Saturday, July 21, 2012

3F@RM's, Stepbystep_ts, and Our Transsexual Summer

Friday, July 20, was another 3F@RM's event.  That's Third Friday at RM's if you prefer.  Last October I decided it was time to start a tradition in Bucharest.  Although I had already met a number of transgender women and men in Romania, I found no support network, commonality of purpose, or even a tradition of getting together to talk about life and be oneself.  Don't get me wrong.  I wasn't thinking of myself as the American big sister who had come to impose.  It was just the opposite.  I was the one who wanted to learn from others, from their experiences, from their life stories.  If that meant starting a tradition, so be it!

It took awhile for 3F@RM's to get off the ground.  In the beginning it was more a RM and Raluca evening, as Raluca was the only one who came.  In March more people started to appear, and now we are up to about a half dozen or so regulars, both MtF and FtM and sometimes significant others and allies.  Last night was more a mid-summer party than support evening as we grilled meat on skewers and filled plates with potato salad and baked beans before getting the chilled Romanian beer from the fridge.  After all the work that had gone into Bucharest Pride in June, it was time to unwind and celebrate.  In the fall we hope to talk about documents, medical care, and other serious issues, but this 3F@RM's was just for fun.

I had lots of help for this 3F@RM's in the person of PE.  If OD has become a sister, than PE has become my lovely daughter.  She is only a week younger than my son, studies the same math that I once used as an attitude analyst for Hubble Space Telescope, plays classical and modern guitar, and is a whiz with computer graphics design.  Have you noticed the makeover of Transgender in State's layout over the past week?  That was all PE's work.

PE is also transgender, and when I see her, I see myself as I was in college in the mid-1970's.  (See Wahoo Wa! -- or -- So How Far Back Does This Go (Part 3).)  She is dealing with the same issues today that I failed to deal with then in a society that is only slightly more evolved on transgender acceptance than was the US then.  PE lives with her parents in Targoviste, a provincial city about fifty miles or so northwest of Bucharest.  She works in computer support for a European company that established itself in Romania because of the inexpensive but highly educated workforce.  PE is also nearing the end of undergraduate studies at a major Bucharest university, having completed almost all of her coursework on-line.  There's no two ways about it, PE is smart.

Three weeks ago PE wrote and said she would soon be coming to Bucharest for her university exams.  Could she stay with me for two weeks instead of at the university dorm?  Well, of course you can!  In fact I would have felt awful to think of PE in a sweltering dormitory room just a twenty minute walk from me in this hot Bucharest summer.

And so it is that I now have a daughter.  It's been delightful to come home at the end of each workday and fix dinner together.  When PE is not studying and I'm not at work, we've found time to have friends over, go to an outdoor performance of As You Like It, and talk about the challenges of being transgender.

PE's mother, father, and brother in Targoviste all know she is transgender . . . and are doing everything they can to stop her.  The pressures on PE in a small city where everyone knows everyone else's business are enormous.  PE's dream is to move to Bucharest when her studies are complete, find work here, and live her life fully as herself.

PE is also a future leader.  She sat quietly in the audience at the transgender digital video conference we held at the U.S. Embassy last month.  (See Proudly from Bucharest.)  She listened as Mara Keisling spoke about the National Center for Transgender Equality in the US, thought about what she had heard, and decided it was time to do something.  Together with OD-1 and Gabriela Gribis, she started a new Facebook page called Stepbystep_ts with the stated purpose of bringing together the transgender communities of Romania and Moldova.  It's in Romanian and Russian, but you will find occasional postings in English from the likes of me.  Speaking of liking, do go to Stepbystep_ts, click on like, and leave a few words of support.  What I was trying to do with 3F@RM's, PE is now doing with Stepbystep_ts.

This has also been Our Transsexual Summer.  Together PE and I have watched more transgender and transsexual videos and movies than I knew existed. That included the British series My Transsexual Summer about a group house of transgender men and women helping each other through transition.  In a way, PE and I have done the same over the past two weeks, transgender mother and daughter cooking dinner together, entertaining friends, and helping each other on the road of life.  

PE heads back to Targoviste tomorrow and to the difficult reality of non-accepting family and friends.  She has a long road ahead, but she has already shown far more courage and achieved more on the transgender road than I ever did in the mid-1970s.  I'm proud of you, daughter, and I'm going to miss you even as I head to the US for vacation in seven days.  Stay well, stay safe, do better and go further than I ever did, and come back soon.  Your bedroom is ready and waiting.

