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

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