Monday, December 24, 2012

My White Romanian Christmas -- or -- The Exclamation Point (Part 1)

Winter came early to Bucharest this year.  The first snow fell over two weeks ago.  I stayed off the bicycle for one day and then another, thinking it would melt, but within a week I had removed the panniers and set up my bicycle rollers in the hallway.  I am a bus commuter again, the snow and ice clearly here to stay.

There is a wondrous beauty to Bucharest and its parks in the winter.  Snow sticks to the trees and branches, and the Christmas lights of the city shine all through the center.  My young friend Oana and I took a long walk last night from Victoria Square to Unirii Square just to see the lights and here the Christmas sounds.  A large outdoor Christmas market is set up at University Square, where the night was bright and warm with holiday sounds and smells.

This is my third Christmas in Bucharest.  Two years ago it was a warm December, but inside it was cold as I spent my holiday weeks deeply enmeshed in post-divorce litigation.  Last year was cold but snowless as I glowed in the warmth of my first post-transition Christmas.  I wrote then of the joy of receiving new passports and other documents in my new name and gender and of other firsts in my new life.  For this, my third Christmas, I have it all.  The winter beauty of cold and snow surround me, and I live in the warm certainty that my life now is simply my life, transformed as I had always wanted.  More than anything, I am warmed by the feeling of family surrounding me.  I spoke yesterday for nearly an hour with my son in the US, and tomorrow I will talk with my sisters, nephews, and nieces as they gather around their tree.  In Bucharest I have yet another family that has embraced me.

I am choosing to make this a quiet holiday.  After a ten-hour party for Thanksgiving, I am expecting just a few close friends for Christmas.  (To anyone who is reading this and is in the neighborhood, please do drop by!)  I'm still doing all the holiday baking, but most will go to these same friends and others.  The Embassy is closed for a full five days for Christmas.  Then we reopen for a two day break from the holiday, after which we close for another five days.  Twelve days with only two days of work feels more like a vacation than a holiday, and I will use it to rest to the full.

This is the quiet first posting in a new mini-saga.  Less than four weeks from now, on January 19, OD and I will fly to Phuket, Thailand, for our GCS/SRS surgeries.  When did I enter countdown mode?  In some sense I've been there ever since I made the decision last August to go with Dr. Kunaporn in Phuket.  I entered the final count for real sometime after Thanksgiving when I began to realize that with the long holiday coming soon, I needed to begin winding down a number of work projects, either completing them or getting them to a state where they could safely be put on hold for a month or more.  When the Embassy reopens after the New Year, I know that OD and I will be in a whirlwind of final activity.  We will be in much of it together, as OD will be coming to Bucharest to apply for her visa, something she can not do in Moldova where there is no Thai Embassy.

Why The Exclamation Point?  It is my response to those who marvel at the immensity of this impending surgical step.  I have heard a few comments such as, "Well, I only hope you will have no regrets."  Just from the questions, their tone, and the expressions on well-intentioned faces, it is clear that my well-wishers have never had a transgender feeling or thought in their lives.  Rather than a life-altering event of immense magnitude, I look at gender confirmation surgery (GCS), Spa therapy if you will, as the exclamation point that comes at the end of a very long sentence, a process that has been my life.  The immense life-altering event took place over a year ago on November 10, 2011, with the public announcement of my transition and the full-time beginning of my new life.  GCS is just the exclamation point.

So why GCS at all?  Indeed, many transgender persons never have GCS.  For those who are transitioning FtM, the reason often is the technical one that phalloplasty is not perfected and can cost up to a year's U.S. salary or more for a very imperfect result.  Cost also is often a factor for those who, like me, are transitioning MtF.  If not for those many people who responded to my appeal, GCS would have remained an impossible dream for OD.  Thank you to all who responded and, together, covered nearly the full cost of OD's journey of a lifetime.

For those who can afford GCS but choose not to have it, the reasons are varied.  At its core the explanation for many is one I agree with entirely.  This road is a question of gender, not sex or sexual orientation.  It is a matter of the heart and head that has nothing to do with what is between a person's legs.  It is a matter of who one wakes up as in the morning and how one is perceived by the largely binary gender world that surrounds us.

For me, however, GCS has been a dream ever since my youngest years when I would try to make my penis disappear between my legs, when I would go to bed at night with a silent prayer that it be gone when I woke in the morning.  I never wanted it and never enjoyed using it sexually even as I must acknowledge that without it I could never have experienced the life joy of being a parent.  In the end I found this organ to have only one positive virtue:  it allowed me greater ease on hiking and camping trips, particularly in cold weather.

GCS will also open up doors to new possibilities.  How real my chances are I don't know, but as the reality of GCS approaches, the thought of discovering sex for the first time in my life, sex as I always wanted it but could never have it, has taken form.  In dreams and in my gaze as I look at friends, I find myself wondering, "What will it be like?"

