Sunday, December 22, 2013

JFK, LBJ, and Their Gift to Me

I am from that generation.  I am one of those who remembers where she was on the afternoon of Friday, November 22, 1963.  I was in fourth grade.  It being a Friday afternoon, I was at release time religious instruction at the parochial school in nearby Spring Valley, NY.  I remember the mother superior coming to the door of our classroom and telling us that the President had been shot.  She asked us to stand and say a prayer.  By the time the bus had brought us back to our public school, it was all over.  The President was dead.  The school closed early, and we all went home.  My mom was sick that day and asleep when I got there.  When I woke her and told her the news, she didn't believe me.  Surely I had misunderstood, she said.  Then she turned on the television.  It stayed on.  Like most Americans, our family cried and prayed for four days.  There is a photo of me in the Nyack Journal News kneeling and praying at St. Joseph's Church.  All thoughts of Thanksgiving were gone.

In 1961 JFK had declared that "this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth."  The space race captured my imagination and ultimately gave me my first career.  (See Always an Attitude Analyst.)  I hung on every launch, even recording them on our family's reel-to-reel tape recorder.  I spent early evenings in wonder and awe just to look up at the sky and see the faint river of the Milky Way that was still visible from Rockland County, NY, in those years.

Whether JFK had the makings of a great President is something for the historians to ponder, but he did inspire the young people of my generation.  Not even quite seven years old, I remember his inauguration speech in 1961.  I remember the palpable fear of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the rise of the Berlin Wall, and JFK's Ich bin ein Berliner speech.  The Vietnam War was already a rumble but one that was still distant to my ears.  The civil rights marches in the American South were something we heard and read about, but they seemed distant to our middle class white suburb of New York City.  What washed over me and my young friends was the dashing image of the handsome young President with the beautiful wife who was leading us boldly into the New Frontier.

On the fiftieth anniversary of JFK's assassination last month, both CBS and NBC streamed their four days of 1963 coverage over the Internet.  I found myself transported back in time as I watched again the TV images I remembered from my childhood.  How old those images now seem, how ancient the technology that relied on telephones and film.  How soothing it was to hear again the voice of Walter Cronkite, our Uncle Walter, try to guide a grieving nation through its torment.  There were long, unrehearsed interviews -- something one can scarcely imagine today -- with politicians and citizens both low and high.  People seemed to speak their mind with little concern over the proper spin.  There was something almost naive about the discourse.

The more I watched, however, the more I realized there was something missing.  None of the newscasters were women, and almost no women were to be found among those interviewed.  Even Jackie Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson were presented more as supportive adjuncts of their husbands than as independent beings.  Almost no African Americans were to be seen.  The world belonged to white men, and no one from the mainstream media of the day was questioning whether there was anything amiss in this norm.

Like many of my generation, I associate JFK's passing with the start of our country's descent into Vietnam.  I watched the anti-war demonstrations grow around me.  The Tet Offensive came in 1968, to be followed shortly thereafter by LBJ's unexpected declaration that he would neither seek nor accept the Democratic nomination for another term as President.  As JFK's successor, LBJ had failed in our young eyes, and no one was sorry to see him go even if what followed was only a continuing descent into Nixon, Watergate, and disillusion.

On the final evening of re-watching the 1963 coverage last month, I unexpectedly had to reach for tissue as tears filled my eyes.  No, it wasn't memories of the slain young President that brought tears this time.  Rather, it was an offhand comment from a newscaster of that day wondering what would become of the civil rights legislation that JFK had proposed earlier that year.  With the young President gone, would the legislation be passed?

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was JFK's gift to me.  Like most white, middle class Americans, for decades I was aware that the Civil Rights Act was a good thing that was needed to address the wrongs done to black Americans in the South and throughout even our supposedly more liberal North.  If JFK had lived, would the legislation have been passed by our U.S. House and Senate?  There are those who think that it may not have or that at least it would not have passed without significant changes.

Enter LBJ.  Just days after JFK's assassination, he addressed a joint session of Congress with the words, "No memorial or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights act for which he fought so long."  The consummate politician, LBJ pushed the legislation through both houses of Congress.  He signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964.  Journalist Bill Moyers, then a White House aide, says he came upon LBJ that evening and found him in a melancholy mood.  According to Moyers, LBJ predicted that "we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come."  Even without Vietnam, LBJ may have sacrificed his own political career to the furtherance of civil rights in the US of the 1960s.

Lyndon Johnson Signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into Law
Little noticed at the time, Howard W. Smith, an opponent of the Civil Rights Act, had slipped in an additional element that neither JFK nor LBJ had envisioned:  a prohibition against discrimination based on sex.  Some say that Smith may have wanted to torpedo the legislation by inserting something no one would agree to at the time; others say he was a true believer and promoter of equal rights for women.  Whatever the motivation, Smith's insertion was preserved in the final version, enshrined in Title VII that prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

As a young person in the 1960s, I took no notice Title VII and its prohibition.  I doubt I was aware of it at all.  Today, however, it is a text that I read with reverence as it is this document, perhaps more than any other, that has made my life possible.

No document in U.S. political life, not even the Constitution, is frozen in time.  All are subject to interpretation.  This is what happened with Title VII.  In a series of legal actions in the1970s and 1980s, courts found that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination and is, therefore, prohibited under Title VII.  Supplemental legislation added discrimination based on pregnancy, age, or disability to the list of prohibitions.  Then, just last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found in Macy v. Holder that discrimination based on gender identity is also a form of sex discrimination subject to Title VII remedies.  

