Saturday, March 31, 2012

Diplomatically, Socially, and Congestedly Yours

My friend Nat put it better than I ever could.  "RM, you got slammed."

The past two weeks have demolished my personal myth of indestructible physical health.  On the evening of March 16 I had twelve people over, first for a Pride Month planning meeting and then for a Third Friday of the Month transgender support group.  That's more people than have ever been at my apartment for an LGBT evening.

It was all very gratifying until Monday.   I felt tired all day at work.  I thought that was it, that I was overtired, and almost apologetically I told the G-Man that I was feeling under the weather and perhaps should consider staying home the next day.  I wasn't even serious about it.

Then I woke up in the middle of the night with the worst sore throat I can remember in decades.  Swallowing was painful, and my voice was a whisper.  Twelve hours later I had no voice at all.  All the other usual cold symptoms soon came on and joined in a merry spring celebration in my head.

I missed three and a half days of work, in disbelief first that this was not going to pass in 24 hours, then not in 48, and then not even in 72.  My throat could take chicken noodle soup and soft boiled eggs but not much more than that.  I consumed more tea and honey than I have in years.  Our Embassy medical office sent medication home to me through a neighbor, and I went to work on Friday afternoon more for a medical evaluation than for work.  At least the sore throat had finally loosened its grip.

On Saturday my voice started to come back, and on Sunday I felt well enough to meet my Peace Corps friend PA for brunch.  This is her last week in Romania, and it would be the last chance to see each other.  After brunch we walked through one of Bucharest's beautiful downtown parks, the sun warm and an early summer feel in the air.  Could it have only been three weeks ago that snow drifts dominated the streets of Bucharest?

I went to bed gently that Sunday evening, certain I had turned the corner and that all would soon be well.

That feeling lasted until just short of midnight.  During 25 years of marriage, I became a light sleeper much like my mother had been.  Our young son would have the usual childhood illnesses and problems, and my spouse's two aunts and sister who lived with us had an assortment of ailments, some of them serious.  Suffice it to say that the rescue squad in our neighborhood knew us well through nighttime visits, sometimes more than once in a month.  I was primed for the slightest nighttime touch on the shoulder, the softest call from another room.  In a moment I would be bolt upright, leaping into action to address the crisis of the moment.

So there I was on Sunday evening, already two hours into sleep when I heard the sound and jumped out of bed.  It took a moment for me to realize it wasn't my telephone that had started ringing but the intercom telephone.  Someone was at the door outside, asking to come in.  In pajamas and a bathrobe, I opened the door to find my local friend NR standing there.  She was having a small personal crisis and had come to me, her trans sister, for a shoulder and a few words.  We sat, we talked.  It didn't take long, and soon NR was on her way.

As to me, I scarcely slept the rest of the night.  The adrenalin had done its job.  Instead of recovering, I found my symptoms lingering.  Not thinking as clearly as I should have, I rode my bicycle to work on Thursday only to find that the temperature had dropped and the wind had picked up at the end of the day.  That night a good cough kept me up again, and I dragged myself into work on Friday.  When our nurse saw me at lunchtime, he handed me some more pills and said just two words:  "Go home."  I took a taxi and collapsed on my couch for the rest of the afternoon.  Only today, another Saturday, am I finally feeling back to where I was a week ago.

My story in this journal has been one of almost miraculous transformation, a snatching of my life from the hands of a fate that seemed destined to take me to the grave with the greatest of unfulfilled dreams.  At the same time, I don't want to sugarcoat the down moments and put rose colored glasses on everything.  Thus to put it bluntly, for me to get this physically sick was a shock.  I don't recall anything like it in decades.

So now my mind is going in circles with theories.  I am not alone by any means, as this mysterious Romanian virus is wrecking havoc at Embassy Bucharest.  A number of others have been laid up at home as long as I was.  One friend has what we are calling the 100 Day Cough.

But me, the person who never gets sick beyond a 24-hour cold?  Let's see, is there anything different about my life this year than in years past? 
Oh, yes, there is the small matter of HRT.  It's almost ten months since I began.  Could a law of unintended consequences be at work, my body changing not only in ways I had always wanted but also in ways that have lowered my resistance to infection?  I've already had two local MtF women friends tell me, in effect, "Of course, didn't you know?"

I guess I should add to that the pressure of a long divorce and then post-divorce litigation.  Pressure, pressure, and nothing but pressure for nearly four years with no truly relaxing vacation other than my two weeks in the US with my sisters last October. 

So what did I do the day after my workplace transition last November?  I jumped right into advocacy and support!  Here I am, a very involved post representative for Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA).  Most of my evenings and weekends have been going to volunteer work for GLIFAA and with the local LGBT community.  I feel I have back dues to pay, at least four decades of them, and that my position at a U.S. Embassy overseas puts me in a special position to be able to begin that repayment.  I'm not a great organizer, but I do put my heart into every activity and event that I can.

