Saturday, April 7, 2012

Stepping Out in Court -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 6

Judicial Center, Rockville, Maryland
On the morning of June 1, 2011, a middle-aged woman in a long skirt and blue blouse arrived at Circuit Court in Rockville, Maryland, for the hearing that would end the years of litigation with her ex-spouse.  Her two sisters had come with her as support, but she was as nervous as could be notwithstanding.  Only four months earlier she could not have imagined being out in public anywhere in a skirt, yet now this felt more natural than the suit and tie left hanging in the closet.  Robyn's day in court, perhaps the most bizarre episode in her nine month coming out story, had come.
Although my divorce had been finalized in the summer of 2010, I had found myself thrown into new litigation over support after my scheduled ongoing assignment for the State Department had been mysteriously canceled.  (See Pacing the Cage.)  I had been on leave without pay for nearly a month as I scrambled to find the replacement posting that took me to Bucharest, where my salary would be one third lower than it had been.  This meant I would not be able to meet my monthly support payment of over $3000/month, and through my attorney I had asked for an adjustment.  In response, my ex-spouse's attorneys had cited me for contempt.  We, in turn, went to court with a formal motion to adjust support.  A new cycle of litigation had begun.

Interrogatories and replies to document requests dominated my long winter of 2010-11.  Our requests to open negotiations were rebuffed, and if there was any response at all, it was in the form of demands sent not to me but to senior staff at Embassy Bucharest.  Overtures that we made while I was in the US in February were ignored.

Thus it was that on a Friday evening in early May I went upstairs to say goodbye to Kyna.  The next day I was to fly to the US for a settlement hearing.  I was very hopeful that once in the negotiating room, we could come to an agreement. 

It was a quick goodbye.  After all, I'd only be gone a few days.  As I started to leave, Kyna stopped me.  "Promise me something?"

"Of course.  What is it?"

"Promise me you will cut your hair, trim your fingernails, and put on a good suit when you go to court."

After all the help and encouragement Kyna had given me in coming out over the preceding months, here she was with a serious admonishment.  She was worried for me.

"Of course," I answered.  I didn't now yet that my own attorney would ask me to break that promise.

I arrived in the US on Saturday, and I met with my attorney on Monday.  The settlement hearing was scheduled for the next day.  Elyse was optimistic that everything would be resolved.  She already knew that I was coming out openly as transgender, so she was not surprised by the long hair and fingernails even as I sat there in my old guy travel clothes.  Since that settlement hearing would take place in the presence of a retired judge and was not a formal proceeding as such, she said my appearance would not be a problem.

So early Tuesday I put on the suit and tie, slicked back my hair, and drove to Rockville, Maryland.  The first sign that it would not be an easy morning came when the judge decided that we should not all meet together in one room.  The passions, at least on the side of my ex-spouse, were too great.  Instead, the judge shuttled between two rooms, urging and looking for an agreement.  He proposed a settlement that I agreed to quickly, a settlement based on the salary I was actually earning and that I could live with.  In the course of the coming hour he tried to get the other side to agree, but they would not budge.  I offered a little more than the judge had proposed, but the answer was still no.  By noon the judge gave up.  The hearing was over.  There was no settlement.

Elyse was as down and disappointed as I was.  She had expected an agreement.  Instead we would be going to trial later in the month.  Elyse asked me to stay in the US to prepare.

That's how it happened that I never got to say goodbye to Kyna.  Her assignment in Bucharest was ending, and she was scheduled to depart in the middle of May.  I had thought I would be there to help her pack and to repay the hug that had meant so much to me the previous November.  (See Kyna.)  Now I carry that debt with me, hoping for the day when I will again see my friend and celebrate with her this new life that she did so much to make possible.

The next two weeks were filled with hours of preparation and written answers to still more interrogatories.  When not preparing for court, I went on long walks with my sister Irene.  Outside of the courtroom I was myself, Robyn, and the thought of wearing a suit and tie was already beginning to seem strange.  I worked on hair styling and makeup, and Irene would suggest and teach.  We went clothes shopping, Irene helping me find outfits and combinations that worked.  One afternoon we drove to see my sister Gail, who already knew but who had never seen me as Robyn.  We went to the movies.  Although Gail repeatedly stumbled over name and gender, she was wonderful, warm, and accepting.  It was the beginning of a new friendship, a new love between us.

I also found myself in downtown Washington many times.  I had lunch one day with a member of the GLIFAA board, and on another morning I had coffee with Sharon McGowan, the attorney who represented Diane Schroer in the case that let to a federal court ruling that discrimination on the basis of gender identity is a form of sex discrimination.  