It was shortly after the announcement of my transition in 2011 that the old EEO notices at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest came down, replaced by the new version with the following text:

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, prohibits discrimination in hiring, promotion, discharge, pay, fringe benefits, job training, classification, referral, and other aspects of employment, on the basis of race, color, religion, sex (includes pregnancy, gender identity and gender stereotypes) and/or national origin.
There, boldly proclaimed on bulletin boards throughout the U.S. federal government, is that most important text that gives me my right to exist, to live my life finally without fear of harassment in the workplace, of losing my job or career.  I still get a shiver of joy when I read those lines even as I know that there is still a long road ahead to outlaw discrimination based on gender identity at both the state level and nationally.

Did either JFK or LBJ know that the civil rights legislation they were calling for in 1963 would later be interpreted in a way that provides transgender protections?  I highly doubt it.  Better to say, "Of course not!"  The word transgender didn't exist yet, and the few public transsexuals were seen by the public at large as oddities at best and usually as something far worse.  If someone had been able to explain the implications to them in the context of their day of how this legislation would be interpreted in the decades to come, JFK and LBJ may even have recoiled.  Still, as the intelligent and far seeing men that both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson were, they may have paused after that initial reaction in the knowledge that the New Frontier and Great Society applied not only to the space race and competition with the Soviet Union but to all imaginable facets of the human condition.  In my imagination, I see that knowledge bringing a smile to their faces.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  More than my first career as a spacecraft attitude analyst, this is the gift that JFK and LBJ gave to me.  It is the gift that gave me the freedom, at long last, to live my life.  As the memories of 1963 fade again into the present, I smile warmly and give humble thanks.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

November: What I've Gained

It's a chilly evening in Washington.  At about 10pm you would have seen me walking past the White House as I made my way to work on the 11pm to 7am shift at the State Department.  I had just come from an event celebrating the tenth anniversary of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE).  For the previous three hours I had sipped red wine and listened and watched as Mara Keisling, Chloe Schwenke, and a number of my other idols in the transgender equality movement spoke and were honored.  As I walked along Pennsylvania Avenue under a bright autumn moon, I had to pause in front of the White House and feel that chill that came not from the cold but from sheer exhilaration.  I'm really here!  I'm really me!  How wondrous to have lived to see this day, this time of acceptance that I thought I would never see in my lifetime!

Last weekend marked the second anniversary of the announcement of my transition at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest.  It's the day I now consider my birthday, and congratulations flowed in from around the world.  Just in time, I received a long-awaited document from the State of New York:  my amended birth certificate.  It now records that I was born Robyn Ann Jane Alice McCutcheon, female, in Nyack, New York, in a year when Eisenhower was President.  With that, the long train of fundamental document changes has reached its end.  Holding the birth certificate in my hands, I feel that official validation that what I always knew was true is now recorded as a matter of public record.

Enough about loss.  (See November:  What I've Lost.)  So what have I gained through transition?  It's not as easy a question to answer as you might think.  Might as well ask a fish what she has gained by being put in water.  What can one say when everything finally feels natural, when one can finally breathe one's fill just like a fish in water?

That moment of exhilaration in front of the White House captures it.  I'm really here!  In decades past I would have walked down Pennsylvania Avenue with a knot somewhere in my stomach, my eyes downcast.  Having a knot in my stomach was my natural state, a condition that would loosen only when I could escape to the mountains.  There was a jumble of fear, depression, and the self-imposed dictate of sheer will that I must go on as I am because that is the only choice.

All of that is gone now.  I no longer have that knot in the stomach.  I have forgotten what it feels like to have it.  I enjoy life now.  Even the most trivial daily tasks that once were drudgery now bring pleasure.

Confidence.  With the knot in the stomach gone, I no longer fear the future.  Where I used to plan obsessively, I now go forth each day with a lightness of thought, a confidence that I am ready for whatever the day might bring.  The time for living is now, in this moment.

Mirrors.  I used to hate them.  Without intending to sound vain, I can say that today I enjoy looking at my own reflection.  It's the reflection I always thought should be looking back at me.

Voice.  Could my voice ever have been different than it is today?  Those old recordings of someone with a bass voice claiming to be me must be a forgery.  I can't imitate that voice today even if I wanted to.  It's gone, wonderfully gone.  The voice I speak with now is the only natural voice I could ever have had.

Friends.  I had very few in my old life.  Today, friends along with my sisters and my son make up my large extended family.  Most of all, I treasure having girlfriends the way women treasure having girlfriends.  Whether it's for coffee, a phone chat, or a long walk, time for girlfriends is a nearly sacred matter.

The Future.  I remember sitting in my office at Computer Sciences Corporation in 1978 and estimating the number of days until my retirement, the day I could escape and be alone.  I really did that.  I just wanted to get through life, do what I was supposed to do, and get to the end of it when the pain would go away.  Now it's as though I have finally started living, each day, week, month, and year an increment of time to be treasured and enjoyed.

It is wonderful to be two years old with my life still fully open before me.  A life I never thought I could have is now mine.  In comparison, all that I lost through transition fades to insignificance.  It's a beautiful time to be alive, to walk past the White House under a bright moon and feel that exhilaration of being a woman with her future and all roads open to her.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

November: What I've Lost

November, the month that brings both Transgender Day of Remembrance and Thanksgiving, is a time for reflection.  It is also my anniversary, which this year marks year two since the public announcement of my transition at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest.  It is a good opportunity to take stock of what I've lost, what I've gained, and what has remained the same.

What have I lost?  Compared with too many persons who pay with their lives, I've fared remarkably, almost miraculously well.  Still, viewed from a cisgender perspective, the perspective of someone who has not spent a lifetime confronting the reality of being transgender, the price has been high.  In financial terms alone, I have lost a year's salary, most of my life savings, and almost all real estate and physical property of value to the divorce that immediately preceded my transition.  The medical price tag for counseling, hormone replacement therapy, electrolysis, voice therapy, gender confirmation surgery, and facial feminization surgery amounts to almost another two thirds of a year's salary.  The financial picture for a person whom social security views as age 55+ is bleak.

