then he paused and added, "She is sitting in this room.  I would like to introduce you all to Robyn."

I spoke for a good half hour.  Jaws dropped, and there were looks of incredulity on many faces when I began.  By the time I had finished, the expressions had changed to compassion, and I could see a tear or two.  People from whom I had never expected it told me how brave I was, and there were many handshakes and hugs.

I had set my e-mail announcement to all Embassy staff to be sent automatically at 10:30am, and thus by the time we walked out of our staff meeting at 11am, everyone knew.  We have a weekly Embassy newsletter, and it appeared at 2pm.  Whenever someone arrives or departs from our Bucharest family, there is a "welcome" or a "farewell."  This week it said, "Farewell Robert," and right next to it were the words "Welcome Robyn."

I did no work for the rest of the day as I was deluged by congratulatory e-mails.  I couldn't walk the halls without someone stopping me and expressing support.  I received personal e-mails from the the highest levels that I could not have imagined the day before.  All day long the words were, "Welcome Robyn!"

I continued to walk and dance on air all Friday and Saturday.  I had the first professional pedicure and manicure of my life, somewhat amusingly having to invent a tale to explain why my feet have so many callouses.

Next I went to the hairdresser.  Andrea and I have been working towards this day for nearly six months.  I was with her for three hours as she colored, highlighted, and styled.  I put on my glasses and looked at myself in the mirror when she was done.  My own reflection took my breath away.  For the first time in my life I felt and looked beautiful!

Before the Ball
The big celebration, the event at which I came out into society, was the annual Marine Ball on Saturday night.  The same handsome, brave marines who day in, day out, had greeted me with the words "Good Morning, Sir!" now stood in a receiving line in their dress uniforms and greeted me, "Good Evening, Ma'am!" as they presented me a with rose.

Mary, I drank champagne and danced like I had never danced before.  I felt like Natasha Rostova in War in Peace who goes to her first ball.  At age 57 my dreams -- the dreams of any 13-year-old girl -- were coming true.  I danced and twirled and floated in my gown and high heels.  How I want to learn to dance for real now!

Oh, Mary, how good it is to be alive!  After all the years, the decades of hiding and pain, I'm me.  I'm no longer an artificial construct living for others.  I've been a Foreign Service Officer for seven years now, serving and representing my country to the best of my ability, but never have I been so proud to represent the United States as I am this day.  I am living proof of how far we have come as a diverse, accepting society in my lifetime.

Now it's a quiet Sunday.  I look at the rose from last night's ball and know it's not a dream.  Tonight there is no need to frizz up my hair and take off the polish.  I don't need go back to looking like the "mad scientist."  Tomorrow it is I, Robyn, who goes to work.

What a wonderful, magical time to be alive!



You can find my announcement letter to Embassy staff as well as the "farewell/welcome" notice in our Embassy newsletter at the following links --

Sunday, November 6, 2011

NoTransition -- or -- So How Far Back Does this Go? (Conclusion)

Looking back at my life, I am struck by how it is often the inconsequential that brings about the greatest upheavels.   The minor thing to which we pay no attention at the moment turns out to be a tipping point.  Just as the men of genius in Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers stumble upon their greatest discoveries not knowing it, so we too, the common people, change our life paths not knowing we have done so.

I had gotten through the 1990s by devoting myself to family and work.  In 1990 I had been told I was depressed and overworked and that transgender people and transsexuality do not exist.  I took it literally, hoping it was true.  If a transgender story appeared in the newspaper, I did not read it.  If there was a report on the TV news, I changed the channel.  "I need to accept myself as I am," I thought, "and to find the joys that are to be had in that self-acceptance."  I even briefly tried the different addiction groups such as Sex Addicts Anonymous, wondering if I would find others in the same situation who were looking for their higher power.  I didn't find them.  I would leave those rooms scratching my head.  Whatever was going on in me had never had anything to do with sex, and it surely didn't feel like an addiction.  Instead, I found my peace on two wheels and, increasingly, in long hikes and backpacking trips with my son's scout groups and with friends.  In the mountains of West Virginia I felt accepted for what I was, whatever that was.