Would it have been different if I had transitioned on the US?  I imagine I would have been just as much involved, but I would not have been the lead on anything.  I would have been just another pair of hands.  It is a fact of a Foreign Service Officer's life that we are experts on anything that falls within our portfolio.  We are experts whether we know anything or not.  If we don't, then our task is to learn very quickly.  We are the representatives of our country overseas, and it is the very definition of our jobs to be the best representatives we can.  Thus it is that I am a very visible if unofficial representative of the U.S. Government in the Romanian LGBT community.  My hope is that I can also be an effective representative who is remembered fondly and well when she departs.

But to do that, I must recover my health.  So this weekend I am taking time for myself.  I am disconnecting the phones at night and lounging in the sun with a good book.  My only outdoor activity today was the pleasant one of a morning at the beauty parlor.  What better way to start to feel good about oneself again after two weeks of feeling like an infectious blob?

Infections, coughs, and tissue aside, there has been some very good news this month.  In rapid succession I received my new Social Security card and my new Diplomatic Passport.  My trivia question of the month is whether this is the first time the Special Issuance Office has reissued a passport because of a gender transition.  Although I'm certain I'm the first such case for a State Department employee, I can think of a few people at NASA and other agencies who might have stood in that line before me.  With new passport in hand, I will hope for fewer interesting experiences such as the ones I had when I traveled to the US last year using my old passport (The Odd Joys of International Travel while in Transition).

Still Red-Nosed but with a New Hairstyle
The law of unintended HRT consequences may also be having another effect, one that leaves me strangely pleased and smiling.  You see, I got lost a few weeks ago when I was walking to a friend's house.  I decided to take a short cut, but then my infallible sense of direction failed me.  I came out of the back street maze in a place so far removed from my friend that I had to call her and ask her to come out and find me. 

My chair and book are calling, so please forgive me dear friends if I drop everything and attend to their needs.  I'll write again soon, I trust without the need of keeping the box of tissue at hand.  

Yours diplomatically, socially, and congestedly from Bucharest,

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Stepping Out in Bucharest -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 5

I arrived back in Bucharest on March 4, 2011, both elated over my two and a half weeks in the US and sad that I would not be able to experience the exhilaration of being myself again until my next visit.  I had promised Kyna that I would not dress publicly in Bucharest, and a Foreign Service colleague in whom I had confided had warned me that our little worlds overseas are like fishbowls.  It is nearly impossible to hide, and rumors travel quickly.

I arrived on a Friday and didn't unpack until the next day.  As I did, I wistfully looked at the few articles of clothing I had purchased at Macy's.  "Well, why not?"  It's Saturday, and I'm at home.  A few minutes later I looked at myself in the mirror and did what I could with my hair.  Then a thought occurred to me.  "Kyna, I need your professional opinion on something.  Do you have a few minutes?"

Kyna lived upstairs from me.  I rang the bell.  Kyna opened the door, took one look, and took a step backward.  "I need a vodka," she said.  "You need one too."  She sank into a chair and pointed towards the refrigerator.

I went to the kitchen and poured two shots, one for Kyna and one for myself.  Before we drank, Kyna told me to take a few steps back and turn around.  "You look lovely," she said, a compliment I never expected to hear in my life. 

We downed our shots, and then Kyna continued, "I'm going to the theater on Sunday evening.  You're coming too."

"But you told me I should never appear in public as Robyn," I demurred.

"I know, but you're fine.  Let's go together."

I asked if anyone else would be going.  The answer was yes, Laurie, Ray, and Natalie from the Embassy.  I objected again, remembering Shannon's warning that transgender and surprise are not words one should combine in a single sentence.  Kyna said she was sure it would be OK, but I decided to remove the surprise element.  Later in the day I called each of them, explaining that my life was moving in ways that might surprise them, that I was coming out openly as transgender and planned to go to the theater with them as myself, as Robyn.  No one objected.

The next day I bought a new blow dryer and spent two hours on hair and makeup.  Finally ready, I went upstairs and rang Kyna's door again.  When she opened, Kyna was in a nightgown.  "I'm sick," she said.  "I can't go."

My heart dropped.  All of that work for nothing.  Then Kyna surprised me.  "But you're going.  I've already called a taxi."  Now my heart was beating loudly in terror at the sudden change in plan.  I couldn't see myself going without my best friend at my side.

Kyna loaned me her own suede jacket to wear for the evening.  Then she threw a coat over her nightgown and led me outside to the waiting taxi, almost pushing me in and telling the driver where to take me.  I was sure the driver would be looking in his rear view mirror at this unusual looking woman, but he never did.  I was just another fare.

Fifteen minutes later I was standing in the lobby of one of Bucharest's elegant downtown theaters.  I was the first one there; Natalie, Ray, and Laurie had yet to appear.  I stood there in the lobby, in shock to think I had stepped out in Bucharest as Robyn.  I got a couple of sideways looks, but for the most part no one paid the least bit of attention to this somewhat masculine looking middle aged woman out for a night at the theater.

