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

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