I have also lost considerably in terms of career advancement.  If one views my move from Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) to the State Department as a first step on the transition road, that was already a big down step.  At CSC I was a Senior Computer Scientist, the equivalent of an FS-01 on the State Department's scale.  I joined State in 2004 as an FS-04, the rough CSC equivalent of an MTSB/A but the highest level at which it is possible to enter.  I received tenure and was promoted to FS-03, the equivalent to SMTS at CSC, in 2007, the shortest possible time for tenure and promotion at State.  

I have been frozen at that position for six years now and see no prospect for further advancement for at least another 2-3 years.  Why?  I detoured from the career path in Romania, doing a down stretch to an out-of-the-way, nearly invisible FS-04 technical position.  This was a logical step for someone who was about to transition and who was worried how her transition would be perceived.  The fact that I later did significant human rights reporting on LGBT issues is scarcely visible to the blind promotion panels that meet annually in Washington.  My current position is at-grade FS-03 but is one that is widely seen as having little promotion value.  It's career virtue to me is that I could get the position at all after having committed career suicide in Romania.  It gets me reasonably positioned to put me back on the career path in the few years that are left to me in this career.

That career price is the direct sum of the costs of the individual decisions I took along the transition path.  Each cost is almost physical, tangible, but there are no regrets.  The decisions were my own.

Other costs fall into a misty area of gray.  Am I seen differently post-transition?  Are my abilities evaluated differently?  For example, in 2004 I tested at 4 in Russian on a 0-to-5 scale.  In 2007 I re-tested at 4+.  This year I tested again but was awarded only a 3+.  Had my Russian fluency slipped during two and a half years in Romania?  Probably.  By that much?  I think not.  Could the fact that I was wearing a dress and speaking with a very different voice in 2013 have played a role?  Perhaps, but we are in the realm of the unprovable, the intangible.

Male privilege.  Perhaps I rarely or never exercised the options that came with it, but male privilege lay upon me like an un-sensed cloak.  Only now that it has been removed do I know it was there.  My auto insurance rate went up.  Not by much, but it did go up.  My softer, feminine voice does not automatically command the same respect from strangers.  If I am with a man in a restaurant, the waiter pays attention first to the man.  At a restaurant last week, our waitress walked away after taking my partner's drink order, completely failing to take notice of my presence.

Personal freedom is not what it used to be.  I fight this, but even so, I know there are places I should not go, places where I should not be alone, especially at night.

Physical strength has changed.  I still have the strong legs of a bicyclist, but young men now routinely pass me on the road.  Upper body strength, never very great, is diminished.  Rings and bracelets that were tight when I began transition now fit well.  Some are even loose.

Friends and colleagues.  To my delight I have lost very few, but there have been some.  A friend who chose me to be best man at his wedding in 1982 dropped contact in 1990 when he learned my secret.  A NASA friend did the same in 2011.  Most of all, I regret the loss of a Russian colleague with whom I worked closely as a historian.  "I will never be able to accept this," she replied when I wrote to her of my transition two years ago.  She still has not.  I remember her fondly when I look at publications and even a short documentary film that carry both our names.

November, a month for reflection.  As the leaves fall, I think about what I've lost.  As the autumn chill deepens to the white flakes of winter, my thoughts turn to what I've gained.  I'll write about that next time.  (See November:  What I've Gained.)

Monday, October 21, 2013

Our Exclusive Halloween Ogre Visits Again

The leaves are falling, blanketing the parks of Washington with their gold and red.  The breezes bring a chill now as the days shorten. . . .

Wait a second, didn't I write something much like that a year ago?  Let's see, there was To Peris(h) by Bicycle, Autumn Comes to 45-deg N, and what was it?  Oh yes, An Exclusive Halloween Ogre Just for Us!

Halloween is in the air once more.  It is again the time of witches, fairy princesses, hobos, Boo Radley, and the Hollywood fantasies of a childhood younger than mine.  It is the time when I am again reminded of the transgender exclusion, that special ogre that visits transgender women, men, and children of all ages in the form of exclusionary clauses in medical insurance policies.  In macabre fashion, these clauses deny coverage of medical procedures that are in any way connected with or, in the eyes of insurance providers, a consequence of gender transition.  

In many cases, the services being denied to transgender persons – such as estrogen or testosterone medications, hysterectomies, or mastectomies – are regularly being provided to others who are not transgender.  It is not uncommon for an insurance provider to deny coverage for claims for gender-specific care based on the person's gender marker on file with insurance.  For example, insurance may deny coverage to a transgender woman who develops prostate cancer.

The transgender exclusion brings consequences that may extend years beyond transition.  A provider may deny coverage for a heart condition if it decides that this condition was in any way transition-related.  My own provider, the Foreign Service Benefit Plan underwritten by Coventry, now routinely questions every claim whether it is directly related to my transition or not.

Last year I wrote of the growing list of progressive public and private employers who now offer medical policies without transgender exclusions  to their employees.  In the Washington, DC, area, American University is just the most recent addition to this list.  (See  Almost all employers that now provide transition-related coverage report that there has been little or no increase in premiums.  (See )

"Has the U.S. Government (USG) joined this group of progressive employers over the past twelve months?"  I'm glad you asked.  
Alas, I regret to report that the transgender exclusion is still alive and healthily flexing his muscle in the FEHB plans offered to federal employees.  Sigh.  As equal employment opportunity and workforce diversity policies have progressed, health insurance has remained quaintly in the age of disco.
What I wrote a year ago still applies.  The answer has not changed, nor, I am given to understand, will it be any different in Federal Employee Health Benefit policies for 2014.

"Why has there been no change?" you ask.

"I don't know," your humble servant replies.

Unlike a year ago, however, I am now in a position to do something more than just wring my hands.  I am president of Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA).  We have written a white paper on the transgender exclusion in which we present all the arguments why this clause is discriminatory and must be removed.  We will be presenting this white paper to highly placed officials within the agencies whose LGBT employees are represented by GLIFAA.  We will be requesting that these agencies go on record with the Office of Personnel Management as favoring the exclusion's removal.  