I waited perhaps ten minutes before Natalie appeared, waving from a distance as she presented her ticket.   When she got close, she exclaimed almost as enthusiastically as Kyna that I looked fine.  Laurie and Ray arrived shortly thereafter, Laurie complimenting me on my outfit and on my mother's watch that I was wearing.  Then we moved on to the relative safety of our seats and a night of African dance. 

During the intermission, a friend of Laurie's from the Canadian Embassy came over to say hello.  Laurie introduced me as Robyn.  We shook hands and exchanged a few words along the lines of "How long have you been in Bucharest?"  The young woman did not seem to question for a moment that I was a new woman at the U.S. Embassy, a friend of Laurie's.

To my surprise, not even my voice gave me away.  It wasn't a wonderful voice by any stretch, but I had learned a very useful lesson from Shannon and her friend Caroline while in the US.  They had disabused me of my falsetto, and Caroline had given me a quick example of proper resonance.  It wasn't a lesson I could yet apply or feel, but I knew now to avoid the falsetto.  Thus I spoke softly near the upper limit of my normal register.  Laurie's Canadian friend didn't even blink.

My Cinderella evening was over all to quickly.  Three hours later I was home again, not wanting to undress for the night.  I got out the camera, set the self timer, and took a photo by which to remember the night.

The next day it was back to work in what was already starting to feel like male drag.  It was a slow day, and I spent hours telling the G-Man again and again about my experiences.

The next weekend I was off to the First Romanian Transgender Congress in Brasov.  I was struck that of the dozen people who had come, I was by far the oldest in the room.  We sat in a circle on Saturday morning and took turns at introducing ourselves.  When my turn came, I looked around and said I must be old enough to be the mother of almost any of the women in that room.  Then I looked at the two youngest and added that I could even be their grandmother.  One was still in high school.

The transgender minority in Romania, I was learning quickly, is very different from the transgender community I was coming to know in the US.  There are no legal hormones on sale here, and most of the youngest transgender women in the room were self-medicating with birth control pills.  The couple of transgender men seemed to have an easier time.  Everyone was having trouble with documents.  There is no system for changing identity documents in Romania for a gender change.  Those few who have managed to get new documents have done so through court battles lasting years.

During a break at the congress, I struck up a conversation with one of the young women.   She looked at my face and asked how long I had been on hormones.  I answered that I might start in a few months, and this lovely young woman replied, "But your skin!  Surely you have been taking hormones?"

When I look back at my photos from a year ago, I see a nondescript middle aged person, somewhat feminine but with short hair and a face with masculine structure that was anything but pretty.  For years I had believed it was hopeless to attempt to present as a woman at my age, that testosterone had done its damage to my face through the decades.  It was one of my comforting excuses, another reason to dismiss transition as impossible.  Yet here I had a young woman complimenting me on my skin.  I could have cried right there.

Several of the women I met that day have become friends with whom I've stayed in contact ever since.  All of them are heroines and heroes to me.  Each one has more courage than I had ever shown in the US when I was their age at a time when U.S. society wasn't more advanced socially than Romanian society today.  These are the pioneers, the Jan Morris'es of Romania, still struggling to find acceptance in a conservative society that has no understanding of them.

Without realizing it, I had begun to live the classic double life.  From the day I returned to Romania, I was good old Bob only in the workplace.  On the weekends and in the evenings, I was Robyn.  As the spring came and the snows melted, I was out as myself more and more.  I wasn't doing anything unusual.  I was simply starting to breathe and be myself, becoming more comfortable at going through the normal stuff of life such as grocery shopping.  Even clothes shopping at major Bucharest department stores was not a problem.

It is hard to know what people in the street made of me, but as the weeks went by, I increasingly realized that I got fewer sideways glances on the weekends than I did in male drag during the week.  Even wearing skirts I seemed not to attract any attention.  It couldn't have been thanks to my still unusual appearance.  Could it be that my discomfort as good old Bob was that obvious in comparison to my weekend joy and ease as Robyn?  Yet here I was, scarcely attracting any notice -- or at least not the notice of anyone who might do me physical harm -- as I went about Bucharest doing whatever I needed to do.  I had to pinch myself again and again to prove to myself this was not a dream.

On a warm spring Saturday, Natalie, Kyna, and I decided to go out for lunch at a Lebanese restaurant in our neighborhood.  As we walked down the street, I saw my department head Curtis on the sidewalk, talking with someone.  I had already told him I was coming out as transgender, so I had no fears, but I was surprised when we stopped to talk.  He paid no attention to me, choosing to talk only with Kyna and Natalie.  Then Kyna and I broke off when we heard a cat across the street.  Kyna's cat Monstro had run away during the night, and we were searching as we walked.  Finding that this cat was not Monstro, we turned around to rejoin Nat and Curtis.  As we did, I saw instead that they were coming towards us, Curtis's eyes now wide with amazement.  "Curtis," Natalie said, "I don't think you have met Robyn yet, have you?"  He had not recognized me.  He said later that he had thought I was a visiting friend and that Kyna and Natalie simply had chosen not to introduce me.
Three Girlfriends:  Kyna, Robyn, and Natalie

The circle of those in the know started to grow.  Some had just an academic knowledge as I chose to tell them one by one at work.  Others had the experiential knowledge as well.  I was getting my wings, socializing comfortably with Embassy friends on the weekend.  By summer, a dozen or more knew with certainty the path that I was starting to take.