Those are the joys and dreams of this Christmas as I prepare to return to my holiday baking.  The tree is up in the living room with gifts surrounding it from and for my extended family of loved ones and friends.  It is again a very, very Merry Christmas in Bucharest.  To my family and friends and to all who have found their way to these notes, may your Christmas be a merry as mine, full of warmth, love, and happiness.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Follow these links for more of The Exclamation Point:

Following entry --
  So You Want to Be in Pictures?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Hamlet and Healing

The time is out of joint:  O cursed spite,
That I was ever born to set it right.

Every year at about this time I like to watch the Kenneth Branagh film version of Hamlet.  I don't remember quite when this tradition started, but for at least five years now I do find myself watching the story of the handsome but troubled prince who, knowing what he needs to do, hesitates.  Through those hesitations, questionings, and self-recriminations, eight people including Hamlet himself end up dead on stage.  Make that nine if we count Hamlet's father.

My ex-spouse and I shared a love of the theater, and more than all others we loved the Washington Shakespeare Theatre.  It all started in the 1990s when we went to one of the free performances the theater company would put on each summer in Rock Creek Park's Carter Barron Amphitheatre.  The first free performance we saw was Measure for Measure in 1996, and we were back the next year for Henry V.  In the winter of 1999-2000, I bought tickets for the two of us and our son to see the Shakespeare Theatre's production of Corolianus.  We sat in the orchestra section, and I remember how our son, then age 11, jumped with the first on-stage explosion.  I don't know if he understood the play at that age, but he was hooked by the theater experience.  The next year I bought a subscription for the three of us, and one of the highlights of our troubled lives was to drop everything for our Saturday matinee performances.  We had a box seat that we began to think of as our own property.  We would enter our box, arrange our coats and bags in whatever way we wished, and wait to be enthralled.  I watched as our son came to love Shakespeare by seeing the plays where they were intended to be seen, on the stage, not as words on a page in a high school English class.  

All of that is in the past, but I know my ex-spouse and son continue to share that love for the Washington Shakespeare Theatre.  I think they may still have subscription tickets to this day.

I have written very little about my ex-spouse in this journal out of respect for her privacy and also in the knowledge that her thoughts towards me may not be kind.  I can not really blame her for that.  Like it or not, I was the one who deceived by marrying her in 1982 without a word about my troubled inner thoughts and feelings.  I can explain to no end why it would have taken a much stronger person than me to say those words aloud in 1982, but that does not change the fact.  When she learned the truth in 1990, she was devastated.  In long, drawn-out scenes of explanation and recrimination both in 1990 and again in 2000-02, I ended by promising to bottle up whatever was inside me and, as best I could, make it go away.  

When I finally put divorce on the table in 2007, I don't think my spouse believed it at first.  After 25 years of giving in, it seemed unlikely that I would be able to see myself through to the other side of a divorce.  When it finally dawned on my spouse that I might finally have gathered the strength to do just than, I believe her disbelief was replaced by anger.  How else can one explain divorce and post-divorce litigation that cost me a year's salary in fees to my attorney alone?  Given that our son was already in the university, this should have been an easy negotiation, but instead we ended up with expensive attorneys who were the only financial winners in the process.  I no longer have any home other than a tumble-down cabin in Maine, and the most of my life savings are gone.  I have no clear idea how I will live when mandatory retirement comes knocking on my door in 2019.  Although my ex-spouse fared better in the financial and property settlements, I cannot imagine that her situation is an enviable one.

There is something very Shakespearean about our marriage and divorce.  I look back and clearly see the Hamlet syndrome at work in me.  I knew in 1982 that marriage had not "cured" me, but it took me until 1990 to say anything outside the depths of my own soul.  Even then I was easily talked back into a closet, and much of the talk that put me there was my own.  

"The time is out of joint:  O cursed spite, that I was ever born to set it right."  How apt those words are for many of us who come face to face with the question of gender transition.  We know the truth about ourselves, but we know that others will think us mad if we act.  In our dark moments, we are inclined to agree with them.

It took more than five decades for me to get there, but I am now happily on the other side of the transition question.  Any anger that I felt from 2007 through 2011 as litigation dragged on seemingly without end has evaporated in the light of a much happier day.  I look at the calendar and see that it will soon by December 11, my ex-spouse's birthday.  I wonder if for her, also, the anger might not be giving way.  Could it not be that one day we will meet for a family event, perhaps our son's wedding, and give each other a faint smile of healing?  In the end, this Hamlet did act no matter what the pain.  The two main characters are both still alive and on-stage, free to live their lives now that the curtain has come down on a long and troubled marriage.  The time is no longer out of joint.  Imperfectly but to the best of my ability, I have set it right.

* * * * * * * * * *

There is very little that is Shakespearean about this song by Gordon Lightfoot, but anyone who knew us in the early days of our marriage will recognize it.  It is a birthday card to my ex-spouse with the hope for healing as we both move on while sharing a past that included a beautiful son, the Shakespeare Theatre, and much else that was good amidst the pain.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

November Postcards

It's been a very busy several weeks in Bucharest, my home town.  Several times I began writing a post for this journal only to have it overtaken by events.  Rather than throwing up my hands in despair, I'll weave together the various incomplete jottings, my postcards if you will, before December intervenes and brings the first snows with Christmas not far behind.

