Saturday, June 27, 2015

Proudly from Astana, Remembering '75

Someone had to write Proudly from Astana.  Having now written several in this proudly from series, I realized that if I didn't write it, no one would.  Kazakhstan is not the US when it comes to LGBT rights.  Neither is it Western Europe or even Romania.  It is a country where LGBT persons scarcely talk about their status even among themselves.  The one true national LGBT organization imploded and went out of existence a year or more ago, leaving only a patchwork of local groups in its wake.  It is a country that only recently was threatened by legislation that would have limited propaganda of non-traditional sexual orientations in the interests of protecting children.  Fortunately, it appears that threat has passed.

In neighboring Kyrgyzstan the situation is arguably worse.  It is a smaller country with a vibrant civil society and an equally vibrant LGBT movement.  The country's national LGBT rights organizations are active but also always under threat, sometimes violent.  Gay propaganda laws have been proposed, and it's not yet clear how they will progress.

Tajikistan is a mixture as best I can tell.  There is some good on-the-ground organization, but traditional society and LGBT issues do not fit together easily.  Tajikistan is a poor country, however, where it would be difficult to have institutionalized discrimination at the government level.  Most LGBT people fly under the radar, staying to themselves and out of sight much as they do in Kazakhstan.

Go to Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, and the picture reduces to the simple reality that sex between men is a criminal offense.  Under those conditions, there is no open LGBT society.  

Despite this grim picture, I have met with LGBT persons and allies in all five countries in the region.  Several of them have become friends.  And yes, trans* people are to be found everywhere, most facing the challenge of living lives in countries that will not change their identity documents.

It has been a remarkable month for LGBT rights in the US.  The Supreme Court found gay marriage to be a constitutional right.  Early this week the Office of Personnel Management directed that insurance providers in the Federal Employment Health Benefit program may not include exclusionary clauses in their policies.  The transgender exclusion is now history.  These are changes I never expected to see in my lifetime.

1620 JPA, My Address in Charlottesville
As I think upon the present both in Central Asia and in the US, my mind has also been making a remarkable trip back in time.  For nearly two months I wake up in the morning and, before opening my eyes, imagine myself in my bed in my small apartment in Charlottesville, VA, in 1975, near the end of my third year in the University.  Every detail comes back.  I remember how the bedroom was arranged, the bathroom, the dressers, the two beds, and the window that looked out into tree branches.  I remember the living room, the furniture, my wall hangings, the kitchen, and the kitchen wall papered with covers from The New Yorker.  In my memory's eye I see every corner of that apartment and imagine what lies beyond the door as though I could walk out into the world of 1975 today.

It all started on April 30.  That is a day on the calendar to which I usually pay little attention.  If I think special thoughts that day at all, it's that the last of the winter is over and that real spring, the spring of May, is about to begin.

This year was different.  April 30 fell on a Thursday.  It was a typically over-busy day at Embassy Astana.  I had just come off three grueling weeks.  Earlier in the month I had spent most of a week in Turkmenistan.  I returned just in time to get ready for a workshop on biodiversity for which I had some high level of responsibility.  In addition to the workshop itself, I needed to accompany one of the organizers to meetings both in Astana and in Almaty.   Not far behind was a meeting of the board of an international science center in Astana for which I also answer; I was saved from that only at the last minute when the meeting was postponed to June.  In the background was the fact that this is the time of year when all foreign service officers go a bit crazy with preparing their annual employee evaluation reports.

But I knew salvation was coming in the form of a three-day weekend.  Friday, May 1, was to be the first of three Kazakhstani holidays over the coming two weeks.  It was the start of the May holidays.  The Esil' River that had been frozen over in mid-April was finally flowing.  The snow had melted in the park across from my apartment building.  The seemingly endless Astana winter had finally ended.

I prepared to leave the office that Thursday evening, April 30, with an uplifted spirit in the knowledge that for the coming three days I could truly rest.   I took one last look at the news summary before I shut down my computer, and there it was, the report, the reminder that 40 years ago that day the last U.S. citizens and thousands of Vietnamese fled South Vietnam.  It was the anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the final end of a war that had dominated our American life from the time I was in the fifth grade.  The great tragedy of both the US and Vietnam ended as the last American helicopters took off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

It was a powerful memory.  Once home, I found and watched a PBS documentary of the last days of Saigon.  I felt transported in time.  It was as though I was seeing the images in real time, seeing them for the first time.