Was it all easy and straightforward?  Well, not always.

"Robyn, could you come down and see me in the Med unit?"  It was Kyna.  When I walked into her office, she closed her door and asked what I had been wearing on Sunday.  I described my outfit.  "Yes, that's exactly the description that was passed to me."

It turned out that I had been spotted and recognized on Sunday by someone who had not been in the know.  A complaint had been made, and Kyna was being asked if I was mentally stable.  Perhaps I could be persuaded to accept a compassionate curtailment of my posting to go home to the US and take care of my problem?  It was a very scary moment.

"Look, people know I'm your friend, so no one will take my word for it when I tell them you're fine."  Kyna asked me stay into the evening, and she arranged for me to be interviewed by telephone by the Regional Psychiatrist in Vienna.  We talked about Hubble, space, Russian history, and what it is to be transgender.  What a contrast that was to my experience with psychiatry in 1990!

I also knew that there was one very important difference between 1990 and 2011.  I don't remember exactly when in the Education of a Transgender Rip Van Winkle I first learned that gender identity had been added to the State Department's Statement on Discriminatory and Sexual Harassment in the summer of 2010, but I certainly knew it by the start of 2011.  On paper, at least, I could no longer be curtailed as unsuitable because I had declared a gender identity not in conformance with my birth sex.  I was later told by a Bucharest friend that inquiries had been sent to Washington about my possible curtailment.  The inquiries, I am told, were answered with a gentle education on the matter of gender expression.

Kyna said afterward that the Regional Psychiatrist had expected to be speaking with a very troubled person, not someone who was accomplished and who was having no issues at work.  I was never again bothered with proffers of compassionate curtailment.

After that episode I decided there was no longer any reason to hide at all.  I wasn't yet ready to make a global announcement, but neither would I worry about who knew and who didn't.  I also made a work decision.

Prior to the Brasov congress, a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) friend in the US had told me to remember my roots as a political reporting officer.  After the congress, I sat down at home and wrote a three page report on Romania's Transgender Minority.  I wrote it, as Russians in the Stalin period would have said, for the desk.  I had no intention of showing it to anyone other than my FSO friend who had suggested I write it.

After the compassionate curtailment episode, I changed my mind.  I took the report, dusted it off and improved it, and submitted it officially to our political office.  The reaction was surprise, but the political office accepted it for editing and clearance.  The process took months, quite a contrast to the usual days or weeks, but in mid-summer the report was released officially.  To the best of my knowledge, that is the first State Department report ever written specifically on transgender issues.

I started a collaboration with my FSO friend who had suggested the Brasov report.  Together we wrote a position paper with the title, Gender Transition in the Foreign Service Context.  We submitted it to the Office of the Director General of the Foreign Service in the late spring.

Becoming myself.  That was my spring of 2011.  What had seemed impossible now felt so normal and right that my earlier failures in 1975-76, in 1990, and even 2000-02 seemed as though from another life.  On many a scented spring evening before going to sleep I would remember my childhood dream  (So How Far Back Does this Go? -- Part 1) --
I had a very powerful dream of being lost in the woods and coming to a brightly lit, warm house.  Only girls were allowed inside, however, and so I continued to wander.  Again and again I came upon the same house.  Finally, exhausted and crying, I knocked at the door.  The girl who opened the door looked at me, and I begged to be let in.  "Of course!" she said.  "You're one of us."  I immediately woke up, elated and happy but upset to find it was only a dream.
In the spring of 2011, I had finally knocked on that door and watched it open.  There, bathed in the light, stood Kyna, Natalie, Laurie, and growing list of some of the loveliest, most accepting women I have ever known.  They gathered around me and brought me inside.  This time it was not a dream.

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

Follow these links for more of the retrospective story: 
Previous entry -- Liftoff! -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 4
Following entry -- Stepping Out in Court -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 6

Sunday, March 18, 2012

March 8 and Me

My readers in the US no doubt are wondering at the title of this posting, perhaps thinking there should be a question mark, as in March 8 and Me?

My readers east of the Danube, however, are already smiling and thinking, "But of course, for Robyn this was the first March 8 of her new life."  If anything, they may be thinking there should be an exclamation point, as in March 8 and Me!  They also be wondering why I think my U.S. friends are scratching their heads.

So please bear with me as I explain.