* * * * * * * * * *

I'll be on vacation and in training until the end of August, so please excuse me as Transgender in State goes on vacation also.  I'll me in Maine for much of the time and plan to have fingers that are covered in butter from lobster and summer sweet corn.  I also plan to catch up on my reading, kayaking, and communing with my sisters on lazy Maine summer afternoons.  I'll put my writer's fingers back to keyboard when the plane touches down again in Bucharest.  Until then, I wish all my readers love, success, acceptance, and the peace and joy of a summer fully lived.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Looking for Spa Therapy

Three months of planning and then living Pride Month in Bucharest are behind me.  The year 2012 is beginning to divide nicely into quarters with no forethought on my part.  From January through March I concentrated on voice.  It was a good way to spend the long, snowy winter in Romania, and it was the best possible use of time and money.  There will always be more work to do, but today no one ever mistakes my voice as anything other than that of a woman.  Given the expense of transition, the money and effort one puts into voice comes off as a relative bargain.

April, May, and June went to Pride.  So what comes next for this transgender Foreign Service Officer (FSO)?

The answer, dear friends, is that I'm looking for a spa where I can receive SPA therapy.  I wish I could have invented the term spa therapy, but full credit belongs to Caroline in the UK, whose web journal Time Regained has been an enjoyable means for me to learn from the experience of someone several years ahead of me on the road to transition.  In Caroline's phrase, SPA is an acronym standing for sexual preference adjustment.  Gender confirmation surgery (GCS) is a much softer description of the process we go through than is the clinical sounding phrase sexual reassignment surgery (SRS).  Although Caroline's name includes the word sexual, I like it for its whimsical take on what is a very complex medical procedure.  I do like the thought of looking not for a surgeon but rather a special type of spa.

For those who have been reading and wondering, the answer is that I do intend to go for spa therapy.  I have been researching, reading, and corresponding for several months now, much longer if you add that I was reading and researching as early as 1975.  It's just that this time there is nothing distant, out-of-reach, or hypothetical about my research.  My intent is to check in at the spa of my choice early next year not only for GCS but perhaps also for some degree of facial feminization surgery (FFS).  I have already put in for six weeks of medical leave, and my finances will be in order, albeit just barely.  One benefit of having lived through an expensive legal crisis in 2007-11 is that I learned to live on very little and have been able to save funds for surgery faster than I have ever saved in my life.

The question is, which spa should I choose?  It didn't take me long to narrow down the geographic options.  There are only two locations I would consider:  Philadelphia and Thailand.  Three of the best known GCS surgeons in the US happen to be in the Philadelphia area:  Dr. Sherman Leis (, Dr. Kathy Rumer, and Dr. Christine McGinn.  I will see all three of them when I'm in the US on vacation in early August.  I have already corresponded or talked directly with all three, and I find reasons to like each of them.  Dr. Leis is the most senior of the three.  My friend Shannon went to him for GCS several years ago and has told me of her experience with him -- all of it positive -- in great detail.  Dr. Kathy Rumer (http://rumercosmetics.comhad a first career working for Lockheed, and since I worked on the Lockheed-built Hubble Space Telescope for longer than I've worked on anything in my career, I feel there is something appropriate about one former engineer putting herself in the hands of another for surgery.  Dr. Christine McGinn ( herself transitioned from male to female, which gives her an insider's understanding of the entire experience.

Thailand offers a smorgasbord of options ranging from cheap and scary to as expensive and good as surgery in the US.  One or two of them may be better than any U.S. surgeon.  I began by contacting several of the Thai surgeons, but with time I whittled the pool down to two:  Dr. Sanguan Kunaporn in Phukett ( and Dr. Suporn Watanyusakul in Chonburi (

All of the surgeons I am considering have excellent reputations and almost always ecstatically happy patients. The U.S. surgeons, as I understand it, all practice the standard penile inversion method of vaginoplasty.  This technique has been around since the beginning and was even being performed at the University of Virginia's medical center when I was a university student the mid-1970s.  The essence is obvious from the name:  a vagina is created by inverting the penis, a clitoris is created using the head of the penis, and scrotal tissue is used to create the labia.  The Thai surgeons have all developed their own variations on the standard technique, and Dr. Suporn has turned everything on its head with his non-penile technique that uses scrotal skin to line the new vagina and creates the labia from penile material.

My thinking on each of the five surgeons has cycled several times.  Each has been No. 1 on my list at least once.  I find good arguments in favor of each and in the end will decide based on the best information I will have at hand on the day I commit.  That day will come very soon now, no later than mid-August, as almost all the surgeons I named have waiting lists of 3-6 months or longer.  Thus surgery in February 2013 dictates that I reach my decision next month.

And why, you ask, do I feel I must check in at the spa of my choice in early 2013?  The answer is elementary, Dear Watson:  the Foreign Service rotation cycle.  In Romania I have a support system both at work and in all of my life that will be very important in my early weeks and months of recovery.  I expect to leave Romania for good in June 2013 and will then take up a one-year assignment in Washington, DC, where my support, as wonderful as it is, is not as developed and all-encompassing as it is in Romania.  Moreover, I don't want to inform my new supervisor on my first day of work that, "Hey, I thought you should know that I plan to request six weeks of leave for GCS surgery later this year."  Life will be simpler and healthier all around if I complete GCS months before I depart from Romania.