Will this work?  We don't know, but we hope so.  

Meanwhile, as I wrote a year ago --
Beware as you make your rounds this Halloween night.  Amidst the witches, hobos, wizards, and zombies, our own exclusive hobgoblin lurks, waiting to pounce.  Someday he will transform into a beautiful fairy prince or princess, ready to grant all wishes.  Of this I am certain.  It hasn't happened quite yet, but like any fairy tale, this one too will have a happy ending.
For those of us covered by FEHB, may Halloween a year from now be ogre-free.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Rising from the Ashes

The sun is sinking low, the last rays filtering through the leaves and branches of the Norwegian pine that are my front yard in the lake region of Maine.  Three years have passed since I watched the sunset on the eve of my departure for Romania, worried about the future and not knowing quite yet that I had already set out on the path to gender transition.  Then, as now, the warm sun on an October day gave comfort and peace, a promise that somehow, however improbably, things would work out.  I took the promise with me, and the memory of that October sunset saw me through the weeks that were to come.

As I knew it would, life in Washington this year is proving to be both exhausting and exciting.  I broke away last Thursday evening and flew to Maine for a long weekend.  The reason was practical, to check on progress in the rebuild of my small camp.  The old camp, much like my old life, stood on a shaky, rotten foundation.  There was no way to fix it, my handyman said, other than to tear most of it down and start anew.  Where the camp once stood, there is a newly spread gravel footprint.  Between me and the Norwegian pine lies a black circle, the scene of a bonfire that consumed the old camp.  Building supplies are stacked to the side, ready to become the new camp that will rise on the ashes of the old.  The scene parallels my own life story of the past three years.  No longer can I turn around and walk inside to the familiar of the past.  Instead, I sit outside, exposed for all to see, the edifice of my new life a work still under construction.

I have slept nine hours each night since coming to Maine.  I am making up for a deep sleep deficit.  Six hours per night was the rule for the previous week.  The night before I left it was only five hours, and my coffee habit reached new heights to see me through the day.

Why such a deficit?  I have only one year in Washington before going overseas again, far away to Central Asia.  I have a real sense of a ticking clock.  Time is a precious commodity to be used as well as I can devise.  Even my personal life is being planned on a calendar weeks in advance.  My apartment has the temporary feel of a warehouse or dormitory, a place for sleeping and little else.

My official work keeps me busy, but this is only the base of my Washington life.  The volunteer job of serving as GLIFAA president is far more taxing and time consuming with meetings both official and unofficial filling the week.  (It is also one of the most personally rewarding jobs I have ever undertaken.)  Then there are my sisters, son, and friends with whom I want to spend as much time as possible.

Finally, there is dating.  Yes, without giving away details, I have begun dating as much as time will allow.  I have the very real sense that I must fit an entire decade of adolescence into a single year.  Dating for women at an overseas post is more difficult than in the US, and thus I must use this year more than just well.  Even the question of my sexual orientation is up in the air.  Borrowing a phrase from a friend, as of today I would say that I am asexual with romantic leanings.  I am much more attracted by personality than by physical chemistry.  I am, however, still only a 13-14 year-old adolescent girl.  By the time I'm on the Kazakh steppe a year from now, I want to have aged at least to my late teens or early twenties.

This weekend in Maine has been a beautiful autumn respite from the rush of Washington.  Much like the new edifice of my life, my new, better camp will rise from the ashes of the old.  Meanwhile, the last rays of sun shimmer through the branches of the Norwegian pine, bringing to a close an autumn day of peace in Maine.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Bucharest and Roxana on the Potomac

Bucharest has been coming to the Potomac all summer long.  I arrived as one of the first refugees.  FT, SE, NP, and SD have arrived as well, and DD will arrive sometime later this fall.  (In case you have not figured out my shorthand, check with SC, who took over as GLIFAA Post Representative in Bucharest when I left.)  We are all caught in the Foreign Service transfer cycle.  Some of us are just passing through, some are in language training, and others like me have a work assignment in Washington.  We are all so busy that we haven't really had time to socialize, but I was very happy to see SE at the GLIFAA happy hour earlier this month.  I do hope that we will all see more of each other as summer turns to fall.

Bucharest was on my mind in another way last Wednesday.  For the first time since leaving Romania in June, the bicycle on which I had commuted daily on Bucharest streets was finally back together and ready for the streets of Washington.  Down Piney Branch I rode from Takoma Park.  Then it was a right on Arkansas and on into Rock Creek Park before coming to the Potomac itself.  Across the bridge and I was in another foreign country:  Virginia.  At least that's how we who live in Maryland tend to think of Virginia.  (Our Virginia neighbors pay us the compliment of thinking of us in the same way.)  Using leg muscles that had not been used since I was in Maine, I turned onto city streets and made my way to Crystal City.

There Roxana was, sitting and waiting in front of her hotel.  The last time we had seen each other was in Bucharest, where she lives next door to the LGBT rights organization ACCEPT.  Over the past decade she has been a dear friend to many of us who have passed through the U.S. Embassy.  Before that, she was a friend to many a Peace Corps volunteer who passed through her training when they arrived for their year in Romania.

My Evening with Roxana
I first met Roxana Marin on Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) in 2011.  My transition had been announced publicly at the Embassy the week before, and I was at ACCEPT for its modest TDOR observance.  I spoke about my experience to the small group that had gathered.  When the formal program had ended and the social hour had begun, an intense woman bubbling over with energy came up and introduced herself before launching into questions about documentation for transgender persons in the US.  That was our first meeting.