Dear U.S. friends, March 8 is International Women's Day, and it's big.  I mean as in it's bigger than Valentine's Day and Mother's Day combined.  It dates to 1909, when it was first declared by the Socialist Party in the United States, but to my mind this holiday is associated with the 1917 February Revolution in Russia.  You know, that's the one that toppled the tsar and ushered in a period of democratic hopes that the Bolsheviks smashed eight months later in their October Revolution.  The women of Petrograd were in the streets on February 23 for International Women's Day.  It was the middle of World War I, and the march slogan was bread and peace.

International Women's Day 1917, Russia
Then a strange thing happened.  Bystanders gathered, and at the end of the day, no one went home.  Think of Cairo and the Arab spring.  Now you've got the picture.  The crowds stayed in the streets for days.  More and more people joined in.  The city was hungry, and someone finally thought to break into a bakery.  It turned into a bread riot.  The tsar was away at the front, but the city authorities tried to restore order by calling in troops.  It didn't work out the way they hoped, however, because the good troops were all away fighting the Germans.  The troops that were in the capital were largely raw draftees.  Ordered to shoot into the crowds, they hesitated, seeing so many women's faces, faces that reminded them of their own mothers.  Instead, many went over to the side of the crowd.  At the Imperial Duma -- a proto-parliament that until then had little power -- Prince Lvov, Alexander Kerensky, and a group of other legislators decided it was time to get ahead of events.  They formed what they called a Provisional Committee and sent a telegram to the tsar at the front.  "Sire, to save the country, you must abdicate."  To their own surprise, the tsar acquiesced, and that was the February Revolution.

My U.S. readers are scratching their heads again.  "March 8?  February Revolution?  Has hormone therapy mixed you up on calendars and dates?"  No, no, dear friends.  It's just that Russia in those days was still using the Julian Calendar, which at that time lagged behind the Gregorian Calendar used in the West by thirteen days.  Thus February 23 in Russia was March 8 in the US.  When the Bolsheviks took over in the October Revolution, they switched the country to the Gregorian Calendar.  For the next 70 years, the October Revolution holiday was observed on November 7.  They also put Russia on the metric system.  If they had just stopped there, they might have had a great thing going.  But it all went to their heads with dreams of collectivization and communism.  Then we got Stalin and the Gulag, the Brezhnev decay, and finally Yeltsin and the revolution of August 1991 that brought things back to where they were in the spring of 1917, more or less.

Is it all clear, now?

Oh, I almost forgot, what about the women?  Well, the Bolsheviks didn't like the idea of women or anyone else marching in the streets, so they took the March 8 holiday and turned it into a completely apolitical women's day, sort of our Valentine's Day and Mother's Day rolled into one but more so.  It's still a national holiday in Russia.  Everything is closed, and that includes the U.S. Embassy.  Flowers and gifts are given.  It's the one day when Russian men turn soft and treat the women in their lives -- and I mean all the women in their lives -- as queens and princesses.  They have to!  They know what will happen to them on March 9 if they don't.

When I was stationed in Uzbekistan, all the local guys at Embassy Tashkent formed a receiving line.  It ran from the front entrance almost out to the street.  As the workday began, the guys greeted each and every woman, Uzbek and American, as she arrived for work.  By the time she entered the Embassy, each woman held a small bouquet of roses.

Now my readers east of the Danube are scratching their heads.  "Surely you celebrate March 8 in the US, don't you?"  No, I'm afraid we don't.  Some progressive newscasters might mention International Women's Day, but no one gives it a second thought.  Yes, dear friends east of the Danube, that is the sad reality on our side of the Atlantic.
In the 1980s and onward, I took my own enjoyment in International Women's Day whenever I was east of the Danube.  I would give the flowers and chocolate, and I would give the dinner invitations.  I knew that gender transition was an impossible fantasy for me, but I also knew how I would like to be treated in that world of fantasy.  I took my own silent joy in giving.

So imagine my joy this year!  This is now my day.  Alas, March 8 is no longer a national holiday in Romania, but it's still big.  It was too cold for the guys to form a receiving line out to the street, but inside our work home on the outskirts of Bucharest, all was warmth.   A knock on my office door, another flower in my hands.  Bouquets covered the tables at lunchtime.  Doors were held more gallantly than usual, and we women smiled at each other in passing throughout this day, our special day.  Cards and e-cards flew through the ether, including a special one from my dear friend Nadine in Moldova:
Любимая и дорогая наша подруга! Мне очень приятно поздравить тебя от всего сердца с Международным женским днем!  Мы первый раз это делаем и я так рада!!!  Пусть твоя прекрасная и заразительная улыбка будет всегда олицетворять твое счастливое сердце, а твои глаза излучающие доброту и понимание пусть всегда сияют, чувствуя любовь близских людей и верных друзей!!!
Dear and beloved girlfriend!  I am so happy  to wish you a Happy International Women's Day with my whole heart!  This is the first time we can greet you with this wish, and it makes me glad!!!  May your beautiful and infectious smile always be the face that reflects a happy heart.  May your eyes always shine forth with goodness and understanding, feeling the love of your close ones and true friends!!!
My friend F1 from Uzbekistan said it simply and with beauty:  "I knew you as a soft and sincere man, and my happiness for you today is that you have lived to know the joys of womanhood."

