Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Bucharest Farewell

It must have been late February when I first asked Daniela at the Romanian LGBT rights organization ACCEPT, “When will GayFest take place this year?”  In 2012 it was the last week of June.  I already knew that I would be departing Bucharest in mid-June, so I followed up by pleading, “Please have it in the first half of June so that I will still be here.”

I will never go so far as to say that my personal needs have any influence on the scheduling of significant public events, LGBT or otherwise, but I was more than simply pleased when the answer came that ACCEPT was trying to schedule GayFest for the first week of June.  It felt as though a party was being scheduled to ease my emotions as the day of my final departure from Romania approached.

It's no exaggeration to say that GayFest was bigger and better this year.  Our Embassy contingent from Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA) had learned from last year's experience, and our Cultural Affairs office was fully engaged.  SC, newly arrived in Bucharest, took over from me as GLIFAA Post Representative on May 1, and LQ, FT, and SE jumped in actively.  TT and a number of other straight allies were there as well, as was our new human rights officer LQ. (By the way, I offer a complimentary Romanian covrig [pretzel] to anyone who can decipher the code I use for naming friends without actually naming them.)

Diplomatic Reception with Chargé Duane Butcher,
Buhuceanu from ACCEPT, Author Kevin Sessums, and
Finnish Ambassador Ulla Väistö
One big change for our GLIFAA contingent this year was that we reached out to other diplomatic missions.   (Big thanks to SE for that idea!)  We sat around the table with colleagues at a Bucharest restaurant in late March to talk it over.   As a result, the diplomatic reception on the eve of the June 8 Pride March was co-hosted.  The venue was the residence of the U.S. Ambassador, but the invitations were jointly sent out from the U.S., UK, Swedish, Finnish, Austrian, and Israeli embassies.  Since we are currently without a U.S. Ambassador, our Chargé d'Affaires Duane Butcher hosted, and Finnish Ambassador Ulla Väistö delivered remarks to over 100 guests from the community of Romanian LGBT advocates and allies.

We opened our own Pride celebration at the U.S. Embassy the week before GayFest by hosting a digital video conference with former Ambassador Michael Guest before an audience of LGBT community members, journalists, and representatives of non-governmental organizations.  The first openly gay ambassador to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Ambassador Guest is well remembered and highly regarded in Romania.  In a deeply personal hour and a half of give and take, Amb. Guest told about his family life, what it was like to serve in Romania accompanied by his spouse, and why it was that he left the Foreign Service in 2007.   His words left a mark, and they were cited by Sasha, a young transgender activist in our audience, when he was interviewed the following week in the newspaper Romania Libera (

Kevin Sessums with Bucharest LGBT Activists
This year we also had a special Embassy guest speaker.  I first met Kevin Sessums at the LGBT workshop in Tirana a year ago. (See Proudly from Tirana.)  Author and editor, he wrote in his memoir Mississippi Sissy what it was like to grow up gay in what at the time was the most conservative, segregationist state in the US.  It was not nice.  Kevin worked with the Embassy and with ACCEPT to inaugurate LGBT bookshelves, the first of their kind in Romania, at the Carturesti bookstores in Bucharest, Cluj, and Constantsa.  When he read from Mississippi Sissy before a standing room only gathering in Bucharest, he spoke with such passion and animation that at one point he slammed his fist down, in the process cracking a glass table top.

The week belonged not to us at the Embassy, however, but to our Romanian friends who worked so hard and so well to bring off a week of events that included movies, discussions, exhibits, and a bigger and better Pride march than had ever before taken place in Bucharest.  For the first time, the march took place in the city center on the street that is Bucharest's equivalent of embassy row in Washington, DC.  Upward of 400 people participated, noticeably more than last year, and the energy of those who marched was higher.   Everyone remembered the incident in February when protesters prevented the showing of an LGBT movie.  (See Home Sweet Home in Romania.)  The police were out in force, but the feeling was one of celebration.  The march route ended in Kiseleff Park just around the corner from my apartment, but rather than participants simply dispersing, there was an after-march Diversity Zone in the park with speeches and a party atmosphere.  GLIFAA had its own table in the zone, and SC officiated by distributing free water, soda, granola bars, and literature.

At the Pride March
It really did feel as though my Romanian friends had arranged the entire first week of June to keep my mind away from leaving.  When the movers came to pack me out on May 31, TJ, BD, PE, TH, and several other friends came to keep me company, to keep an eye on the movers, and to keep me in the moment.  They made fun what otherwise would have been a very sad day.

GLIFAA Table at the Pride March
Most happily, I found peace over those final weeks with my emotionally adopted adult child.  Our relationship continues.  If anything, what we both experienced together and individually has made the bond stronger.  My first post-transition relationship crisis has passed. 