Then there is the small matter of medical clearance, which all of us must have as FSOs posted overseas.  Even small medical matters can lead to one's clearance being reduced or removed, so this also dictates that I complete GCS well before going overseas again, presumably after the completion of my Washington assignment in mid-2014.  By completing GCS in early 2013, I will have nearly a year and a half of recovery behind me before I must again go before a medical clearance board.  That should be enough to satisfy the concerns of any doctor on the board about post-operative complications that might happen while I'm posted, let's say, to Tajikistan or some other country far removed from Western hospitals.

Finally there is the matter of the emotional experience and support.  If I choose to have surgery in Philadelphia, then I know I can count on two of my sisters, several friends, and my son, all of whom live in the Washington area.  If I choose Thailand, then I will need to factor in the expense of paying for a friend to go with me as support.  You may be surprised to hear that I do not consider this to be a negative side of opting for surgery in Thailand.  Whether this applies to me or not, a friend by correspondence reminded me that no matter how much one's close family is supportive, for them GCS may still have overtones of being the final stage in a dying rather than a moment for celebration.  Also, at several of the Thai clinics, GCS surgery is a communal experience as people come from around the world to complete one of the important final steps in their medical journeys to a new life.

Decisions, decisions.  Stay tuned, dear friends, as Robyn enters this third quarter of 2012, the first half of which will be dominated by medical correspondence, in-person consultations, and an ever more detailed spreadsheet to compare and contrast.  In the end, however, I already know each of the surgeons I have listed is excellent.  From there I enter into the realm of imponderables and feelings where the heart rules as much as the head.

I can already see it.  On the evening of August 7, my in-person consultations done, I will board a midnight train in Philadelphia for a fourteen hour journey north to my adopted state of Maine.  By the time New York has slipped behind me and we cross into New England, I will have made my choice.

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

To learn the decision I reached regarding my destination for spa therapy, see Turning to the East.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Proudly from Bucharest

It may be July, but I am still beautifully albeit exhaustedly aglow with the spirit of Pride Month.

June was the first true Pride Month of my life.  In June of last year I was already "out" in the US and was invited to participate in the Washington Pride March.  I missed it because my flight back to Bucharest was a week prior.  The Bucharest Pride March had taken place the week before my return, and in any case it was still just a small circle of Embassy people that was in the know about my transition.  Thus this year, 2012, was my first.

I also found myself at the head of our all-volunteer Pride planning committee at the Embassy.  We had our first meetings in March.  I remember well how one Friday evening we met together at my place to lay out plans.  We in this case included Kevin and Rob from the Embassy, Andrew and Tibbi from the British Embassy, and Irina Nita and and Daniela Pri from ACCEPT, the Romanian LGBT rights organization.  When we were done and everyone had departed, I stood in front of my wall calendar and went pale to think how much we had just committed ourselves to accomplish in only three months.  I went paler still to think how much I had committed myself to.

But you know what?  We did it all.  Everything we sketched out in March came to pass and succeeded beyond my wildest hopes for this, my first-ever foray into LGBT outreach and activism.

The month began with a bang at the U.S. Embassy.  Dozens of high school students gathered that day for a digital video conference (DVC) on bullying in high schools.  Dozens more students joined in via video link from American Corners in other Romanian cities.  From the US, an educator from the Fairfax, VA, public school system spoke about how bullying is being handled in the US, and she fielded questions from our very involved and interested Romanian audience.  The idea for the DVC came from Rob, and it was Eddie from our Cultural Affairs office who brilliantly carried out all planning and execution.  It was a great way to begin the month.

Next was the regional LGBT conference in Tirana that I wrote about in my previous post.  Romanian activists Tudor Kovacs and Alexandra Carastoian went with me to a workshop that none of us will forget soon.  Putting together my presentation took me two weeks of evenings to get right.

Back from Tirana, I put the finishing touches on an op-ed for our Ambassador.  We had a great starting point in a brilliant editorial written by a colleague in Sofia.  Kevin and Eddie made our own changes and did deletions and additions to make it relevant to Romania.  It was published under the Ambassador's signature on June 29, the day before the Pride March.  Kevin and I wrote two Pride Month articles for our own internal Embassy newsletter.

My biggest days personally were June 26-27.  Tudor had received PEPFAR and other funding to hold a day conference on transgender issues on the 26th.  A dozen transgender men and women from across Romania along with OD from Moldova gathered in Bucharest, their first meeting as a group since the transgender congress in Brasov in March of last year.  