In Romania and neighboring Moldova, the entire month of March is for women.  March 1 is Mărțișor, a celebration of women, life, and continuity.  Men give red and white ribbons and charms to their women friends, and women give them to each other.  According to tradition, women wear the charms and ribbons on their wrists or over their hearts.  As the spring blooms, women and girls move the charms from their wrists to the branches of fruit trees, a sign of fertility for the year to come.
Winter's End, A First Bloom

March 1, March 8, and then March 17 and St. Patrick's Day -- yes, the wearing of the green extends even to Bucharest -- March is a celebration of spring and of life.  The long winter, seemingly endless just three weeks ago, has broken.  The snow drifts are melting, and the Sun warms skin that it has not touched since last year.  It is a wonderful, joyful time for me, Robyn, to be alive in this, the year that brought the first March 8 of my life.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Liftoff! -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 4

February 17, 2011, sometime after 4pm.  The clock is counting down the final seconds. 

Hair.   Blow dryer, brushes, and an hour of work.  Thank goodness it's been months since a haircut.  Barely OK but yes, hair is GO.  Check.

Face.  Triple blade razor, concealer, and foundation.  Good thing I'm more gray than dark.  No shadow.  Change to new pair of glasses.  Not as bad as I expected.  Face and hair are GO.  Check.

Purple blouse, sweater, and brown slacks from Macy's.  Shoes.  Why did I wear thick socks when I bought these shoes?  Wad tissue and shove it in so they won't fall off.  Hair, face, and outfit are GO.  Check.

Brown handbag over shoulder.  Cosmetics in bag.  Did I move everything to my new wallet?  Hair, face, outfit, and handbag GO.  Check.

Vital signs.  Heart pounding.  Pulse racing.  Nervous stomach.  Sit for a moment and get centered.  HOLD!


I had landed at Washington's Dulles Airport on Saturday evening, February 5.  On Monday I was to begin two weeks of training at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), but outside of work hours I had planned a series of meetings and events to find out, finally, about myself  and where the transgender path might take me.  "It's just research," I thought, "no different from any other research project I have ever carried out."  It's just that this time time I was both the researcher and the research subject.

From Dulles I caught the express Metro bus to Rosslyn, sitting next to another U.S. Government traveler and talking the usual talk about flights, long connection times, customs, and how to get over jet lag.  What would he have thought if he knew where I was going that evening?

From Rosslyn it was a quick one stop on the Metro to Courthouse station and a five minute walk to the Clarion Hotel, my home for the next two weeks.  I checked in, dropped my bags, and walked back out into the early evening.  Five minutes later I was walking into the Azure Dream Day Spa.

Weeks earlier I had made an appointment with an electrologist in Bethesda, Maryland, but just two days before leaving Bucharest I read that Leila Espari, an electrologist well known for helping many women of transgender experience, would open a new spa in Courthouse.  I called from Bucharest, and Leila invited me to come to her grand opening party that would take place the evening of my arrival in the US.

When I walked in, Leila's celebration was still in full swing.  It was a family event, with much of Leila's extended family in attendance.  Leila is of Iranian heritage, and photos of her home country hung from the walls.  A table was set with food, and within minutes I felt I had been adopted into the family.

As the party began to quiet down, Leila took me into a treatment room for a look at my unshaven face. She said something like "this isn't going to be bad," and she proposed both laser for the dark hair and electrolysis for the white.  I did my first laser session then and there.

Sunday morning I was back with Leila for electrolysis.  Hair by hair for an hour and a half, I told Leila my story.  The pain was not nearly as bad as I expected, and it was nothing like my brief, nearly disfiguring encounter with an inexperienced Bucharest electrologist just a few weeks earlier.  It all felt right, lying there on the table, listening to Leila's soft voice and feeling her experienced hands move deftly from hair to hair.  Even dressed as I still was in my guy travel clothes, to Leila I was Robyn, a woman like any other who had come to her for help in walking the transition road.

Visiting Leila became part of my daily routine.  By the time my FSI training was over, I had completed nearly ten hours of electrolysis.  Not once did anyone look at me and ask whether I had had a shaving accident.


Vital signs.  Heart still pounding.  Pulse still racing.  "Am I really going to do this?"  HOLD?

                                                                             January 24, 2011
Hi Robyn,

I am one of the moderators for the MAGIC group and happy that you will be able to join us.  Generally meetings consist of anywhere from about ten of us up to about 25.  As you may already know, we meet from 8pm until 10pm the third Friday of the month.  If you would like to get together sometime before the meeting on the 18th, I  certainly have some time available just let me know.