My Most Comfortable Chair
1975.  I had no television other than the TV that I would occasionally glance at in Newcomb Hall, the student union building.  The North Vietnamese advance on Saigon had been so fast that it was difficult to believe.  In the midst of courses and exams, it felt as though Saigon had been surrounded overnight.  On that April 30 in 1975, I remember sitting transfixed with the latest editions of the New York Times.  I sat in my most comfortable chair in my small student apartment.  The chair faced the door, and the table to my left had my one black, rotary dial telephone.  I listened to a shortwave radio, hoping for more information than was to be found in the hourly news bulletins on commercial radio.  I sat there, reading and listening, until the sun had set.  Then I took a solitary walk around the UVa grounds, still somewhat in disbelief that the last helicopters lifting off from Saigon had signalled the final, total defeat of U.S. policy.  

On the Road Somewhere Outside Astana
The memory continued into the next day, May 1.  Not only had winter ended in Astana; we had suddenly jumped into early summer as temperatures rose to 23-25C, somewhere in the mid-70s Fahrenheit.  No longer was I constrained to ride my bicycle indoors on rollers as I had all winter.  I headed out on my first long road trip since arriving last year.  I wasn't sure how far I would go.  I eventually found myself on the Pavlodar road, soon leaving the Astana city limits behind as I rolled onward further and further into the steppe.  All the way, cranks turning, I was haunted by 1975, but if the memory of the previous day had been a sad one, the memories on May 1 began to bring a smile to my face.  I recalled taking long rides that summer also, heading out of Charlottesville and not knowing quite where I was going or when I would be back.  Usually I would head south in the direction of Fan Mountain and the University's new observatory.  I never got there, just as on this May 1 I did not make it anywhere near Pavlodar or any other geographic location worth mention.  By the time I got home that evening with both headlight and taillights on, I had gone some 64 miles, over 100km.  Somewhere during that ride I also felt, if only for a magic moment, that I was again 21 years old.

That feeling of being 50-something going on 20-something has been a very strong one for me since transition in 2011, but this time it was even stronger, more palpable.  That evening I found myself listening to the Hits of the 1970s on a recorded program from WXPN.  I never much liked the popular music of that time -- I was always a folkie at heart -- but that music was the backdrop of my life at that time.  To make up for the gloom of the previous evening's documentary, I re-watched the somewhat less gloomy movie Good Morning, Vietnam.  The next day, Saturday on this three-day weekend, I re-watched Nashville, a movie I remembered seeing for the first time in 1975.

Another smile comes to my face when I think of myself not as others saw me in 1975 but as I am today, only truly young again and not afraid of walking through my apartment's door and into the world.  I see myself sitting in one of those rocking chairs on The Lawn.  The guys all have long-ish hair.  The hippies are long gone, but some of those peace movement styles have remained.  One guy, rather a young Elliot Gould lookalike, plays the guitar.  I think he is cute, smart, and wonderful.  An entire lifetime stretches out before me.

That three-day weekend in April-May ended as quickly as it had begun with a new round of demands and schedules, but the memory of that weekend has lingered with an afterglow through May and June.  These weeks have seen me travel once to Uzbekistan and twice to Tajikistan.  There have been more visiting delegations to worry about than I wish to remember on this final weekend in June, my first real weekend of rest since the three-day weekend that brought back the memory of 1975 so vividly.

I come back to the present and can write Proudly from Astana because we did mark Pride.  We marked it quietly; there are no marches here.  I held a small reception in my apartment and shared a meal with several local and Embassy friends to mark the occasion.  As I looked at my young Kazakhstani trans* friends, I again thought of 1975.  My friends face the same challenges in 2015 that I faced in 1975.  Only they are braver than I was.  In 1975 I tried only briefly to live my life (See
WahooWa! -- or -- So How Far Back Does This Go?).  My young friends here are living theirs despite the obstacles in their way.  They have reason to be proud even if they don't quite realize it themselves.  I am honored to know them.

The Lawn at UVa, 1970s
But on this last Saturday in June, I look in the mirror and do not a woman who managed to transition at the 11th hour in the second half of her life.  Rather, I see a woman with a longer memory, one that includes a moment in 1975 when she sat with long hair and a young laugh on The Lawn at UVa, a moment when all was as it always should have been.

* * * * * * * * * *

Work life in Central Asia is indeed busy, perhaps the busiest it has ever been for me.  I doubt I will have time to write more than two or three times a year either here of in my other journal, Robyn in State.  For those who have been long-time-readers, thank you for sticking with me on this journey.  May your own journeys be truly wondrous.