When the white noise of my life returned, it did so at startling volume and without warning.  It was the summer of 2000.  My spouse, her two aunts and sister, our son, and I were vacationing on Chincoteague Island.  I had a science fiction fantasy novel with me that I had picked up at the library near my office simply because it was on the new books received shelf.  I was fifty pages into it before the plot suddenly took a transgender turn.  This time I continued reading. "It's just a novel," I thought, "and this is no longer an issue for me."  I returned the book after our vacation, and I no longer remember the title or the author.

I was wrong.  The old thoughts began to return, particularly in dreams, and I felt unable and ultimately unwilling to stop them.  Within six months my spouse realized from my increasing silences that something was wrong.  I had to tell her . . . and it was 1990 all over again.

But not quite.  Some things had changed.  I was loving my job and work, and as the volume of conversations and arguments increased at home, I was delving ever more deeply into developing and applying a new Poisson series method to the creation of ephemerides (predictions of positions) for the major planets and principal minor planets for use on Hubble.  It led to a journal article and a paper that I delivered at an important international conference.  "I'm not crazy and I'm not depressed."  This is what I would tell myself as I rode my bicycle home each evening to continue the discussion from where it left off the previous night.

International Space Flight Dynamics Symposium
Near my office I found a personal counselor, an RN who was known to have some experience with gender issues.  I would go to see her during the lunch hour, but we never got around to talking much about gender.  Our conversations centered around my marriage and the lack of communication in it.  It was not a path I wanted to go down, but I soon found myself on it.

"You married the wrong woman," my best Russian emigre friend LM told me again and again.  He already knew of my transgender secret, having been told directly by my spouse.  "This is nothing," he said, "and if I had known you when you were 20, I would have cured you within weeks."

Could he be right?  It's not depression but just the wrong choice in marital partner?  Indeed, as good as the 1990s had been, over the final three years of the decade we were living ever more distant lives.  My in-laws had been marooned with us by illness, and all of my spouse's attention was focused on them.  I was devoting myself to work.  We came together only for our son, and even there we disagreed on most of the details.  We rarely talked, and all outings had to be with the full extended family.

Another change since 1990 was the Internet.  I found a discussion group called NoTransition on Yahoo and became a member.  This was a group of mainly married transgender people who were trying to find a middle path without transition that would allow them to preserve marriages without absolutely denying their transgender side.  It felt like the right place to be.

When I optimistically brought up the existence of this group and my participation in it, the result was the opposite of what I had hoped for.  The volume of arguments at home increased.  I spent many a night in long insomniac walks through Silver Spring and Takoma Park.  On one particularly emotional evening, our 13-year-old son walked into the middle of our argument and, from my own lips, found out what it was we were fighting about.  He was devastated.

I moved out in early 2002.  I moved in with my sister, made a down payment on a trailer, and thought seriously about divorce for the first time.  I talked with a divorce attorney.  At work, seeing no reason not to, I began surreptitiously cross dressing for the first time since college.  (I'm told that looking back, my co-workers remember some odd dressing habits on my part, but nothing was ever said.)

My dash to freedom lasted about three months.  It might have continued, but I could not bear my son's anger and my own sense of guilt for taking the steps that would destroy us as a family.  My son did not want to see me and would call me at night to tell me how angry he was with me.  When I told him I intended to come to a swim meet he would be participating in in March 2002, he told me not to come.

I went anyway.  I could not not go.  My sister went with me for the first part but could not stay.  After that I was on my own, watching my son swim and seeing my spouse at a distance.  I couldn't take it.  I wrote a short note.  "I'm wrong; you're right.  Let's talk."  Within a week I was home again, and my spouse personally went through my office at work to dispose of the few pieces of female clothing I had acquired in my brief run to freedom.  As a family we returned to quieter older patterns and a brief period of honeymoon. 

I resigned from NoTransition.  I could not come out in college, I nearly crashed for good in 1990, and I crumbled again in 2002.  "Three strikes and you're out," as they say in American baseball.  There is no middle path.  I will take this with me to the grave, and I am doing this of my own heartsick free will.  My tombstone will read, "Kept the Secret to the End.  Thank you.  Good show and Goodbye."  I shed some tears, avoided looking at myself in the mirror, and thought of T. S. Elliot's lines from The Hollow Men:

                             This is the way the world ends
                             This is the way the world ends
                             This is the way the world ends
                             Not with a bang but a whimper.