I had written to the Washington Metro Area Gender Identity Connection (MAGIC-DC) from Bucharest asking about their meeting in February.  It was Shannon Doyle who wrote back, and thus began a trans-Atlantic friendship that has been very important and dear to me.

It was Wednesday evening, February 9.  Shannon sat waiting for me in the Clarion lobby with her lovely spouse Mary.  It was a frigid evening, and the wind dug into our faces as we walked to a Thai restaurant a few blocks away.  Warmly inside, we talked of this and that as we looked through the menus.  Our orders placed, I finally got a good look at Shannon and Mary.  Shannon is tall with lovely long hair, just a few years older than me.  Mary, shorter, glows with a warm, supportive beauty.  They are both retired from the Department of Justice, where Shannon worked in IT and where Mary was an attorney.  Mary supported Shannon through her transition, and now Shannon supports Mary as early Alzheimer's lays its cold hand on her in retirement.  I could feel the love between them, and for a moment I felt deeply sad that my now ex-spouse and I had never experienced this.  

"Shannon, before tonight I have never knowingly sat across the table from a person who I think has felt the same things I have felt my entire life."

It was true.  Childhood cross dressing.  Trying to come out in college and not being able to cope.  Purge.  Marriage.  Career.  Family.  Coming out to my spouse in 1990.  Psychiatry and disaster.  Purge and hide again.  I was 56 years old, had known I was different in 1960, but only now, on February 9, 2011, was I finally sitting across from someone whose life experience mirrored my own.

I learned much about Shannon's story and her life struggle that night, and the conversation continued on the weekend when Shannon and Mary invited me for dinner in their home.  I think it was that night I realized I was in the presence of two of the most balanced, loving, normal people I had ever known.  Epithets that had been thrown at me in 1990 melted away.  This was no longer an academic research project.  I wanted the peace that Shannon had found.  "To be transgender is normal."  It wasn't just an academic statement.  It was an emotional response, and I felt it with my whole being.


Vital signs.  Heart and pulse calmer.  Stomach not so nervous. GO.  "Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, . . . ."  

I stood in front of my hotel room door, literally doing a countdown. 

"Did Alan Shepard feel like this?  Did Valentina Tershkova?"

"Four, three, two, one. . . ."

I turned the knob, walked into the hallway and then to the elevator.  No one around.  The elevator door opened.  Still no one.  I stepped in.  Another count.  "Four, three, two, lobby." 

"The elevator door is going to open and I'm going to die."

As I thought it, the door did open, and I stepped out.  I walked slowly through the lobby.  No one stopped and stared.  No one pointed.

Then I was on the street in broad daylight.  In college in 1975 I had always tried to avoid people, but here I was on a sidewalk in Courthouse, Virginia, in plain view for everyone to see.  I started up the street.

"Oh no, could that be?"  I thought I recognized a co-worker from a previous post coming the other way.  I quickly turned down a side street and stopped to calm myself.

A moment later I was back on the main street.  It was the late afternoon rush hour, and there were people all around.  I had trouble with my shoes and had to stop again to put in more tissue.  Up and walking again, I made my way to Leila's spa.  Leila fussed for a moment with my hair and gave me a thumbs up.

"It's just like riding a bicycle!" I gasped to myself in self-realization as I walked towards the Courthouse Metro station.  In 1975 I had gone forth as myself only in the shadows, scared to death what would happen if anyone recognized me.  That's also how it was when I began riding a bicycle as a daily commuter in 1990.  I would hug the curb, trying to stay out of everyone's way and getting hurt again and again in the process.  It had taken me years to learn the lesson that the secret to bicycle safety is taking one's rightful place in the traffic flow and in being visible.  Now, without even sensing it, I was applying that same, hard-learned rule:  Be visible and join the traffic of life!  I had just as much right to walk down that street as anyone.  No matter what anyone thought of my appearance, no one questioned my right to be there because I had asserted and no longer questioned my own right to be there!

Minutes later I was on the Metro.  The platform was crowded, and so were the rush hour trains.  If anyone noticed me at all, I didn't notice that they had.  I went to the end of the line and was on the street again.

By now I was flying.  Every inhibition I had ever felt had fallen away in less than 30 minutes.  Even if a passersby noticed something unusual about me, it didn't matter.  I felt calm and more normal than I had ever felt in my life.  I was in orbit.  I was weightless and in ecstasy, part of a miracle that was just beginning to unfold.

I made my way to the Banyan Counseling Center to see Martha Harris.  This was already my third visit to Martha.  I had learned of her through Chloe Schwenke and others as a counselor well versed in gender issues.  Still in guy mode on my first visits, I already sensed this was going to be entirely different from my experience with a psychiatrist in 1990 and from any of the counseling I had gone to in the years since, all of which had centered around my marriage.  Here with Martha I was finally able to talk about myself as myself without feeling I was being sized up for the proper medication dosage.  With Cheryl Wheeler playing on her stereo and two cats in attendance, I felt I had been welcomed into a home, not a therapy center.