Roxana is a teacher at Cosbuc Bilingual High School.  (The word is college in Romanian, but the U.S. equivalent is high school.)  As the first from her Roma family to be sent to Bucharest to study in the final years of the Ceausescu regime, she knows what it is like to experience discrimination and harassment first-hand.  Perhaps that is what filled her with such boundless acceptance and love of diversity in all its forms.  How many students have sat drinking tea in her garden on a Sunday afternoon?  How many has she guided through difficult times?  How many has she inspired to great heights of creativity?  Just this spring one of her students won first prize in a human rights essay competition sponsored by the Embassy.  Roxana's smile and enthusiasm are infectious.

The first time Roxana had dinner with PE and me in my Bucharest home, she left behind a pair of earrings carefully hidden in a place where I would find them as I did housework.  Another time she gave me a blouse, and yet another time it was one of her dresses.  I think of Roxana every time I wear them.

Roxana and Jessica Wozniak, an American teacher also working at Cosbuc, got into some trouble last February.  It happens that February is LGBT History Month in much of Europe, and Roxana and Jessica had noted the month by including LGBT issues in the voluntary human rights curriculum sponsored by the school's Center for Action and Responsibility in Education (CARE).  When word got out, Bucharest's anti-LGBT forces were not pleased.  Before long, billboards went up near the school with the words:
Could you imagine your little boy being HOMOSEXUAL? Could you see your little girl being LESBIAN? On Olari Street, around the corner [at Cosbuc], certain things happen . . .
Anti-LGBT Billboard Protesting LGBT Inclusion at Cosbuc
Inspectors descended on the school, and for a time it seemed that both Roxana and Jessica were in trouble, perhaps faced even with the loss of their teaching positions.  Sober minds prevailed in the end, but the episode was a reminder that Romania is still not firmly in the European Union on all human rights issues.  Roxana and Jessica had pushed beyond the limits of what the Bucharest school authorities are willing to accept at this time.  That is the story of Roxana's life, always pushing the limits where most anyone else would fear to go.

Roxana was a comfort to me last spring when I went through several difficult and emotional weeks.  I was now the one sitting in her garden, drinking tea and being lifted back to a positive outlook just by being in Roxana's presence.  I challenge anyone to spend an hour with Roxana and not walk away refreshed and recharged.

I felt I was back in Bucharest as Roxana and I had dinner together last Wednesday.  I heard the latest news of all my friends whom I haven't seen since June.  Roxana told me about her busy summer program of Roma activism and projects.  She was so busy that she had not packed a suitcase until the night before her flight to the US.

Roxana is on her way to North Carolina where she is part of a Fulbright program that will have her working in a U.S. high school for the next two months.  Little do the teachers and students of Boone, NC, know what a treasure is coming to their town. 

Our evening over too soon, I retrieved my bicycle and got ready to ride to my day of work that would start at 11pm on the night shift.  We both remarked how it felt like old times, as though I was at ACCEPT and was getting on my bike for the ride home.  Then Roxana handed me a small gift, a pair of earrings that I am wearing as I write this and think of her.

Drum bun, draga!  May your path be a smooth one, dear friend!  I know that you will leave a mark on the hearts and minds of many in Boone, NC, just as you have left a mark in my life.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

On Reading "Middlesex"

I just finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex.  I'm about eleven years late, given that the novel was published in 2002, but much of my life today can be described as The Education of a Transgender Rip Van Winkle.  With only short, fleeting exceptions, from 1976 until 2010 I kept myself purposely isolated from any literature having a theme bordering on transgender.  I'm still playing catch-up.

Cal, born Calliope, the central character and narrator of Middlesex, is not transgender but intersex.  Still, I think it would be hard for any woman or man of transgender experience to read the novel without emotion.  There are just enough overlaps with my own life to make the experience of reading it that much more personal.

As the adult narrator telling the story of his life, Cal is a Foreign Service Officer with the State Department.  That fact becomes evident in the first pages and helped to pull me in.  He grew up in Detroit, the city of my father's birth, not far from Monroe, the town where I spent so many summers in my youth with my aunt, uncle, and cousins.

Callie is raised as a girl when the family physician fails to recognize that externally feminine genitalia hide undescended testes.  She has a happy girlhood.  When puberty comes, she at first experiences distress as she fails to develop as a young woman and fails to begin menstruating.  When she finds herself attracted to her closest girlfriend in physical ways that she can not understand, she is confused.

There was no ambiguity regarding my genitalia at birth.  I was clearly a boy and was raised as such, albeit with no particular emphasis on the masculine.  I have written already about the gender confusion that began to enter my own consciousness by age five, a confusion that was full blown by age ten when I was praying nightly to wake as a girl in the morning.  I also knew even at that young age that I could tell no one.  If Callie felt herself a monster when she first learns of her intersex condition, I secretly feared that I was a freak who had to hide deeply all the feelings that were on the inside.

Despite these childhood differences, there is another intersection between Cal's life and my own:  John Money.  Cal's story in Middlesex is a milder version of the real life story of John Money and David Reimer.  Dr. Peter Luce, the New York specialist who treats Callie at age fourteen, is clearly modeled on John Money and his gender identity clinic at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

John Money became notorious because of his involvement in the treatment of David Reimer.  After their son was mutilated at birth through a botched circumcision, Reimer's parents took him to John Money, who recommended that they raise their son as their daughter Brenda.  Money believed that nurture, not nature, was most important in the formation of gender identity.  Reimer, however, began to manifest a male identity after puberty, ultimately renouncing his female identity entirely.  The case is described in John Colapinto's As Nature Made Him:  The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl.  Reimer committed suicide in 2004.  His case figures large in the intersex community and the movement to allow intersex children to develop as they are born, giving them the right to choose their own paths when they are old enough to do so.  Money is described by many as unethical for his treatment of Reimer, but there are a few, if not many, defenders as well.  One thing that is clear about John Money is that he was one of the founders of gender identity studies.  It was Money who first distinguished between sex and gender, in the process coining the phrase gender identity.