Riding the CfR Rails on the Bucharest-Brasov-Cluj Line

Clickety-clack, the slow CfR train just passed through Rupea, bound for Bucharest another 3-4 hours down the line.  Alexandra C., Monica, and Oana doze in our 2nd class compartment as I write and watch the Romanian countryside pass by our window, a countryside of rolling hills, farms, and woods.  It is a landscape that reminds me yet again why I feel so at home in Romania, so strong a resemblance it bears to the countryside of the northeastern United States.  We are halfway home to Bucharest even as I feel I could step out of the train and find myself somewhere in New England.

Between Brasov and Cluj
We journeyed the other way just three days ago, departing from Bucharest's North Station an hour before sunrise.  Our destination was Cluj-Napoca, eight hours and a different historical reality away.  A part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, the city still proudly bears witness to the days of grand empire.  Historic buildings carry carved inscriptions in Hungarian, and the feeling is still as much Budapest as it is Bucharest.

It's not my first visit to Cluj.  I was here in 1978 en-route back to Western Europe from the Soviet Union.  As I stood on the central square in front of the Roman Catholic Saint Michael's Cathedral on Thursday afternoon, I remembered the scared young student then deep in purge and self-denial who had stood on the same spot 34 years ago.  It was the summer when I had thrown my heart and mind into Russian language and literature, consciously telling myself that it was a socially acceptable channeling of the feelings for a different life, a different reality.

In Front of St. Michael's
How very different this visit.  The four of us had come to Cluj for Romania's largest annual LGBT film festival.  For the ninth year a small, dedicated group of volunteers working with a shoestring budget had pulled off what some now say is in the top ten of such festivals in Europe.  From Monday through Saturday, movies played each evening at three different venues, pulling a couple of hundred moviegoers and activists to the heart of Transylvania from as far away as the UK and Spain.  The movies ranged from locally produced documentaries and activist spot messages to art movies from Thailand, Israel, and Portugal.  A few played to standing room only audiences.  When the lights came back on each evening, many adjourned to Delirio, Cluj's one LGBT club, to dance the night away.  Our Bucharest foursome was seriously impressed.

With Alexandra G.
It was also a chance to renew old relationships and begin new ones.  Alexandra G. picked us up early Friday  afternoon and drove us outside the city to a mountaintop restaurant with one of the nicest views I have seen in Romania.  Alexandra and I had met last spring when she came to Bucharest for two days, but this was the first time we had truly had a chance to talk and get to know each other.  Alexandra is well progressed in her transition and quite beautiful.  It is hard to imagine her as the construction worker she once was.  Alexandra says that it was when the worldwide recession forced the closure of her construction company that she came face to face with the transition question.  As it has been for me and for many others, it was that recognition of loss that spurred her forward.

Reflections with Alexandra C.
On Saturday I met Mihai and Andy, two handsome and intelligent transgender men.  They are both university students and active with the Cluj chapter of Transgender Advocacy Organization Romania-Moldova.  They are dealing with their identity issues just as I tried to during my own university years long ago.  The longer we sipped coffee together, the more I came to believe that they will succeed where I failed those many decades ago.  They will overcome the many hurdles that stand in their way.

Living Libraries

November 20.  It was a dark and chilly evening as I made my way from our Embassy to ACCEPT, the Romania LGBT rights organization.  This is one day of the calendar known to all transgender persons.  It's the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), the day when we remember those who have died in hate murders over the preceding twelve months for the "crime" of being transgender.

What a difference a year can make.  When I went to the TDOR observance at ACCEPT a year ago, I found that I was the only transgender person who had come.  We watched a short film, and then I spoke for some time to tell the assembled cisgender men and women what it means and how it feels to be transgender. I was unspeakably grateful to ACCEPT executive director Irina Nita for holding the evening event even as I felt lonely to be the only transgender person in the room.

This year I was not alone.  In addition to myself, eight members of Bucharest's transgender community had turned out, and they had themselves planned and organized the evening.  The names of those who have died over the past year scrolled on the projection screen, and the transgender symbol hung from the wall, covered with origami flowers.  Posters announcing the evening had been hung in several locations, and thirty or so supportive LGB and straight men and women had shown up.  The heart of the evening was a living library, something I had first heard of during LGBT history month last February, in which I and the other young transgender women and men moved between small groups, told our stories, and answered questions.  When the time came to leave, we did so in groups.  We were well aware that a group of volunteers had been attacked violently in the street after an LGBT play and discussion at a Bucharest university the previous week.