I rang the doorbell.  Martha greeted me with a smile.  "Good evening, Madame."  I went in, kicked off my shoes, and got comfortable on her couch.  In less than an hour, after decades of hiding, I had become real in my own heart and mind.  It was no longer a question of if.  The word now was how.  "Martha, I know what I want, and I want to work with you to get there."  We have been working together ever since.

It was a night I did not want to end.  By the time I got back to my hotel room I was feeling like Audrey Hepburn and was singing I Could Have Danced All Night.  Even if only for a few hours, I had gone into space, did not die, and had become me.


The next evening, similarly attired, I met Shannon and Mary in my hotel lobby.  They took me to the MAGIC-DC meeting, where I sat in a whole room full of people who on the inside looked and felt like me.  Shannon gave me a small box of clip-on earrings with the only instruction that someday I pass them on.  After the meeting it was off to the Silver Diner for a late evening group breakfast.


But the best of all came on Saturday.  It was time to check out of my hotel and take the Metro to Maryland to spend a few days with my sister Irene before flying back to Bucharest.

"Irene, do you think you could take a surprise today?"  Shannon had warned me that the words transgender and surprise do not go well together in a single sentence, but I was ready to take the risk.

"Will I recognize you?" Irene asked.  It was Irene who had taken me to the hospital and then visited me daily in 1990.  Back then I think she had been almost as much in shock as my spouse, but things had changed in the years since.  We had become much closer, and I had come to lean on my elder sister for support as my marriage began its prolonged, tortuous end.  In December I had told her that I would be going to some appointments and meetings while in Washington to get to the bottom of the question, "Am I transgender and, if so, what does it mean?"

It was another windy day, and I had to manage a suitcase and a carry-on bag through the city.  The Metro was closed in the city center, and I had to lug my bags and myself through a bus transfer to another station.  Today a few people did look quizzically in my direction.  The wind, bags, and unexpected Metro transfers had undone my hour and a half of prepping at the hotel.  But I couldn't care less.  I felt wonderful, and that was all that counted.

Irene did recognize me and gave me a hug.  In the car I told her the story of my two weeks.  I told her about Leila, about Shannon and Mary, about Martha, and about taking flight on Thursday.

The phone rang.  It was our sister Mary calling from Arizona.  "Mary, you are no longer the youngest sister."  I told her the story.  Irene took a photo, and we sent it.  Mary wrote back that I was "kind of cute."

That night Irene and I went out to dinner as sisters, greeted together by the waiter as "ladies."  Two teenage girls in the next booth kept sneaking peeks and giggling, but it didn't matter.  Irene and I were now two sisters, and I was wearing earrings given to me by Shannon.  Before going to bed, Irene gave me some of our mother's jewelery and scarves.  

The following week I finally got to meet Chloe Schwenke.  We met at USAID.  I still didn't have the nerve to go as myself into a government building where I would have to present my ID badge, so I was again in my guy clothes.  I recognized Chloe from her photo as she got off the elevator, and she had no trouble recognizing me.  

"You must be Robyn."  Chloe's voice was wonderfully feminine and at the same time professional.  Like Shannon, Chloe is tall.  She stepped back, got a good look at me, and told me how lucky I was to be short and of small build.  

Other than for that, I remember almost nothing from what Chloe told me as we sat over coffee.  I was like a star-struck teenage girl in the presence of her favorite Hollywood actress.  "I can't believe I'm really sitting with you, Chloe."  That was what was going through my head.  "You are real.  You really exist.  Here you are at USAID, and here I am sitting across from you.  Oh my god!"

Our half hour over coffee felt like a minute.  A young man joined us.  Chloe introduced him as Ajit Joshi, and through the haze of my star-struck eyes, I heard that he had had something to do with getting gender identity added to the anti-discrimination statements at USAID and State in 2010.  It was only much later, in fact quite recently, that I came to understand the tremendous role he played.  For three years starting in 2007, he had pushed, lobbied, and used every diplomatic skill at his disposal to make it happen.  In a very real sense, I feel I owe the life I am living today to what he accomplished.

But on that day in February 2011, I was in the presence of Chloe.  "She's real.  She's not just articles on the Internet and a response to my e-mails.  She is sitting right here in front of me."


On February 27 I sat in Dulles Airport again, waiting to board my flight back to Europe.  Nothing was ever going to be the same.  It was going to be hard, very hard.  I was under no illusion, but now I knew it was possible.  I knew what it felt like to be me without a mask.  Fifty years of fear had been stripped away by the Sun on a warm February afternoon in Courthouse, Virginia.

My time in the US had been only a suborbital hop, not much more than Alan Shepard's 15-minute flight.  It was hardly Valentina Tereshkova's 48 orbits.  But I had been in space, and I knew I would be going back.  I was free.  I had found my future, and nothing would stop me from getting there.

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

Follow these links for more of the retrospective story: 
Previous entry -- Fortochcka -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 3
Following entry -- Stepping Out in Bucharest -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 5