My own brush with John Money and the gender identity clinic at Hopkins was fleeting but real.  It was 1975. Jan Morris' Conundrum had just been published, the first book that let me know I was not alone in that pre-Internet world.  I was devouring everything I could on the subject of transsexuality in the science library at the University of Virginia.  It was there that I first read about the clinic at Hopkins.  I wrote a letter and received an answer inviting me to come to the clinic for evaluation.  I doubt the letter was from Money himself -- more likely it was from someone on his staff -- but I remember the excitement of holding that reply in my hands.  As the ensuing months were to show, I did not have the nerve to follow through.  I was just too scared.  Who knows what Money would have thought of me had I gone?  In those days sexual reassignment surgery was approved only as a last resort and only for those who exhibited behavior that was clearly at variance with their birth sex.  I, on the other hand, had learned to hide, but perhaps Money would have seen below that surface?  In 1975 I looked to Hopkins as the miracle clinic where maybe, just maybe, someone would understand.

Calliope runs away from her parents and from Dr. Luce when she learns she is intersex.  Cal embraces his male identity, choosing to live his life in his own body.  My own transgender experience and that of many transsexuals is just the opposite, the experience of hating our bodies and avoiding mirrors.  Still, there is much that is familiar in Cal's story.  He has lived in both halves of our still largely bi-gender culture and has absorbed both.  Looking back at his life, he writes, "I remain in essential ways Tessie's daughter."  Although the female identity was always there in me, I learned against my own inward nature to function and live as a man.  Cal and Calliope, Robyn and Robert, we both have had the gift of seeing and experiencing life in two genders.  It is a gift, one that most of those we know, even those to whom we are closest, can scarcely imagine.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Chelsea Manning, Roasting Vegetables, and Me

Chelsea Manning's announcement that she will henceforth live openly as a woman has been big news in the US for over a day now.  The various U.S. media outlets have been tripping over Chelsea's name, gender pronouns, and themselves in their rush to publish.  The political leanings of many a publication can be discerned by their choice of pronoun, the more socially conservative publications tending to note Chelsea's announcement but then continuing to refer to her as Bradley and he.  Not even the more typically moderate and liberal media have been immune, with National Public Radio notably using male pronouns.  Overall there is confusion all around, once again showing that although U.S. society has gotten used to people coming out as gay, it has a long way to go before a person coming out as transgender seems ho-hum.

WikiLeaks and the Manning case have been in the background of my mind for some time.  I don't believe that anything I wrote as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) was in the materials leaked by Manning, but I would not have to go far to find a colleague whose writings were among those that made their way to WikiLeaks.  As an FSO, I recognize that we write our reports in the expectation that they will be circulated only to a small, select readership.  It's that expectation that allows us to write candidly to educate and influence decision makers about conditions in the countries where we serve.  Some of the materials leaked did make our work more difficult.  What foreign government official will want to speak openly with an embassy official if a summary of the conversation might appear in a mass-circulation publication?  As an FSO, I tended to look at WikiLeaks as an embarrassment, but then I moved on, allowing the Manning case to drift into the background of my consciousness.

I don't remember when I first heard that the defense had begun to make an issue of Manning's gender dysphoria.  I know I grimaced slightly at the time, thinking that this is just what the transgender community needs, a controversial figure who may be coming out as transgender.  Then I turned the page and went about my own business.

In the aftermath of her announcement and the ensuing media frenzy, however, Chelsea Manning has been very much on my mind.  I believe Jennifer Finney Boylan has it just right in her Washington Post article when she writes that she wishes for the day when "Chelsea and I seem boring."  Amen to that.

It seems that many of us who make the difficult decision to be public and live in the gender with which we identify do so after loss.  I know I did.  Turning around the words of Janis Joplin, "Nothing left to lose is another word for freedom."  It was that sense of having lost most everything I had spent a lifetime trying to build and preserve that propelled me forward in 2010.  Most of my life savings were gone.  I expected my career would soon follow.  After all, in my lifetime I had seen that this was the usual fate of transgender persons who came out or who were outed.  I felt I truly had nothing further to lose, and that is what allowed me to walk across the threshold and to begin living as I had always wanted to live.  With a 35-year prison sentence awaiting her, could that be Chelsea Manning's feeling as well?

My transition in Romania was not as public as Chelsea Manning's, but it was news.  It took a number of weeks following my announcement in November 2011 before it dawned on me that I had, indeed, become a public figure of sorts.  I was not and am not an actress on the main stage, but go around that stage to the more distant meadow or nook stage in this theater of life, and you will find me in the lineup there.  It was not a place I ever expected to be, but finding myself there, I have tried to be an example to others even though I know I am not above reproach in this life.  In my new role as president of Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, I am aware that my mere presence is a validation, a statement to other State Department colleagues in our far flung posts that is OK to be transgender.  If that makes life even slightly easier for someone who might otherwise hide as I did for decades, then my visibility is worth the price.

Since transition, however, I have found that the most gratifying, happiest moments have nothing to do with being a public person.  They have been the private moments, the family moments.  Being called mom and working side-by-side in the kitchen with my emotionally adopted daughter in Bucharest, chopping and preparing vegetables for roasting -- those are my precious memories.  A little stuffed donkey named Buffy sits by my bed and greets me each morning as a reminder of close friends on the other side of the ocean.

Chelsea Manning is giving U.S. society a teachable moment.  With time the publicity will fade.  Although it may be many years in the future, the time will come when she, too, will find herself at peace and happy in the private moments that make up our lives.  May the time come for all transgender persons when we are seen as boring, left in peace to roast our vegetables and live our lives without fear.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

In Homage to Allyson Robinson

So let's see. What's new?

