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!