GayFest over, my final week in Romania had arrived.  There was no holding back the emotions now.  The day after the Pride March, friends lured me to ACCEPT to watch a movie.  As the evening went on, more and more people came.  They had conspired to make this my farewell evening, a chance for last hugs and photos.  There were more than a few tears.

My last day at the Embassy was Wednesday the 12th.  My  checkout list complete, I made the rounds from office to office for goodbyes and goodbye hugs.  I took one final long look as I walked out the door for the last time.

Then my phone rang.  "We're waiting for you in the park!"  It was Sasha.  He and several others had gathered in Kiseleff Park and were waiting for me.  We sat and talked until the storm clouds came.  Then we adjourned to my apartment and ordered pizza.  It was the last party in a home that has seen many parties and evenings with friends.

Thursday, my last day, had come.  There was one last visit to Mirela, the magical electrologist of Bucharest, and one last shopping trip.  Ma Ni, a new friend, helped me with some hair products and eye makeup.  When the Embassy car came at 4:30 on Friday morning, she and my adopted daughter went with me to the airport.  My bags checked, we sat over coffee until the time had come. . . .  I won't describe the parting scene.  I'm certain you can see it without my words.  Already on the other side of security, I turned and looked back.  Tears flowing, we waved at each other one last time.  Then I turned and walked toward the future, a future that will be richer because of my life in Romania and the people I have known there.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Mâine, a Reprise

My final days in Romania have been full of life.  I will find time once I am in the US to write about these last weeks and days, but with only a day left in Bucharest, I can think of no more fitting way to mark my departure than to repeat an entry I wrote a year ago.  It's called Mâine, for in Romania this is just what I found, the mâine of my dreams. 

Farewell for now, my dear Romanian friends.  You are with me in my heart as I return to the US.

* * * * * * * *

Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known.
Saturday evenings in the 1980s, the first years of my marriage, listening to Garrison Keillor and Saturday evening radio broadcasts of Prairie Home Companion.  Thinking back to those years, I remember languid Washington, DC, summers and the growing fear and then painful certainty that I had deluded both myself and my spouse through marriage.  I had no idea when I finally gathered the courage to speak in 1990 that I was beginning a process, boarding a roller coaster that would ride on for 21 years.

It came to a halt on June 2, 2011.  The words spoken and accepted, I watched as my son rode away.  "I'm free," I thought.  "Incredibly, improbably, I'm free.  My life is my own to take where I will."
I spent my few remaining days in the US in an airy dreamworld that had become reality.  I was floating.  I had lunch with my friends Shannon and Mary and attended part of Capital Trans Pride.  I stopped at a Piercing Pagoda and walked away with two stud earrings that, I was warned, should not be removed for at least six weeks to keep the piercing from closing.  On June 5 I drove to my special spot, the Big Schloss outcropping on the Virginia - West Virginia border.  Looking out on the 270-degree view of the valley below and watching as hawks rode the thermals, I swallowed my first tablets of estradiol and spironolactone.  HRT and my summer of Looking Strange and Enjoying It had begun.

The close people in my life all knew and accepted that I would transition gender.  If anything, I believe my sisters were relieved after watching years and decades of personal and marital pain.  I began phoning and writing old friends and co-workers.  The e-mail subject line usually read, "Put down that cup of coffee before opening this message."  No one took me up on my offer to pay dry cleaning bills in the event my warning had not been heeded, but to this day I fear that a few suits and dresses may have been badly stained.  For the next several months I peeled the onion outward from the center as I moved from close friends and coworkers to others I had not seen in some time but whom I expected I would see again.

E-mails and letters flew around the globe.  How many countries had I lived and worked in?  Where now were my co-workers from the the U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan?  From Embassy Moscow?  From the Russia Desk?  I had to find each one.  Everyone needed to hear this in my own words.  No one was to be surprised by a nugget through the grapevine.  A few never wrote back, but most did.  The most wonderful notes were from my women friends and colleagues, many of whom I had worked side by side with in my NASA contracting years.  Several included the words, "Welcome to our world."

Then it hit me.  "Why not start a web journal?"  I had written a travelog for friends and family when I served in Russia, carefully maintaining a list of e-mail addresses and sending updates every few weeks.  Now I would write a travelog of a different sort.  Family, friends, and colleagues could follow me on the journey of a lifetime.  Transgender in State was born ten months ago on Independence Day, when I posted My Coming Out Letter to My Friends at NASA.