Well, I am now living in an empty apartment in Takoma Park, MD, just over the line from Washington, DC.  My furniture consists of a folding table and two folding chairs loaned by my sister, and my bed is an inflatable mattress on the floor.  My dressers are several cardboard boxes and the two suitcases I have lived out of for almost two months now.  My household effects are somewhere in transit between Bucharest and Washington.  I can almost see the container ship rolling in the waves of the North Atlantic.

My youngest sister came from Arizona, and we had a small reunion at my oldest sister's vacation home in western Maryland. We don't see each other nearly enough.

I hear nothing but good news from friends in Romania.

I was down with what I think was my fourth cold of the year, perhaps in part the product of the stresses of moving around the world so much, not to mention sleeping on the floor on an inflatable mattress?

I was elected president of Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA).

I began my new work assignment two weeks ago in an operations center environment that allows me to use of my Russian.

"Slow down!" you say.  "What was that about GLIFAA?"

Yes, yours truly is now the president-elect of GLIFAA.  You might say that I'm GLIFAA's lady in waiting as the stupendous outgoing president and board finish their work.  The elect will be dropped from my title on August 22nd at the next business meeting.

"Isn't it presumptuous of you," you ask, "to take the lead position in an organization you knew almost nothing about five years ago?" Well, yes, perhaps, but I was asked to run by more than one respected member of the outgoing board.  Also, membership organizations of this type depend on members who have been active, committed, and effective.  In my own minor way, I fulfilled this description as GLIFAA's post representative in Bucharest.  I rather did expect to have something to do with the board as I came to Washington for a year, but the presidency?

I do get the symbolism.  In its twenty year history, GLIFAA has had only one woman serve as president.  I will be the second.  (My predecessor writes one of the best-known web journals on foreign service life and on occasion has been known to look at these jottings.)  I will also be the first transgender person to lead this organization made up primarily of gay and lesbian members and straight allies.  Note that there is no "T" in GLIFAA.  Well, OK, neither is there a "B" or an "I" or any of the other letters that are becoming common after "LGBT."

Note that I wrote, "I will be the first transgender person to lead this organization made up primarily of gay and lesbian members."  In 2012 Allyson Robinson was appointed executive director of OutServe-SLDN, the association of actively serving LGBT military personnel.  That made her the first transgender person to lead a large LGBT organization.

Gulp.  Am I following in the footsteps of someone I admire as much as Allyson Robinson?  Although GLIFAA is orders of magnitudes smaller than OutServe-SLDN just as the Department of State is orders of magnitude smaller than the combined arms of the U.S. military, the fact is that I am, in effect, following Allyson Robinson's example.  Although there has been some turbulence of late in the board meetings at OutServe, Allyson set a mark for other transgender activists to match.  Gulp.

All humor aside, this will be a very busy year.   In meetings with outgoing and incoming board members, I am coming to grips with the issues currently in play and those that are likely to rear their heads.  Although the Supreme Court threw out the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional in June, the devil, as they say, is in the details.  As many organizations are finding, it's not as simple as declaring that all rules and policies concerning heterosexual couples now apply to same-sex couples.  It's much more complex with many layers of nuance.  At State, much of this nuance will be worked out in consultation with GLIFAA.

As a transgender person, I am learning the depth of the issues of most concern to GLIFAA's gay and lesbian members.  I will be representing their interests to the best of my abilities hand-in-hand with my fellow board members.  I will also be working to make transgender issues more visible within the Department.  At this time I can count the transgender foreign service officers I know on the fingers of one hand.  I doubt that I would exhaust the fingers of the other hand if I were to add in Civil Service, yet I expect there are more who have as yet chosen not to become visible.  It is my goal that by my example, some of those yet in the shadows may choose to become visible.

I do not plan to make this web journal a forum for GLIFAA business.  That will remain within the confines of our board discussions and business meetings.  If my postings to this journal become infrequent, know that it is because I'm doing my best to serve an organization that has made my life possible.  If not for the work done by previous GLIFAA boards, I might not be writing this journal at all.  It is time that I return the favor.  It will be a very busy year, one that I know will be both exhausting and fulfilling and, I pledge, successful.

Monday, July 22, 2013

A Tale of Two Katahdins

Home leave, that's what it's called.  The time that a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) spends in the US after completing an overseas assignment is not a vacation per se.  Vacation is something we earn like most any other U.S. citizen who is working a job and career.  Home leave is different.  It was mandated by Congress, and we must spend it on U.S. territory.  I don't know when, and I don't pretend to know the rationale behind why home leave was instituted.  In my imagination I see it as one way to make certain that we don't spend too much time overseas, that we don't lose our U.S. roots.

After departing Bucharest, I spent home leave in both Washington, DC, and up at my little camp in Burlington, Maine.  I landed at Washington's Dulles Airport on June 14 and made my way laboriously by bus, Metro, and suburban train to Odenton, MD, where my sister was supposed to be waiting.  Do to a miscommunication, she had gone to the next station up the line, and I had a half hour to spend sitting on a bench, looking out on a typical suburban scene as commuters came and went.

I got out my Romanian cell phone.  Unexpectedly, it has been my tie, my lifeline to friends in Bucharest.  My Vodafone service with roaming works very nicely in the US.  I wouldn't use it for phone calls, but as I discovered during those thirty minutes in Odenton, texting is a wonderful way to stay close with friends and family from whom I am now separated by an ocean.  In the weeks since, that phone has been a constant friend and companion.

Those first days of home leave in Washington were a whirlwind.  First there was reunion with two of my sisters and the extended U.S. family.  There were medical appointments to attend to.  The highlight, however, was the Pride event at the State Department on June 19.  Secretary of State John Kerry was the keynote speaker and was accompanied to the podium by Congressman John Lewis and by Mara Keisling from the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE).  Everyone was in a celebratory mood in expectation that the U.S. Supreme Court would soon overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, but Mara reflected soberly that there is much more to LGBT rights than marriage equality.