Just two nights later on Thanksgiving Day, several of us did a reprise of the living library at a Bucharest high school.  Together with several LGB Romanians and expats, we rotated between small groups of students to answer questions and tell our stories.  The event began at 5:30pm with one group of nearly 100 high school students who were replaced at 6:30 by a group of another 100.  Many from the second group did not leave until well after the advertised 7:30pm end time.  A dedicated high school teacher, Roxana Marin, has been organizing this extracurricular event together with her colleagues for several years running.  If anything, this living library was even more gratifying than the one two days earlier at TDOR.  The students with whom we were speaking are Romania's future.  In another decade or two, they are the ones who will be leading Romania.


The rest of my Thanksgiving Day was spent cooking.  I had advertised a Thanksgiving Open House on Saturday the 24th, and I had already spent many a late evening preparing.

Thanksgiving, to my mind, is the best holiday that we have in the United States.  There is nothing political about it, nothing religious.  It does not commemorate any president, and it does not imply a night of rowdy drinking the way New Year's does.  It's just a day to give thanks and as such is the most exportable U.S. holiday we have.  Both in Russia and in Uzbekistan, friends marveled at the simplicity of the idea when I explained it to them.  Ever since I went overseas for the first time in 2005, Thanksgiving has been the most important holiday in my annual calendar.

Two years ago Thanksgiving was a rather lonely affair as I was newly arrived, knew almost no one, and was deeply immersed in post-divorce litigation.  Last year I had a warm and wonderful evening with several of my close friends who had been intimately involved with and supportive of my transition.  It was my chance to give back to Irina, Tudor, Iulia, and others without whom I might not be here today.  I had reason to give great thanks for the new life that had become mine just two weeks earlier on November 10.

With Embassy Friends on Thanksgiving
This year I decided to take the leap, fling the door wide, and announce a Thanksgiving Open House.  I placed an announcement on Facebook and sent e-mail announcements to many friends both old and new not on Facebook.  I had no real idea how many people might come and therefore no idea how much I should cook.  "Never mind," I thought, "Turkey, ham, and pumpkin pie freeze well."  I prepared an extra large batch of Harvard beets, and a fresh supply of Brazilian black beans just in case.

My doorbell rang for the first time just before 4pm.  It was a paper plates and plastic cup affair, but it was a wonderful evening as so many friends both from the Embassy and from the city came and went.  In the end I believe there were more than twenty friends who came through that evening, many bringing flowers, a bottle of wine, tsuica, or a dish of their own to share.  Around 9pm we turned up the stereo volume and began to dance to everything from classics to LGBT music to traditional Roma tunes.  The last guest left around 2am.

Sunday brought with it the peace of a holiday evening that had been well enjoyed by all.  Oana and I gradually brought the apartment back into order.  Another friend who had spent the night worked with us as we drank coffee and ate leftover pumpkin pie.  Later we lounged on the couch to watch a movie as the cold of a deepening autumn kept us in the comfort of indoors.

Tonight will be another evening for friends when we get together to eat the leftovers.  In Romania as in the US, it all tastes so much better the day after.

* * * * * * * * * *

Those are my November postcards from Bucharest, where all the women are strong, the men are good looking, and . . . if you are a fan of Garrison Keillor and Prairie Home Companion, you know the rest.

Belated but warm Thanksgiving wishes to all.

Friday, November 9, 2012

My First Anniversary

Tomorrow, November 10, marks one year since the workplace announcement of my full-time transition to living as a woman.  Like many who have had a similar life experience, I now think of November 10 as more of a birthday than my real birthday.

I've written through the year of how my life has changed.  What had seemed impossible has become reality, so much so that I can scarcely remember how it felt to be me before November 10, 2011. When I look at old photos, I know intellectually that the person in them was me, but I can hardly believe it.  What is normal is who I am today.  The reflection that greets me each morning is my own.  Could there ever have been a different one?

The mechanics certainly have become easier.  The morning quick change after riding my bicycle to work takes only slightly longer than it did back then.  Applying makeup is now as much a ritual as my use of a razor must once have been.

Along with this one year anniversary comes a sadness, as with it comes the realization that my time in Romania will come to an end in little more than six months.  Surprisingly, it was good news earlier this week that brought this home to me.  On Monday I learned of my onward, post-Washington assignment that will begin in the fall of 2014.  It will be in Astana, Kazakhstan, and carries responsibilities that will have me traveling throughout Central Asia.  It is a position that has long been of interest to me.

The sadness came over me when I saw Oana that evening.  Suddenly the tears started to flow, and they kept flowing.  "I can't believe I am going to leave you," is what I sobbed through the tears.  As I thought of others to whom I have become very close in Romania, the tears came ever faster.  As any reader of this web journal knows, I found it difficult to leave my previous posts in Moscow and in Tashkent, but here I already have a much deeper sense of impending loss.  The reasoning side of my brain has switched off; now I am all feeling.  Many of the friends I will be leaving are far more than that.  Some have become family.  How can it be that I will leave?  Yet I know that I will.  My eyes become moist again as I write these lines.

But tomorrow I celebrate!  Indeed, I started celebrating earlier this week at the Embassy's election night event.  Through a long evening and into the morning hours we talked and waited for the results to start coming in.  When they did, I knew that the policies that allow my very existence would continue.  What an amazing time to be alive!