Of course, this is not the end of the story, although as little as two years ago I would have affirmed that it was.

So what happened after March 2002?  Again, it was something entirely inconsequential that turned my universe upside down and, after many struggles, brought me to where I am today.  As time permits, I will fill in the years 2002 to 2011 with a new retrospective, "The Day My Universe Changed (2002-11)."

But tonight, November 6, 2011, I stand less than 90 hours away from the official announcement of my transition at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest.  I feel I am 57 going on 27 and as giddy as a teenager, particularly after a weekend shopping trip with an Embassy friend in search of and finding a lovely ball gown.  From this point forward the real story is what is happening today.  I am poised to begin my Real Life Experience as a woman.  What a wonderful, exciting time it is to be alive!


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Heaven Can Be Yours Just for Now -- or -- So How Far Back Does This Go? (Part 8)

All the lovely ladies in their finery tonight,
I wish that I could know them one by one.
All the handsome gentlemen with loving on their minds,
Strolling in to take the ladies home.
Gordon Lightfoot.  An old song playing in my head on a frosty autumn morning.  Down the hill, up the next on two wheels, spinning the cranks 15 miles from home to work.  All is normal, all is OK in the final decade of the 20th century.

And it almost was.  I had been given a choice of diagnoses in 1990, and I chose the one that would preserve a marriage.  Anti-depressants for a year, out of management and back to technical work, attitude determination for Hubble again.  The recipe was good, and it almost worked.  It was the most normal decade of my marriage.  The secret was out, 36 years of pressure had been released, the white noise of my life had receded.  Could it all have been a delusion?
Bless you all and keep you on the road to tenderness,
Heaven can be yours just for now.
A Saturday morning in 1991, my son in the carrier seat on the back of my bicycle.  We're off, just the two of us, to Sligo Creek Park to play by the creek and on the swings.  Another weekend it's the Renaissance Festival.  Then it's the B&O train museum.  It's the age of pumpkin patches, nursery school, and childhood wonder seen again through the eyes of a parent.
All the gentle strangers who by nature do not smile,
To everyone who cannot hold a pen,
To all you heavy rounders with a headache for your pains,
Who dread the thought of going 'round the bend.
1992.  "Dad, let's go basement and cut pipe."  Our basement becomes my son's weekend playground as I rip out the old plumbing and heating system in our Takoma Park bungalow.  He plays with pipe fittings as I cut old steel pipes out of the ceiling and sweat new copper into place.  The solder sizzles and burns my fingers.  Must finish before the first frost.
Bless you all and keep you on the road to better things,
Heaven can be yours just for now.
1994.  Monthly IRCHAD meetings at the Naval Observatory for donuts and an international seminar on "Astronomy and the State, U.S. and Russian Perspectives."  Then it's off on a camping and driving trip in an ancient Cadillac through upstate New York, Canada, and New England.  It's just my spouse, my son, and me, a mutual friend joining us mid-way.  I see Maine for the first time and fall in love with a state.
To all the lovely ladies in their finery tonight,
I wish that I could kiss you while you knit.
To all the ones who learn to live with bein' second-guessed,
Whose job it is to give more then to get.
Mid '90s.  Pointing control lead for Hubble's Mission Scheduling System.  Spline algorithms.  We throw out everything to do with the High Gain Antennas and start all over again.  It's the best technical work I'll ever do.  I receive a Space Flight Awareness award, and my spouse, son, and I go off to Kennedy Space Center to see a night launch, stopping at Disney World on the way.
Bless you all and keep you with the strength to understand,
Heaven can be yours just for now.
Cub Scout Pack 432.  Pack chairman, newsletter and web-site author and editor, tireless promoter.    Webelos Weekend and Pinewood Derby.  Then it's Troop 432.  Monthly camping trips, weekend hikes, car washes, summer camp, and bicycle merit badge counselor.  Take the tandem so the young ones can finish in the back stoker seat if they tire.  Swim meets, school events, help with homework, weekend events at the Brazilian-American Cultural Center.  Best of all, it's bed-time stories.  Nursery rhymes give way to  Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Master and Margarita. 
To all the little dreamers with a dream that cannot last,
To all the sleeping giants who must wake.
To every man who answers to the letter of the law,
And all the rest imprisoned by mistake.
College Park Bicyclist Coalition.  Become an advocate for bicyclist rights on U.S. Route 29.  We win. 