I found my first voice therapist, Tish Moody, and began working to develop a feminine voice under the guidance of a professional.  Resonance, resonance, and still more resonance.  No longer would I use a falsetto or a nearly voiceless whisper.

One day I took the Metro downtown.  As I went up the escalator, two men going down saw me, pointed, and started laughing.  To my surprise, passing in Washington seemed more difficult than in Bucharest.  Could it be that Americans as a group are sensitized to transgender people and that Romanians, by contrast, simply accept that by definition anyone in a skirt is a woman and that anyone in a suit is a man?  There were other instances of pointed looks, but I didn't care.  What was important was how I felt about myself.  As I became more confident, the uncomfortable looks diminished.  Soon I was just a part of the crowd, no more worthy of notice than anyone else.

"I'm here because I would like to begin hormone replacement therapy."  I had made my way to the Whitman Walker Clinic (WWC), the wonderfully accepting medical center that specializes in LGBT healthcare.  Kyna had arranged my blood test while I was still in Bucharest, and now Barbara at WWC was looking over the results and at the letter sent by my therapist Martha Harris.  "Everything looks in order," Barbara said.  "When would you like to begin?"
I wanted to jump, dance, and cry for joy.   The door had opened, and I could walk through it if I was ready. 

"I need to wait a few weeks," I told Barbara.  I didn't want to start anything new before going to court, and there were still a few important people in my life who needed to know my plans, a few important conversations that needed to take place.  
May 2011

"Fine, call and make an appointment when you're ready."  Barbara sent me on my way.

A few days later I was back in my suit and tie and in court with Elyse.  This wasn't the trial but a hearing on a motion to dismiss that my ex-spouse's attorneys had entered.  They contended that my support agreement was non-modifiable and that the court should cancel the trial and order me to pay back support.

I didn't need to do anything at this dismissal hearing other than sit and observe.  Elyse did the talking, as did my ex-spouse's attorney.  My ex-spouse had not even chosen to attend.

My shock of the day was that the judge almost granted the motion.  According to the terms of the agreement, he observed, support could be modified in the event of death, debilitating illness, or involuntary unemployment.  There didn't seem to be anything that covered a severe drop in income.  His face and his words as he looked at me could be summed up in two words, "Sorry, but. . . ."

It was then that Elyse began to show the brilliance that I had hoped for.  "Yes," she said to the judge, "but it is our contention that the my client's ex-spouse and attorneys may have played a material role in this reduction of income.  They are not innocent victims."  I don't remember Elyse's precise words, of course, but they were something very much like this.

After two or three minutes the judge cut her off.  "Alright, I won't comment on the merits of the case, but I will allow it to go forward to trial.  Motion dismissed."

I was elated, but my relief lasted only a few minutes.  Once we were a safe distance outside the courtroom, Elyse turned to me and said in words I remember exactly, "Our case sucks.  The judge almost granted their motion."

Elyse paused, looked at me, and said something I never expected to hear.  "Would you be comfortable coming to trial as Robyn?"

In the days to come it was Elyse's turn to get comfortable with the new me.  She was one of those who had known yet had not seen, and I now came to her office not in a suit but in a skirt and blouse, my face and hair made up to the best of what I could manage.  Together we worked and prepared.

Over the winter we had found evidence that a letter in which my ex-spouse had outed me to a friend several years earlier may have been circulated more widely, perhaps even inside the State Department.  We had no proof, but we had tantalizing inferences.  Could this letter have played some role in the mysterious denial of my scheduled posting the previous summer, my leave without pay, and my assignment at lower salary to Bucharest?  To this day I don't know the answer, but the inferences remain.

"There is a family law attorney in Montgomery County who is transsexual," Elyse told me.  "All of the judges and masters know and respect her."

Elyse told me that it was one thing for me to be in a suit and tie and for her to argue dryly about this letter that may have played a role in changing my career.  It would be an entirely different matter, she said, if it was Robyn who came to the courtroom.  Moreover, it was the last thing my ex-spouse and her attorneys would expect.  This would unnerve them and throw a wrench into whatever strategy they had planned.

And so there we were, three sisters arriving at the Circuit Court in Rockville on June 1.  Security presented no problem, just the usual metal and jewelery into a tray and a walk through the metal detector.  Irene, Gail, and I found the room where the trial would take place and waited outside.  Elyse appeared several minutes later, but there was as yet no sign of my ex-spouse or her attorneys.  We talked for several minutes, my sisters and Elyse helping to calm my nervousness.