I can think of no better way to mark this one year anniversary than to repeat below the letter that I wrote to my sister Mary one year ago.  Am I still as excited each day as I was when I wrote that letter?  I have the answer to that in one simple word:  absolutely.  

* * * * * * * * * *

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 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!

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.

At the Ball
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 4, 2012

Love Is but a Song We Sing: A Message of Peace and Love to Friends

A week ago I had the great good fortune of finding myself at the European Transgender Participation Symposium in Dordrecht, the Netherlands (  Two weeks prior I received a phone call out the blue from David Pollard of Amsterdam-based Workplace Pride asking if I could be part of a panel on International Employment Experiences.  I owe it to Richard Kohler, Policy Director for Transgender Europe (TGEU), for giving David the nudge.

I don't know the exact count, but there were at least fifty successful transgender men and women who had converged on this historic university town for the event.  The Dutch Government along with well-known international corporations such as IBM and Accenture gave financial support and sent out high-level officials to voice their support for transgender inclusion in the workplace.  My own panel session included very successful women from Accenture and the logistics firm TNT, and moderator Richard Kohler adeptly drew out of us what had worked and not worked for each of us in our transition and post-transition workplace experiences.

Suffice it to say that Dordrecht was a heady experience.  The prime organizer, Transgender Netwerk Nederland and its chairperson Carolien van de Lagemaaat had produced what in my book was a chart topper.  It ended with publication of the Declaration of Dordrecht, a ten-point call to action for full inclusion of transgender people in the workplace.

Time and again over the past year I have marveled at the circumstances that have frequently placed me at the front of the room, so to speak, when it comes to talking about my transition experience.  As regular readers of this journal know, I fully expected in 2010 that this road would lead to unemployment and an early retirement in my home state of Maine.  I expected I would eke out an existence on what little savings were left to me after expensive divorce and post-divorce litigation.  Instead, I received a major award last spring and now find myself being invited to speak at conferences and symposiums.

I tell my friends in Romania and Moldova that if I had transitioned in the US rather than in Romania, I would be the one sitting at the back of the room at events such as the Dordrecht symposium, doing all I could to learn from the experience of successful transgender people.  To a great extent, what has happened with me happens to all Foreign Service Officers serving overseas.  We are for the most part average people who just happen to be in a career that brushes us broadly with the title diplomat.  Our jobs within the embassies or missions where we serve may be quite modest, but outside embassy walls, many look upon us with a respect and awe that we know in our hearts is largely undeserved and has accrued to us only through circumstance.

Just such circumstance has placed me in an unexpected position with my Romanian and Moldovan friends in the transgender community.  It was many months after my workplace transition a year ago that it dawned on me that unintentionally or not, I had become a symbol.  The fact that an American diplomat had transitioned gender right here in Bucharest was big news for a disenfranchised group that faces discrimination on a par with what I might have expected in the US fifty years ago.  When you come down to it, transgender people worldwide historically have been loss leaders, not chart toppers.  We have some of the highest suicide and unemployment rates of any minority group.  Thus anyone who succeeds even modestly becomes a symbol of hope to others.

When I arrived in Bucharest two years ago, I found little by way of an organized transgender community.  So it was that I started hosting a transgender open house at my Bucharest home on the third Friday of each month.  I reasoned that if there is no support group such as the Washington, DC, Metro Area Gender Identity Connection (MAGIC-DC) in Bucharest, I would just have to start my own.  I had no goal other than to establish a safe place where transgender people, especially those early in transition, could come and be themselves without constraint.  It took some months for the idea to catch hold, but by last spring, 3rd Friday @ Robyn's had taken root.

Over the summer a small group of Romanian friends decided it was time for something more than 3F@Robyn's.  Instead of meeting at my apartment, the community now meets on the third Friday of the month at the Bucharest headquarters of ACCEPT, the national Romanian LGBT rights organization.  A bi-national umbrella organization appeared, Transgender Advocacy Organization Romania-Moldova (TAORM [formerly StepbyStep_TS]), uniting local transgender groups in Bucharest, Chisinau, Cluj, Arad, and elsewhere.  When I was in Dordrecht last week, I took every opportunity I could to tell people that TAORM had delegated me in an honorary capacity to inform the symposium of the new organization's existence.  Indeed, I was honored to spread the news.

TAORM has had growing pains.  Like any new organization, it suffers from little funding and divergent viewpoints, but I have great hopes.  TAORM has the potential of doing for Romania and Moldova what the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) does in the US:  advocacy at the national level.  At the same time, local groups such as the one in Bucharest provide the type of support on a personal level that I found at MAGIC-DC.

