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

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