Most stayed the night and came to the Embassy the next afternoon to be in the audience for a transgender DVC.  A 3-person panel consisting of Mara Keisling from the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), Valerie Meyer from the Department of Justice, and Martha Harris from the Banyan Counseling Center had gathered early in the morning at the State Department in Washington, DC, for this 90-minute DVC.  On this Bucharest afternoon we had a similar 3-person Romanian panel covering equality, legal, and mental health issues.  Irina Nita covered equality in the large, while a Romanian attorney covered legal issues and Iulia Molnar from ACCEPT covered mental health.  In fact, the Romanian attorney joined us not in Bucharest but via video link from Embassy London, thus making this a 3-way DVC.  Our Bucharest audience also had a chance to ask questions directly of the experts.

I was nervous before the DVC.  This had been my solo project.  Would it work?  As is usual for me, I became calm only as I opened the DVC and introduced all the participants.  When I introduced Mara, I said that I believed this to be the first such DVC every conducted at a U.S. Embassy, but I added with a smile that I hoped Mara might contradict me.  She didn't.  For the next 90 minutes we discussed the issues, made contacts, and began to give our young transgender audience a glimmer of an understanding of what can be achieved in the struggle for transgender rights when people work together.  The DVC may only have been an "introduction to an introduction," but it achieved my goal of introducing my transgender Romanian friends to conditions in the US.  I hope it also inspired them.

When the DVC was over, almost everyone headed straight to the Ambassador's residence for an evening reception in honor of Pride Month.  I had started putting together the guest list nearly two months earlier to include both LGBT activists and community members along with political, social, and even religious leaders.  All-in-all about 75 people came, about twice the number who had come to the previous year's reception hosted by the British Embassy.  (Indeed, this was the first time that the U.S. Embassy had hosted a Pride reception.)  We began with a showing of Secretary Clinton's Pride Month message, after which both our Ambassador and the British Ambassador delivered remarks.  I had goosebumps when I looked around at my Romanian LGBT friends.  I knew most of them had never expected to be a guest at such a reception hosted by the U.S. Ambassador.  From that point and continuing for the next three days, I became teary eyed again and again to think that we had done it and were part of something bigger than ourselves.

The high-point of Pride Month in Bucharest was the entire last week of June, known here as GayFest.  There were events every day all around the city.  I again participated as a book in a living library.  David Tiser from the Czech Republic came to show his film Roma Boys to a standing room only audience.  (Did I ever mention that I actually did succeed in writing a report on what it means to be both Roma and gay?)  The Friday evening screening of the British film Becoming Penny about the transition experience of Penny Panagi was a personal high point.  Penny herself had come to Bucharest, and I regretted only not having met her a few days earlier to bring her into our Bucharest transgender events.

Getting Ready to March
Finally the big day had come.  In the late afternoon on Saturday the 30th, somewhere between 200 and 250 of us gathered in downtown Bucharest for the Pride March.  That may sound small, but remember that Pride marches in Bucharest began only in the mid-2000s.  In past years they were marked by counter-demonstrations and even violent outbursts from those opposed to LGBT rights.  The police presence was heavy, but as we looked around at the sidewalks, we saw that passers-by were waving and smiling.  We relaxed, smiled, and waved our rainbow flags as the samba drums and music began.  Over a dozen of us from the Embassy joined our Ambassador behind a banner whose design I had stolen from the lovely banner used at the Tirana LGBT workshop just two weeks earlier.  Loredana, sometimes known as the Romanian Madonna and this year the first-ever Romanian LGBT Ambassador, marched side-by-side with our Ambassador at the start of the march.

We March (Ambassador and Libby at the left; Loredana to my right)
That's when my joyful tears really began.  Our little committee had done it.  In just three months of volunteer work, we had put our U.S. Embassy at the front of the parade.  Kevin, who had done so very much to make this happen, carried one end of our banner.

Irina Nita
And my Romanian friends had accomplished more than any of us.  I looked around and saw Tudor shining and dancing with his Eu Sunt!  Tu? flag.  Raluca was there, proudly wearing the emblem designating her as a parade marshal.  There walked Irina and Daniela from ACCEPT, both looking exhausted but beautifully happy.  Irina and Tudor spoke to the crowd, and Loredana performed.  Michael Cashman, an openly gay British member of the European Parliament, took the podium to speak inspiring words of hope and acceptance.  I looked around at my American and Romanian friends in this crowd, so many of whom have played a direct role in the transformation of my own life.  My tears came again as our rainbow cloud of balloons took to flight.  What a joy it is to be alive, to have become myself fully and openly, and to be part of this Bucharest Pride.

Tudor Carries the Flag


Kevin (right foreground)


Greetings to all of you, my friends and readers.  Robyn from Bucharest wishes for you that the spirit of Pride remain in your hearts and minds all through the year to come.  Peace.