I have just a few words of advice to offer my Romanian and Moldovan friends in my capacity as the Big American Sister --
  • Respect each other.  If we don't respect each other, who will?
  • Help each other.  If we don't help each other, who will?
  • Exercise the democratic gift of negotiation and compromise.  That's what democracy and diplomacy are all about.  As Churchill said, democracy is the worst system there is except for all the other forms that have been tried.
  • Hang together as much as divergent viewpoints will allow.  If you don't, you may prove the old American adage that those who don't hang together today are likely to hang separately tomorrow . . . from the gallows.
  • It's amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.
Work together in that spirit, and in a few years time I will expect to be invited back to Romania for a symposium such as the one I just attended in Dordrecht.  I will sit in the back of the auditorium this time, where I will listen in chart-topping awe to the stories of successful Romanian and Moldovan transgender men and women who changed their world and the attitudes of the society around them.  Romanian and Moldovan government officials will speak to those assembled and tell of what they are doing to end homophobia and transphobia.  Managers of corporations will speak about what they have done to include transgender people in the workplace.

Is this an impossible dream?  I think not.  Just listen and remember . . .

You hold the key to love and fear
all in your trembling hand.
Just one key unlocks them both.
It's there at your command.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

An Exclusive Halloween Ogre Just for Us

The leaves are falling, blanketing the parks of Bucharest with their gold and red.  The breezes bring a chill now as the days shorten.

Halloween is in the air, the time of witches, fairy princesses, hobos, Boo Radley, and the Hollywood fantasies of a childhood younger than mine.  It is the gateway holiday that opens the door to the soon to come turkey and then the mistletoe.

Halloween is a favorite transgender holiday, a time when society gives us license to dress to our fancy.  I must admit that I, for one, never took advantage of this license, so deeply was I in the closet and weighed down by the knowledge that a disapproving spouse would not grant me even this one day.  Instead I would accompany my own son as I was, taking joy in his delight, never forgetting the look in his 4-year-old eyes when our kind neighbor-turned-witch put his hands into a bowl of candy.  His joy and the delight of walking him through our neighborhood of wizards, monsters, witches, and princesses were enough.

But on Halloween there is also a ogre exclusively for us.  He lurks in the dark, ready to pounce on any person walking the transition path.  It is my pleasure,  friends of all gender persuasions, to introduce you to the transgender exclusion.

Let's get to know him a bit better.  If I refer to him as he, it is because I see him as big, muscular, well-fed, fantastically wealthy, and without an ounce of sympathy for others as he dominates his space.  He is, in fact, a powerful figure in the U.S. health insurance industry, where he flexes his muscle to deny coverage of transition-related care to transgender persons.

Knowing that many of my readers are from outside the US, I will digress for a moment.  You see, in the US almost all people who have health insurance receive it through their employer.  When I worked for Computer Sciences Corporation, my employer paid for most of my insurance and gave me a small pool of plans from which to choose.  Now that I work for the U.S. federal government, I have a wider selection from which to choose in the Federal Employee Health Benefit (FEHB) pool.  The various insurance plans are administered by private, for-profit corporations.  What they cover and do not cover is set in contracts negotiated between employer and provider, the premium payments from the employee set in accordance with these contracts.

The transgender exclusion has a long history.  Going back to the 1970s, if not earlier, almost all insurance plans in the US have contained paragraphs that specifically exclude coverage of anything related to sexual transformation.  This means that insurance coverage of counseling, hormone therapy, and blood tests -- not to mention any and all forms of surgery -- is denied to us.

Over the past decade the situation has begun to improve slightly as a few employers have negotiated contracts that do not contain this exclusion.  These progressive employers recognized that the cost of providing coverage is minimal given the small number of transgender persons who embark upon transition.  Providing coverage makes for a more welcoming, accepting workplace in which transgender employees are affirmed and become, in fact, more productive.

Another landmark was the 2011 ruling by no less than the Internal Revenue Service -- the U.S. federal tax agency -- that transition-related procedures are medically necessary and, therefore, tax deductible.  The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) and a growing number of medical associations have called for elimination of the transgender exclusion that discriminates against a small and, until recently, not very vocal minority.

"Has the U.S. Government (USG) joined this group of progressive employers?"  I'm glad you asked.

Over the past decade the USG has made great strides in accepting the transgender members if its diverse workforce.  The 2008 federal district court ruling that discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression is, in fact, sex discrimination was a landmark without which I might not be writing these notes today.  The U.S. State Department has proclaimed that LGBT rights are human rights, a policy that has become a rallying cry for LGBT people around the world.

So what about health benefits?  Alas, I regret to report that the transgender exclusion is still alive and healthily flexing his muscle in the FEHB plans offered to federal employees.  Sigh.  As equal employment opportunity and workforce diversity policies have progressed, health insurance has remained quaintly in the age of disco.

Our Halloween ogre is ready to pounce at any moment.  For me it was Halloween in June when I received a formal letter from the exclusion himself.  I had expected the letter for a year, wondering how long it would take for him to notice me and figure me out.  Given that I have not as of yet gone for any surgical procedures, I have not exactly incurred major expenses that would have drawn immediate notice.  If anything, it must have been my legal name change that stood out like a red flag in the hands of a toreador.  One sight of red and the bull began to paw the earth, preparing to charge.  