I flew back to Bucharest on June 7.  I'm sure many are wondering, "So how did you manage this gender transition inside a U.S. Embassy?"  Ours being a U.S. Government facility, the answer should be obvious:  by committee, of course!  We called it the Gender Transition Committee (GTC).  As human resources officer, my friend Natalie chaired most meetings.  Peter represented our MED unit and quickly proved to have a heart as large and loving as that of my dear, dear Kyna who had departed Bucharest in May.  Curtis was there as my department head, as was our management counselor and our equal employment opportunity officer.  The front office was represented, as was our security office and the consular section.  At the eleventh hour we thought to bring in the press officer as well.

"How will the local Romanian staff react to the news that an American supervisor is changing gender?"  "How will the Romanian Government react?"  These were the types of questions that were uppermost in many minds.  Those at the Embassy who had not yet seen me as Robyn were concerned that I might come to physical harm in the streets of Bucharest.  Curtis and Natalie shook their heads and replied, "No one will know.  She looks fine." 

Everyone on the GTC understood that the eyes of Washington would be on us.  We studied the experience of NASA, USAID, and other U.S. agencies and departments.  In May, the Office of Personnel Management had issued guidance on gender transition in the federal workplace, and we knew parts of it almost by heart.  Still, we knew that as instructive as those experiences might be, things could be different for us.  No American Foreign Service Officer (FSO) had ever gone through gender transition while stationed overseas.  How the local staff would react was a worry, and the Romanian LGBT rights organization ACCEPT came to the rescue by offering to conduct seminars for the local staff if the reactions should be negative.   

Our Embassy was scheduled to move in the fall from its old location in downtown Bucharest to a New Embassy Compound (NEC) on the outskirts.  We decided that one stress at a time was enough and that we should not announce my transition until the NEC move was history.  We settled on November 10.  I would speak personally to the local staff in my department at a special meeting, and I would write an e-mail letter that would go to all Embassy staff.  A special Farewell and Welcome notice would be published in our Embassy newsletter, the Dacian Dispatch.  It all unfolded beautifully as I described in A Letter to My Sister.

But I've written about this all before.  With these notes  today, I come to the end of my memoir, my retrospective.  When I began to write my history last July, I never imagined that it would take ten months to complete.  Now there is only today and the future.

Lessons learned?  Oh yes, there have been many, but I'll list just two.

"Be open, visible, and predictable."  I learned this one the hard way.  In the 1970s, 1990, and 2000-02, I fearfully hid in the shadows when I attempted to come to terms with and speak of being transgender.  It took me until the sixth decade of my life to apply a lesson I learned from bicycling in the 1990s:  "Those who hug the curb for fear of cars are the ones who get hurt.  Taking the lane and being visible and predictable is far safer."  I applied that lesson to my transition in 2010-12.  Everyone in my life knew what I was doing, and I did it openly and visibly with a smile on my face.  I think that smile alone convinced many that I was doing what was right for me.  Happiness is contagious and wins allies.

"Failing once or twice or even three times is not the end."  That's the second lesson.  When I failed in 2000-02, I thought life was over.  I had failed three times and that was that.  Three strikes and you're out.  There was no use trying again.  I am my own living proof of how wrong I was.

Now I look back in wonder at the past two years.  In the spring of 2010 I thought I knew my future.  I knew I would be going to another Russian speaking post, only to have that post pulled away from me in late summer for inexplicable reasons.  I was Pacing the Cage, thinking my career and life as I knew it were over.  Coming to Romania, a country whose language I do not speak and about which I knew next to nothing, was an accident.  I needed a job, and Embassy Bucharest had an opening.  I arrived with a single suitcase on a cold and rainy October day.

Garrison Keillor was right.  Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have.  The people of Embassy Bucharest and of Romania opened their hearts to me.  They accepted me and helped me in one of the greatest journeys a human being can make.  I am smart enough to see today that coming to Romania is what I would have wanted in 2010 had I known.  Romania, te iubesc.

In a funny way, Garrison Keillor was also wrong.  You see, when all seemed lost in 2010, I repeated to myself again and again, "If I'm to be unemployed, let it end right here in Maine." In saying those words, I was thinking of a refuge, a reclusive life in Maine away from the world, living on what little money I had.

I knew not a word of Romanian when I came to Bucharest.  I still don't speak the language, but I have picked up words and expressions.  I had been here over six months before I discovered that the Romanian language has a word very much like Maine.  It's just that the word in Romanian comes with an accent:  Mâine.

I got my wish in Bucharest, where I live in a mâine of a type I could never have imagined but would have begged for on my knees had I known in 2010.  You see, mâine is a very simple word.  It means tomorrow.

To all my family and friends and to all readers of these notes, may your mâine be all that you dream of and more.  Robyn has found hers.  May yours be as happy, fulfilling, and full of love and peace as mine.