I excused myself to use the ladies' room.  My morning coffee and jittery stomach had taken their toll.  As I started walking back, I rounded a corner and distantly heard a familiar voice, more accurately a gasp.

"Oh shit.  Oh sh-i-i-i-i-i-t. . . ."

It was my ex-spouse.  We had been married for twenty-five years when I asked for a divorce in 2007, and she had known I was transgender for seventeen of those years.  To keep our marriage together, I had kept my word and had done all I could to turn my back on my own self.  I had done it for love, for her, for our son, and for myself, even believing that the psychiatrists of 1990 might be right, that there is no such thing as a transsexual, that I was deluded by a phantom.  In all those years, my spouse had never seen me as Robyn.

I found Elyse and my sisters.  We went into the courtroom, my sisters sitting in the back and Elyse and I sitting at our table.  My ex-spouse and her attorney came in a minute later.  Then the judge entered and took his place.  Entirely laid back, he started into an amiable chat with Elyse and the opposing attorney.  This went on for several minutes before he got to the business of the day.

"There is no reason this case should be in my court."  That was the essence of what the judge had to say.  "We can go to trial later this morning if that's what we must do, but first I want you to try one last round of negotiating."  My appearance did not phase him in he least.

The judge sent us off to separate rooms.  Over the next two hours, the attorneys shuttled back and forth, the judge serving as arbiter.  When my ex-spouse's attorney would enter our room, he could not bring himself to look at me.  He would avert his gaze or look fixedly at Elyse, doing everything he could not to look in my direction.

Things began to move.  The opposing position that had been frozen into a stance of no negotiation three weeks earlier began to soften and flow.  Back and forth, yes, no, and how much and for how long?  A lump sum?  A buyout?  Well, maybe.  Why not?  How much?

In the end that's what we did.  We threw out the old agreement that called for monthly support until I was age 65 and replaced it with a lump sum payment.  It would be a hefty payment, over $200,000 out of my retirement savings, but it would be over.  Doing the math in my head, I realized that this would almost the same as the agreement advocated by the settlement judge three weeks earlier, the only difference being that this would be a lump sum instead of a monthly payment.  I could live with this.  Deal.

The negotiating over, we went back to the courtroom.  The judge was just as amiable as he had been earlier, if anything more so.  He summarized the agreement.  My ex-spouse stood and affirmed her agreement.  Then it was my turn.  I stood before the judge in my long skirt and said yes, I agree.  It was over.

My sisters rushed forward and hugged me.  Then I hugged Elyse.  The torment that had lasted nearly four years and that had followed me across oceans and continents had come to a final, negotiated end on June 1, 2011.  It was over.

My ex-spouse and her attorney were gone in a flash.  My sisters, Elyse, and I walked out of the courthouse into the light of a beautiful spring day.  There were more hugs and even a tear or two before we parted, Elyse to her next case of the day, and my sisters and I to find a restaurant where we could celebrate.

So what had happened?  Had Elyse's strategy worked?  I'll never know, of course, but I think it did.  My personal theory is that one look at me had convinced my ex-spouse and her attorneys that I had gone completely out of my mind and that it was better to take what they could get today rather than risk finding me out of work and in a psychiatric ward in a year.  You know.  "A bird in hand is better than two in the bush."

As relieved as I was, I was also conscious of how much material wealth I had lost.  The family home had gone to my ex-spouse, leaving me with a dilapidated cabin in northern Maine.  At age 57 I was left with less than $100,000 in retirement savings, and half of my defined-benefit retirement would go to my ex-spouse.  My four-year legal bill to Elyse and her firm amounted to nearly $70,000.  

"Don't walk the transition path unless you are prepared to lose everything."  That is what a friend had told me several months earlier.  In the material sense she had been right.

But none of that mattered anymore, and it was the furthest thing from my mind as my sisters and I celebrated on that early June afternoon.  My sisters had accepted me, and more and more friends in Bucharest and in the US had embraced me.  I had gained everything.

I knew that much depended on one more important conversation that must take place, but this could wait until tomorrow.  For the remainder of that happy June 1, I floated weightlessly in the glow of my sisters' love and celebration.  A new future I had dreamed of longingly and achingly decades earlier beckoned.  I had become myself.

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

Follow these links for more of the retrospective story: 
Previous entry -- Stepping Out in Bucharest -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 5
Following entry -- My Guy, My Son -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 7

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