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!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Hubble Goes Up, I Go Down -- or -- So How Far Back Does This Go? (Part 7)

Through most of the 1980s I thought I had cured myself through hard work and love, but I never could drown out the white TG noise of my life completely.  It was always there, a block to intimacy.  When I went to the Soviet Union on my IREX grant in 1987, I was relieved to be alone.  I briefly started cross-dressing surreptitiously when the opportunity presented itself, but I stopped almost before I began.  The dormitory where I was living was most likely equipped with listening and video devices, I thought.  I could almost see the headline in Pravda:  "U.S. Sends Sexual Deviant on Academic Grant."

When my spouse joined me at the end of the year, we had the first full-fledged war of our marriage.  I was suspected of an affair with a young woman I had befriended in Armenia.  Even in the heat of the fighting, I could not bring myself to say that the issue was something very different.  It was easier to be accused of a non-existent affair than it was to say, "Dear, I have something difficult to tell you."  Impossible.

We patched ourselves back together, and in March 1988 we returned to the U.S.  Two months after that we learned that my spouse was pregnant, and our one and only son was born that November.

What conflicted feelings I had on the day of my son's birth!  I was ecstatic to be a parent.  I loved every moment of being with my spouse in the delivery room.  I also felt devastated at the thought that I would need to keep something serious hidden away for decades to come.

I couldn't do it.  The contradictions were too great.  When the moment came, it came unexpectedly.

By the spring of 1990 I was reaping the fruits of my research on the purge of Soviet astronomers.  A major journal article was about to appear, and I was frequently invited to conferences and meetings.  The science section of Newsday wrote about my work, and when Sky and Telescope magazine published my popular article, it did so with a press release.

Hubble Space Telescope was launched on April 24, 1990.  I was at the pinnacle of my career.  I still remember with goose bumps the feeling of being in the control center at Goddard Space Flight Center, watching as Hubble's solar arrays unfurled, my fingers deftly working the algorithm that would allow the Fixed Head Star Trackers to identify star patterns and determine Hubble's orientation.

Less than three months later I was in a psychiatric ward.

I have no clear memory of the events between April and August 1990.  I believe it's my own mind's way of protecting me from memories that are still too hard to bear.

What I do remember was that I had a one week research grant at the University of Illinois.  I went there to complete my journal article for the Slavic Review, but I found I was unable to work.  At the time of some of my greatest successes at work and joy at being a parent, the contradictions inside me were yelling, "Enough, this can't go on!"  I looked up the unit at Johns Hopkins that dealt with gender issues and called long distance to make an appointment  On the train back to Washington, DC, I knew I had to talk with my spouse.

I don't remember how many days later the conversation came.  I don't even remember the circumstances or the words that were said.  I just know it was a long night.  It may have been the beginning of several long nights.  Finally one day I found myself a persona non grata, not knowing where I would spend the next night.  My world had collapsed.  The secret was out, and the result was more devastating than I had feared in my worst nightmares.  I stood one late afternoon on a Metro platform thinking not entirely frivolously that it might be better for everyone if I were just to disappear. . . .

I didn't jump in front of a moving Metro, but I had reached my nadir, the bottom of the pit.  Out of the Metro, I called my sister, who from the sound of my voice knew something was very wrong.  She came to pick me up, and the sight of me must have scared her even more than my voice.

I told her.  Now two people, my spouse and my sister, knew.  My sister's reaction was, "I think you need help."  She had never heard a story such as the one I told her, but she understood I was in trouble.

That night I slept in the psychiatric ward of one of our local hospitals to which my sister had delivered me.  In the emergency room my story elicited nothing but odd stares.  I didn't know what to expect when I woke up the next morning.  In three short months I had gone from respected engineer and historian to psychiatric patient.  I remember spending several hours in a common room, reading a copy of John LeCarre's A Perfect Spy that I had found.  What a story, I thought, as I got further into the book.  Magnus Pym, the main character, spends his entire life being what other people want him to me, always a cypher.  I felt a oneness with him and a comfort at being behind closed doors with the world fading away.