Two aunts and a sister-in-law, marooned with us because of illness.  Hopeless, awful, bizarre, and wonderful all together.  TV Globo and Brazilian soaps.  Little English to be heard.
Bless you all and keep you with the faith to let it pass,
Heaven can be yours just for now.
Summer vacations in Ocean City.  Long walks on the beach, jumping through waves.  Throwing away money on the boardwalk just for fun.  Sand sculptures, Thrashers french fries, chocolate malts at Dumpsers.  Summer novels.  The sound of the surf that lulls us to sleep.
To all the lonely sailors who have trouble beeing seen,
To all of you with heartache that remains.
Maybe sometime later you might swim back into shore,
If someone could relieve you of your chains.
1998.  An unexpected phone call at work.  "Dad has had a stroke, meet us at the hospital."  The father with whom I could never speak has softened since my collapse in 1990.  I can still see him scooping up ice cream for my son, his grandson, his funny bowler hat on his head.  I miss you Dad.  There is so much I still want to tell you.  He leaves us three days later.

Gordon Lightfoot.  An old song playing in my head on a dark, cold winter evening.  Down the hill, up the next on two wheels, spinning the cranks 15 miles from work to home.  All is normal, all is OK in the final decade of the 20th century.
Bless you all and keep you all on the land or on the sea,
Heaven can be yours, just for now.

* * * * * * * * * *

Gordon Lightfoot from the Cold on the Shoulder album still echoes through my head on cool autumn evening bicycle rides, be it in Washington or in Maine or in Bucharest. . . . 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Odd Joys of International Travel while in Transition

I just spent two weeks in Maine with my sisters.  For the first time, we were together as four sisters, not three sisters and a brother.  One of the chief orders of business other than talking and eating plenty of Maine seafood was to outfit me with an expanded professional wardrobe for the fast approaching time when I will end my double life and will begin coming to work as Robyn.  My sisters were my fashion committee, and we devoted the rainy afternoons to this task.  We had a marvelous time.

What I want to write about here, however, is not the vacation as such but the unexpected, nicely odd experiences I had flying between Romania and the U.S.  Since I still have my guy passports, both diplomatic and tourist, I purposely dressed in drab, unisex travel clothes.  I expected no problems, but I was wrong.

Photo from my Passport
It began in Amsterdam, where I needed to change flights and had to go through security again.  Something  triggered  the detection scanners, and the security agents indicated they would need to pat me down.  They were speaking between themselves in Dutch while I waited, but I caught enough words to understand that they were uncertain whether I was a man or a woman and whether a female or male agent should have the honors.  Surprised, I interrupted in English, explained that I am a transsexual in transition, and told the male agent it was OK to proceed.  When he was finished, he said, "Thank you, ma'am."

On the flight to the U.S., it was ma'am the entire time from the cabin crew.  I was thrilled to be taken as female even when I was purposely trying not to, but I began to worry about passport control in the U.S.  Sure enough, the young officer at passport control in Detroit was confused when he looked first at me and then at the passport.  He clearly needed help.  When he started asking the usual questions, I said that I worked at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest and was coming home to the U.S. for vacation and to start a legal name change.  "Oh," he said, "what will you be changing your name to?"  "Robyn," I replied, and he then held out the passport, pointing to the M for sex.  "Will this be changing?"  When I replied "yes," he smiled and sent me on my way.

Photo from Embassy ID:  "The Mad Scientist"
After two days in Washington, I flew up to Maine on a domestic flight.  Again in guy mode, I thought better of showing my passport as an ID.  I had in my suitcase a recent ID badge from the Embassy that at least shows me with long hair, my mad scientist look.  That did the trick.  There were no quizzical glances or questions.

Arriving in Maine was a different matter.  Ironically, I had begun exploring whether there was still a chance I could yet walk the transition road in this lifetime when I was in Maine during the summer of 2010.  It all started there, but my neighbors in rural Burlington were about the only people left in my universe who did not know I had begun transition.  I had asked my neighbors Frank and Kelli if they could pick me up at the airport, but when I got off the plane I instead saw a stranger holding a sign with my name.  This turned out to be Fred, another neighbor from down the road whom Frank and Kelli had commissioned.  I waved, but he took no notice.  I had to walk right up to him and tell him I was the person he was looking for.  Clearly I was not quite the guy he was expecting.  We had an awkward 45 minute drive from Bangor to Burlington.