With Mara Keisling at State Department Pride Event
On June 20 I boarded the Acela Express train for Boston, using the time to work on the photo-video that became Standing Proudly with Friends, 2010-13.  One night in Boston was followed by Concord Bus to Bangor and then Cyr Bus to Howland.  The Lincoln Shuttle took me the last 25km to my little town of Burlington.  I watched the last rays of sun from my front porch and took a long moonlit walk down main street.  Burlington is so out of the way and so small -- the entire population including distant, outlying areas is only about 350 -- that one can walk right down the center of main street past the General Store and Post Office with little worry about vehicular traffic.

My Little Burlington Camp
I began searching for property on Maine in 2008 and bought my 32 acres in Burlington in 2009.  I bought it at a time when I had decided that transition was impossible.  I had failed three times, and a fourth attempt there would not be.  Although I had visited my property briefly in 2011 and 2012, this home leave was my first visit of any duration since the long summer of 2010.  It was during that long summer that I came to understand that the long-hidden secret of my gender identity was becoming known through the mechanism of a noisy divorce.  By the time I left Burlington for Bucharest in October 2010, I had decided I had nothing to lose.  I landed in Bucharest with shaved legs and wearing a bra, certain that the likely outcome was going to be the end of a career.  I had decided that if I was to go down, it was finally time to go down as myself.  (See Pacing the Cage.)

It felt strange those first days to walk around the camp that had been the scene of my coming to terms in 2010.  There were still a few guy slacks and guy shirts in the closet, the only pieces of clothing from my former life that had not gone to aid Romanian flood victims.  Ironically, I found I had to wear some of them those first days, as none of the clothing I had brought with me was suited to the lively mosquito social life of Maine.  My neighbor promised not to spread rumors that I had begun cross dressing as a man.

The weather was gorgeous when I arrived in Maine, but it quickly turned rainy and cool.  I was stuck indoors.  The cabin's pseudo-solar system that provides 12V through cigarette lighter outlets gave barely enough electricity to power my netbook, and I spent the evenings by lamplight.  I began to feel rather lonely, wishing like anything to be back in Bucharest.

After several days of this, I put my FSO skills to work.  I may have bought my Maine property as a place to disappear, but one skill an FSO develops quickly is the ability to find and meet new people.  It was time to put those skills to work in Maine, not just overseas.

With Members of MaineTransNet
A quick Google search informed me to my delight that Pride in Bangor would be taking place the week after my arrival.  Into the car and down to Bangor I went.  First there was a movie evening.  Then there was an LGBT Art Walk and a dance evening before a festival and the Pride March itself.  I made a number of new friends.  I was particularly happy to make friends with John Gregory Music and Mark Stanley Bridges-Music, who had had much to do with organizing Bangor Pride.  Greg and Mark became my unofficial guides and escorts those evenings up to and including a tango lesson.  I was equally happy to meet several members of MaineTransNet and to march alongside two of them in the Pride March.  Doug Kimmel, one of the organizers of the Maine affiliate of Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Elders (SAGE), was quick to invite me to his home the following week.

A Traditional July 4 in Burlington
The sun finally came out for the 4th of July, and my little cabin no longer felt so damp and cold.  Starting with a pancake breakfast at Ye Olde Tavern and continuing through a parade and after-parade events, I felt I had gone back in time to the 4th of July celebrations of my childhood.

Biking and kayaking.  I did these in quantity, my legs getting used to hills again after over two and a half years on the flat streets of Bucharest.  On Saponac Pond I crossed to the creek that feeds the lake and ran up it a distance.  When my son came to visit for a weekend, we borrowed a tandem kayak from a friend and used it to go down the creek as it empties from the lake, exhilarated going downstream over a small set of rapids and fighting for all we were worth to get over them again as we returned upstream.

Katahdin.  I climbed it in 2010 just as the reality of my situation had begun to dawn on me.  It's not an easy climb to Maine's highest peak.  In fact, it's one of the hardest I have ever done.  In 2010 another hiker took a nice photo of me on the summit.  Would I repeat the climb?  I debated with myself for days before throwing the tent in the car and heading to Baxter State Park.  It rained hard through my one night of camping, and I thought it doubtful I would make the climb.  In the morning, however, the ranger on duty said the forecast had improved and that the weather would only get better through the day.  I threw on my day pack and headed for the trail.

Katahdin 2010
It was no easier getting to the top of Katahdin this year than it had been in 2010.  It was a lonely, strenuous climb and descent.  It took me thirteen hours in total up the Abol Slide and back, far longer than it would have for a more experienced climber of a younger age.  I was in fog for much of the ascent, but the air cleared just as I reached the top.  The longer I stayed, the clearer it became, the view being like one would expect from an airplane coming in on its final landing approach.  The lakes far below and the mountains in the distance came into view, the same lakes and mountains I had seen when coming to a decision point in 2010.  If that view was calling me forward in 2010, the same view in 2013 was showing me where I had gone, the distance I had covered.  My skin tingled and not just from a cold wind.  In three years I had done what I had assumed four years ago was impossible.  I had really done it.  Another hiker asked if I would like a photo and graciously did the honors.  I now have the two photos as bookends to the greatest three years of my life.

Katahdin Today
If I still felt a bit lonely on the long descent, it fell away as I got back to Burlington in the late evening.  Waiting for me was a message from Bucharest that the LGBT small grants program proposal that I had worked hard on for two years running had been approved and funded by Washington.  Something I had done would continue to make a difference in Bucharest even as I no longer have a physical presence there. The connection with my Bucharest home continues.

Five weeks after leaving Romania, I am again in the Washington, DC, area.  A language exam awaits me at the Foreign Service Institute on Monday, and I start my new work assignment on Wednesday.  My year in Washington is about to start.  When I move into my apartment later this week, the two Katahdin photos will be on display.  Like bookends, they bracket the greatest three years of my life, the years when the impossible became reality.