This was my first encounter with psychiatry.  It was not a pleasant one, and it was not a good one.  I don't remember the name of the psychiatrist assigned to my case.  I do remember recounting to him my earliest and continuing memories of feeling a tremendous mistake had been made, that I was in the wrong body, living the wrong life.  He sat there with a stony face, never commenting.  We met daily for a week.  Only at the last session did he pronounce his verdict.  "What you are is overworked and depressed."  That's what he said, or something very much like it.  He continued that from his reading, he was convinced there is no such thing as gender dysphoria.  He prescribed an antidepressant.  I was released to the care of my spouse, who was assured that I would be fine.  I went back to work without telling anyone the truth of why I had missed a week of work.  It was as though I had been away on vacation.

My appointment at Johns Hopkins came several weeks later.  Having made the appointment, I kept it.  To her credit, my spouse went with me.  The diagnosis here was very different:  gender identity disorder of adulthood, non-transsexual.  I took that to mean, "Has a very serious gender issue but seems able to cope."

Continuing discussions at home in the days and weeks to come made it clear that I had to choose between the diagnoses.  Go for continuing gender counseling at Hopkins or take the pills.  It was also clear that if I went for the former, I would find myself divorced with little or no access to our two year old son.  It was a stark choice.  I chose to stay married, remain a parent, and hope against my own desires that the diagnosis of depression was the right one, that this would go away.  "Life would be so much easier if only this would go away," I would say to myself even as I grieved inwardly.

In this, the darkest summer of my life, there were just three bright spots.  My sister, as confused as she was by my revelation, visited me daily and from that time forward became the main emotional support of my life.  Dad was still unapproachable and even proposed taking over my financial affairs since I was "ill,"  but it was different with Ma.  "Do you remember when you discovered me that night wearing my sister's clothes?" I asked her.  She replied, "Yes.  I never understood then just how difficult it was for you."  It wasn't much, but from that moment onward I felt much closer to Ma than I ever had as a child.

The third bright moment was a special friend, CT.  He is an unlikely hero in my story, the last person I ever expected to accept a side of me I thought was unacceptable.  CT is a reactionary, true-blue American patriot who has never voted for a Democratic candidate in his life.  Some would say he is a bigot, but like Clint Eastwood in the movie Grand Torino. there is another side.

Only days out of the hospital, I took a long walk with CT.  Near the end, as we walked up the small hill towards my home, he stopped, turned and looked at me.  "Maybe this really is you," he said.  "Maybe you really were supposed to be born a woman."  The person I least expected to do so was the only person who validated my right to my own feelings.  I never forgot that moment.

It was another twenty years before I mentioned that conversation to CT again.  On that day in 1990, CT proposed something else as our conversation drifted.  "I'm going on a bike ride with friends next weekend," he said.  "Why don't you come along?"

A bike ride?  My college bicycle was gathering dust in the basement, unused for years.  I did go on that ride with CT, and I never looked back.  Soon I was riding over 5000 miles per year as a commuter, and I still ride to this day.

So to my bicycling friends, here it is, the transgender roots of my career as an avid rider and activist for bicyclist rights in Maryland.  I had failed at coming out.  I was back in the closet for another twenty years, but for those twenty years, the rhythm of my legs and the quiet of the long road were a solace and a source of peace.  Where psychiatry and its pills failed, the bicycle saw me through to a better day.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

My Great Purge -- or -- So How Far Back Does This Go? (Part 6)

Growing up, I remember reading George Orwell's 1984That year seemed so impossibly distant and improbable.  But the 1980s did come, and we all lived through and beyond that year of somber expectations.  That distant future now belongs to the past.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union, does anyone still read Orwell's 1984?

For me the 1980s were the decade not just of my own personal purge but also of my all-consuming passion to understand one small corner of the Great Purges, the Terror, that overwhelmed the Stalinist Soviet Union in the mid to late 1930s.

It all began with a return to academia.  In the fall of 1982, shortly after my marriage, I entered graduate school again, this time Georgetown University's  Russian Area Studies Program (RASP).  Over the coming three years of evening study and many weekend and vacation hours, I earned an MA degree while continuing my day job at CSC.