After throwing my suitcase into my cabin -- the only home I have today in the U.S. -- I walked next door to see my neighbors.  Kelli gave me a hug and invited me in to dinner.  As polite as ever, both Kelli and Frank looked at me strangely as though an elephant had walked into the room with me.  Over the course of dinner I worked my way around to the subject of my appearance.  Choosing my words carefully, I explained what is going on.  To my relief, Frank's response was, "Doesn't change the way I think of you."  Within days Kelli was complimenting me on my new clothes. 

I had had some fears about "coming out" in rural Maine, but to my relief I was wrong.  Maine is a state of yankee conservatism.  The credo is still "I might not agree with the way you are living your life but will defend to the death your right to live it that way."  My handyman Ritchie told me I was just adding color to Burlington's already colorful citizenry.

Somewhat wiser, I kept my mad scientist Embassy ID in my pocket for the return to Romania.  At airport check-in, all security checks, and finally at passport control in Bucharest, I presented my passport along with the ID, explaining that the ID photo is more current.  It worked.  I had no unusual incidents. 

A Rainy Afternoon in Bar Harbor
I should have no such odd experiences when I next travel outside Romania.  While in Maine, I went to my attorney to start the legal name change.  By the time I travel to the U.S. again next summer, I will have new passports with correct name and gender.  The charade will be at an end.

On the flight from Baltimore to Detroit, a young Lebanese woman who sat next to me with her 13-month old son struck up a conversation from which it was immediately clear she had taken me as female.  We talked child care and the difficulty of traveling with family.  I got out the vacation photos of me with my son and with my sisters.  As we looked at them, I heard the voice of the stewardess.  "Can I offer you anything to drink, ma'am?"  Wonderful, simply wonderful.

The Timeless Beauty of Fall in Maine

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Bushel and a Peck and Up Around the NEC

It's called the New Embassy Compound, the NEC for short.  It's pronounced like neck.  Carting many bushels and pecks worth of computers, servers, switches, and other boxes of computer stuff took over my life at the end of August.  The U.S. Embassy closed its old location in downtown Bucharest on September 9 and reopened at the NEC in the Baneasa suburb on September 12.  As anyone who has ever moved computer networks for a large organization can tell you, our work was only beginning on September 12.  Only now, at the end of our second week at the NEC, is life beginning to return to normal.  In the course of three weeks, I worked a week of overtime.

For any of my Romanian readers who have seen the NEC and think it an ugly eyesore, a prison compound, or a mini-Pentagon, all I can say is none of us were involved in the architectural design.  There are lots of things we, who work at the Embassy, would have done differently if anyone had asked us.  On the other side of the coin, the old Embassy on Tudor Arghezi street was in a historic building that was beautiful on the outside but decaying, almost decrepit on the inside.  Having a new, modern building to work in is a blessing no matter what its architectural merits.

The best news for me today is that tonight I fly to the U.S. for two weeks of vacation and a reunion with my sisters in Maine.  This will be my first vacation in a year, and I am ready!

So where did I leave my story?  In the retrospective I had just survived my disastrous, abortive coming-out summer of 1990.  Today, in the year 2011, I am less than three months away from beginning the Real Life Experience of coming to the workplace and living my live full-time as Robyn.  While in Maine, I will begin my legal name change through the Maine courts.

There is much still to tell both old and new, but having stolen today's opening lines from Frank Loesser's show tune, I will steal my closing from Pushkin.  At the end of Chapter 3 of Eugene Onegin, just as Onegin appears in the lane, striding towards Tatyana after reading the letter in which she professes her undying love, Pushkin breaks the action -- he wrote and published Eugene Onegin in installments -- writing:
Сегодня, милые друзья,
Пересказать не в силах я;
Мне должно после долгой речи
И погулять и отдохнуть:
Докончу после как-нибудь.
My friends, I need to pause a spell,
And walk, and breathe, before I tell
A story that still wants completing;
I need to rest from all this rhyme:
I'll end my tale some other time.
See you all in October!