Was I surprised to receive a letter from Mr. Transgender Exclusion himself?  No, not really.  Like most of the U.S. transgender population, I knew my transition would be self-financed.  Like others, I expected to be devastated financially.  In this belief it appears I will not be disappointed.  Thank you, Mr. Exclusion, for acknowledging my existence.  I feel honored.

Am I upset with my employer, the USG?  No, not really.  Things move slowly in any any large organization, and the USG is one of the largest.  If anything,  I am amazed at the rapid expansion of transgender rights for federal employees over the past decade.  The transgender exclusion will go, if not this year, then next year or the year after.  It takes a village, and our village of progressive forces will prevail in the end.

So beware as you make your rounds this Halloween night.  Amidst the witches, hobos, wizards, and zombies, our own exclusive hobgoblin lurks, waiting to pounce.  Someday he will transform into a beautiful fairy prince or princess, ready to grant all wishes.  Of this I am certain.  It hasn't happened quite yet, but like any fairy tale, this one too will have a happy ending.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Autumn Comes to 45-deg N

October Rains in Bucharest
The autumn rains have come to Bucharest, latitude 44.5-deg N.  It's a lazy Saturday morning.  Oana and I lingered long over our morning coffee and looked out the door to the veranda where cloudy skies and a light rain announced that autumn has come.

Boarding the Bus for Chisinau
Under Picnic Skies in Moldova
A week ago today I took a seven hour bus ride to latitude 47-deg N to spend the long Columbus Day weekend with OD and her partner D.  On Sunday we had a reprise of last May's picnic in the woods on the outskirts of Chisinau.  Moldova's transgender community came out for the day.  The sun shone brightly and warmly.  We all said it was a day на заказ, made-to-order for a summer picnic.  We spent hours enjoying shashlyk prepared by the guys over a wood fire.  The women served up the salad, and a bottle of homemade Moldovan wine was passed around.  Everyone was still worried about documents.  The Office of Registries (загс) is contesting last spring's appellate court decision in favor of granting new documents to transgender people based on hormone therapy.  The matter is now before Moldova's Supreme Court, and no one knows for sure how long it will be before there is a decision.  One of the guys, a big man with muscular arms, is worried that his long-delayed marriage is as distant as ever.  But as we lounged on the grass and soaked in the sun, the worries drifted to the background.  It may have been October, but it was day made-to-order for a July picnic.

Lounging with OD on a Rainy Columbus Day
The rains came to latitude 47-deg N that night.  By Monday morning the temperature had dropped to breezy +5C as the rains continued.  I traded my summer outfits for slacks and a jacket, and we walked quickly through the streets as we ran our errands for the day.  Once back inside, we spent the afternoon and then the evening watching old Soviet-era comedies, snacking, laughing, and talking about life.  D entertained us with a show of strength by whisking each of us off the ground in turn and throwing us into the air.  Laughter filled the room on this made-to-order autumn day that had come so quickly on the heels of summer.

Back in Bucharest, it was time for the winter wardrobe.  When I went to an official meeting in downtown Bucharest on Wednesday, it was in a woolen skirt suit that I last wore in March.  I now wear tights and a jacket on my bicycle commutes, returning to that amorphous, gender-less blob that we bicycle commuters become in the colder weather.

On Friday I had the misfortune of eating something in the morning that must have been spoiled.  I have had food poisoning enough times to recognize the symptoms quickly.  In Uzbekistan, if one did not come down with Tashkent tummy at least two or three times in the first year, something was wrong.  I made it through the day but didn't venture far from the rest rooms.  In the evening Oana put me on the couch and kept the tea, lemon, broth, and honey coming until, slowly, my intestinal track returned to normal.

Oana headed out this morning after our slow breakfast.  Although it was not planned that way, Oana has become my adopted daughter, in the emotional if not in the legal sense.  In State-Department-speak, she is now my member of household as she has taken up residence in my guest bedroom and has taken over almost all cleaning and housekeeping duties.  Dinner is on the table when I get home in the evening, and the coffee or tea are ready when I wake in the morning.  I do the fancier cooking on the weekend.  I look at Oana and remember myself at her age.  As long as I am in Romania I can give her refuge and time to get on her own feet.  I wish I could do more, but at least I can give her the gift of time.

Howland Bridge Opening
Oana won't be back until tomorrow.  Lingering over my tea, I opened the Lincoln News and read about what has been happening in and around my U.S. home town of Burlington, Maine, latitude 45.2-deg N.  It's a clear, cold night in Maine as I write these notes, but it is supposed to rain later today.  A new bridge opened in Howland last week, and the town came out in force to celebrate the new span across the Penobscot.  According to the Lincoln News, it was a chilly but memorable day.