Doesn't sound like much to write about, does it?  In fact, this was the beginning of one of most important phases of my life, one that carried me well into the 1990s.

Leningrad, Winter 1987-88
In 1984 I had one of those most valued of Library of Congress possessions:  a stack pass.  I don't remember why I had the pass or what I was working on, but I do remember that near the end of a long weekend, I found myself in the QB section, which anyone in astronomy knows is where the astronomy publications are to be found.  Having already read a great deal about the Great Purges, I walked over to the publications of Pulkovo Observatory, the Main Astronomical Observatory of the Academy of Sciences, and started to pull down one volume after another.  In 1933 the director was listed as Boris Petrovich Gerasimovich.  The same was true for 1934, 1935, and 1936.  In 1937 no director was listed, and in 1938 an entirely different director had appeared.  As the public address system announced closing time, I wondered to myself if there was a story here.  That was beginning.

In the end I wrote a 400 page MA thesis on the 1936-37 purge of Soviet astronomers.  (Warning to others:  do not do this!  Save such topics for a Ph.D. dissertation!)   It led to a grant from the International Research and Exchanges Board, which allowed me to spend six months in the Soviet Union in the winter of 1987-88, and to major publications in the Slavic Review and other journals.  For a number of years I was invited to astronomy conferences as the historian, and I was invited to history conferences as the astronomer.

It turns out that before I had that chance stroll past the QB shelves in 1984, almost nothing had been written about the fate of astronomers during the Great Purges.  As I dug deeper through literature and, more importantly, through the personal papers of astronomers from that period, I discovered that astronomy was devastated more than almost any other science during this period, arguably more so than the well-known case of Soviet genetics.  Over thirty astronomers were arrested, and all but two or three of them died in the prisons or camps.  Some were executed outright.  Only two or three survived to the end of their sentences.
I won't write here about the purge itself.  Anyone who cares to can find my publications in the library, or I'll be happy to send copies to anyone who can't find them there.

What I want to say here is how all-consumed I was by this research topic.  For over five years I re-lived the lives of these doomed astronomers, reading their correspondence -- sometimes their final letters -- and meeting with their surviving family members.  I was insufferable to family, friends, and co-workers, all of whom were forced to live through the purges with me.

Grigoriy Shain, 1892-1956
In retrospect, I see some part of my work as a historian to have been a way to learn from others about how they faced repression, some bravely facing down the NKVD (secret police) and Stalin to defend colleagues who had been arrested for no reason.  Grigoriy Shain, the director of the observatory in Simeis, Crimea, became my personal hero for his role.  He risked his own career and life itself by writing letters and speaking out.  More than that, he gathered the children and spouses of arrested astronomers in Crimea, giving them homes and jobs.  When one of the few astronomers to survive was released in 1945, Shain immediately brought him to Crimea.  Shain faced down the entire Soviet system of terror and repression and was not harmed.  He wasn't even touched.  Soviet astrophysicist Iosif Shklovskiy later wrote eloquently about Shain's role in those dark days.

As my research was going on, I was also very busy at work and at home.  With my spouse we cared for a sick nephew who was ill with leukemia, and we took in other distant relatives and friends who needed help.  We started on home renovations that lasted decades.  A city apartment dweller, I taught myself plumbing and everything I never thought I would learn about home maintenance.

It's easy to look back now and assign cause and effect that I certainly did not recognize at the time, but I am struck by how deeply I immersed myself into understanding the mechanics of repression and how individuals can resist it if they choose.  (Anecdote:  In 1986 the welcoming sign for a conference I attended at the University of Texas said, "Welcome, Repression Workshop.")  It became obvious to me even then that Shain succeeded because he was vocal.  He was "out" when others were hiding in corners, afraid for their own skins should they speak out.  I was not ready to deal with the repressions of a different sort in my own life, my own fears and self-imposed "purge," but I was learning a lesson even if I was not yet ready to apply it.

Boris Gerasimovich, 1889 - 1937
I also learned a lesson about the fragility of life and sudden mortality.  In the archives of Harvard University I held in my hands the last message that Boris Gerasimovich ever sent to a colleague in the U.S..  Harlow Shapley knew his Russian friend was in trouble and had arranged a plan to get him to the U.S. and out of harm's way.  Gerasimovich's March 1937 telegram read:

Regretting thanking cannot go.

Six months later Gerasimovich was dead, executed in an NKVD cellar.  For years I kept a copy of that telegram on my wall at work.  Had Gerasimovich heeded Shapley's advice earlier, had he not dismissed the warning signs, would he have been safe in a new life in the U.S.?

The brave success of Shain's being "out" and the consequences of not taking action even when one knows one must.  These were the personal lessons I learned in those years of research.  It just took more decades for me to acknowledge them.

Monday, September 5, 2011

On Finding and Losing a Boyfriend in Seven Days

It was only a Facebook romance.  It wasn't even that really, just a fleeting flirtation, but it left me moved and wondering.  In just seven days, if only in the realm of virtual reality, I found and lost my first boyfriend.

I always thought I was asexual.   In the bedroom I dreamed of the female role, but that was so impossible and fantastic that I could and would not allow my mind to dwell there.  In these later years, to those very few who knew about my gender questioning and who asked, I would answer that I'm a lesbian in a male body.  That's what I said to my very dear friend E****a, who built such hopes around the U.S. diplomat in a suit and tie in attendance on the Ambassador.  By the mid-2000s I had learned the lesson that I needed to say this up front to anyone looking to me for intimacy.  Otherwise it was the elephant in the room that no one talked about but that took up all the space.  It was the elephant that destroyed a marriage.

But this week, when an attorney at Whitman Walker Clinic asked me about my sexual orientation, I was speechless.  She was helping with a support letter for my new passport and was just asking routine intake questions.  "Straight, gay, bi?" she asked.  My usual answer was no longer the right one.  I replied, "I don't know."  In truth, I don't know anymore.

You see, several weeks back A*i started writing to me on Facebook.  I've never met him in person, and at first I thought he was a friend of a friend of one of my Romanian friends or perhaps someone associated with ACCEPT, the Romanian LGBT rights organization.  They were just chatty notes at first, but by last week we were calling each other "honey" and "sweetie."  He asked if I could come to visit him in his seaside city.  I answered that no, it's much too early for that, but added that who knows, perhaps sometime next year?  I'm too old and wise to expect anything from a Facebook friendship, but something was stirring in me that I had never permitted myself to feel before.  I **could** see myself, feel myself on his arm, strolling along the seaside.  I **could** imagine myself in his embrace.  It wasn't fantastic anymore.  I'm in transition!  This could happen, if not today, then someday!

I'm sure my good friend Shannon is smiling as she reads this.  I look to her as my older, wiser sister who walked this transition road several years ago.  When I gave her my lesbian in a man's body story last winter, she told me not to close the door on anything.  "Things can change when your on HRT," she said.  "You don't know where you will end up."

Last night we "chatted" again.  A*i's note was waiting for me when I got home from a long day of packing up the Embassy for our more.  I saw he was off-line, but I dashed of a "Hi!" before heading to the shower.  When I got back to the screen later, his note to me was, "I bet you were in the shower."  I felt a tingle.

But I already knew something I had not known a week ago.  A*i and I have no mutual Facebook friends or association through ACCEPT.  How we ended up as friends on Facebook, I really don't know.  I also knew he had never read this blog.  You see, his country, which is neither Romania nor the U.S., had never shown up in the audience statistics.  It finally dawned on me.  "He doesn't know!  He saw my photograph and liked it, but he doesn't know!"

So last night I asked him to read this blog.  "You need to know my full story.  I don't want to deceive you!"  We said goodnight, sending hugs and kisses.  Before I logged off for the night, I checked the statistics again.  There was a single hit from his country.  "He is reading it now," I thought, "and that's the end of it."  Then I cried.  I had found and lost my first boyfriend in just seven days.

Dear A*i, if you happen to read this, no matter what you now think, know that you made a fellow human feel good about herself in a way she never thought could happen.  Hugs to you, honey.  May you find the love you are searching for.