Autumn has come to latitude 45-deg N.  In my old life this was the season when I would listen to Joni Mitchel's Urge for Going, feeling an immediate connection with that urge.  Now my urge is quite different.  It's an Urge for Staying, for holding on and making every day count.  There is joy in pulling out the autumn clothes, listening to Oana's latest joys and sorrows, and watching the rain and the changing of the leaves.  The autumn in Bucharest is golden and happy.  May the same be true for you wherever this autumn may find you.

* * * * * * * * * *

No longer do I feel a sadness when I hear Joni Mitchel sing Urge for Going, but it is a beautiful song nonetheless.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Turning to the East

The next time I board an early morning plane at Bucharest's Otopeni Airport, my ultimate destination will be to the east.  Skirting the Caspian and Aral Seas, I will fly over Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the country where I had already begun walking a path towards transition in 2008-10 without quite knowing it yet.  (See I Wish I Was in the Land of Cotton.) Tashkent,  my home for two years, will pass below.  Perhaps I will see the Charvak Reservoir to the east of Tashkent, the scene of so many weekend trips with friends and especially with F1 and F2 to escape the burning Central Asian summer heat.  Then we will cross into Kyrgyzstan as the mountains rise higher and higher.  Soon we will fly over the highest mountains of all, the Himalayas, as we hurry on ever eastward.

The final destination is Thailand.  If the route is familiar to me, it is because it won't be my first visit.  In 2008, still fresh to the U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan, I boarded a plane in Tashkent and flew to Bangkok for a regional conference on economic issues.  It was a week of seminar talks, small group sessions, and evening dinners.  I had two suits tailor made.  I walked the city by night and on the weekend, my first time ever in an Eastern country and culture that is so different from my own.  I was enthralled.

I was also sad.  I had known for years if not decades that Thailand had become a mecca for those seeking gender confirmation surgery (GCS).  It was a bittersweet thought that here I was in that mecca but that GCS was further removed from my reality than ever.  I had contemplated transition three times in my life and each time had failed.  A fourth time there would not be.  Impossible.

After the Bangkok Economic Conference, 2008
But as readers of these notes have learned, the fourth time did come.  Against all odds, I succeeded just as I thought I had lost everything.  I am now approaching the one year anniversary of my transition to living full time as a woman, and with that anniversary behind me, I will fly to Thailand not for an economic conference but for the GCS that seemed out of reach only four years ago.

In July I wrote about my decision making on which surgeon I would choose for GCS (Looking for Spa Therapy) and advertised that I would make my choice by mid-August.  A few dedicated readers may have been wondering all through September, "Well, what did you decide?"

Indeed, I have my destination for GCS, my spa therapy, and it is with Dr. Sanguan Kunaporn at the Phuket Plastic Surgery Center in Phuket, Thailand.  It was a difficult choice to make, as all five of the surgeons I was considering are leaders in this field.  I had good rapport with all the clinics on my list, and  I particularly enjoyed meeting Kathy Rumer in Philadelphia in early August.  I had a delightful correspondence with a staff member at Dr. Suporn's clinic who had once herself lived in Bucharest.

So why Dr. Kunaporn?  First of all it was his willingness to correspond with me directly by e-mail without going through his office.  Then there was a referral from an independent surgeon who spoke highly of Dr. Kunaporn and the many testimonials on the Internet from others who had been to him for GCS.  As I sat speaking with Kathy Rumer in Philadelphia, the word came to me that crystalized why I would head east:  Nadine.

I have heard from many people how important it is to have a close friend in attendance during GCS, someone to help you through the recovery period.  At first I saw this as a reason to go to the US for surgery, where Philadelphia is not that far away from my two sisters in Maryland.  Another transgender friend cautioned me, however, that no matter how supportive one's family members might be -- and mine are very supportive -- they will have conflicted feelings.  Far better, she said, to go with a friend who knows me only as I am today and who may herself be walking the same road.  For me that person is Nadine.

The even better news is that between donations, Nadine's savings, and my own funds, we will have enough for us both to have GCS.  Our surgeries will be two days apart in late January, and then we will help each other through recovery.  Depending on my physical condition after surgery, I may also have some limited facial feminization surgery (FFS) about two weeks after GCS.  Overall I expect we will be in Phuket for 5-6 weeks.

Crossing the Himalayas, 2008
Almost four months remain before Nadine and I fly to Thailand.  There is much to do, much to prepare between now and then, yet time is moving forward inexorably.  Tomorrow the calendar turns another page to the first full month of autumn.  A crispness has entered the morning air, and already I need to turn on my bicycle lights for part of my morning and evening commutes to and from Embassy Bucharest.  Before long the leaves will be changing color as thoughts turn towards the holidays, and then there will be the first snowflakes of winter.  As those snows come, Nadine and I will pack our bags and fly eastward over Tashkent and the Himalayas to fulfill the dream that has been with both of us since earliest age.  Only this time it will not be a dream.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Although our funds are nearing what we need for both Nadine and I to have GCS with Dr. Kunaporn in Phuket, they are not quite there yet.  Please consider making even the smallest donation to the fund I have established to pay for Nadine's GCS.  You can find a PayPal link at Nadine Chilianu GCS Appeal.