Monday, December 11, 2017

My Journey . . . Home?

September 5, 2017, 10pm; Aktau, Kazakhstan -- I was the last person to board the rusting Soviet-era ferry that will take me across the Caspian Sea to Baku. . . .

Those were the opening, heartbreaking words of my article in the HuffPost, the end of my life in Kazakhstan, the end of my journey with Sultana Kali.  It was the beginning of a journey, a journey I never planned to take, not in this way.  

Sultana and I were to have boarded a plane to the US on September 1.  The first half of September was to have been taken up by going with her to Oregon, getting her established in her dorm, and sticking around through orientation.  It was to have been the idealized picture of a mother or older sister taking her child or younger sister off to college, the American dream.  I was then to have headed home to Maine and onward to my final assignment for the State Department at Main State in Washington..

August 22 decreed that none of this was to be.  This is the story of a solitary journey I never intended to take, a crying in the wilderness and an incomplete attempt to come to terms.

The eighth pack-out of my State Department career took place on August 24.  Sultana, her Mom, and other close friends were with me to see me through that day, a day that is always traumatic.  It's the day when a Foreign Service Officer sees the home she has known for two or three years turn back into what it had been, a sterile government-provided apartment.  Astana had truly become home to me, and the people who surrounded me that day were the family that had become very, very dear to me.

Three days later, on Sunday, I walked out of the U.S. Embassy for the last time.  I had just performed my first act of open protest, a dissent cable that took the high road in analyzing the lack of understanding of LGBT issues in our Consular section.  Two hours later Sultana, her Mom, and I were in a taxi for the many hour ride to their home in a provincial city.  I spent the following four days with this, my adopted family, as we took long walks and went with Sultana's granddad to the family dacha that I found to be more a small farm than a garden plot.

On Friday, September 1, Sultana and I boarded a train back to Astana.  I had torn up the free State Department air ticket.  I had washed my hands of the Embassy and wanted nothing more to do with it.  We spent the night with a friend and the next day headed to Astana's new train station.    We almost missed our train to Aktau.  The taxi driver had misunderstood and had started toward the old train station on the other side of town.  By the time we realized and corrected his error, we were running out of my time.  We were the ones running for all we were worth when we got to the train station.  The doors to the high speed Talga train were closing when we got to the platform.  When the conductor saw us running, he yelled that we were too late.  For the last time in Kazakhstan, I yelled back “Diplomat!” and hurled myself into the doorway, pulling Sultana behind me.

The journey from Astana to Aktau is a day and a half of crossing Kazakhstan's limitless steppe.  We dozed.  We talked.  We drank beer and tea in the dining car.  The strains of Arlo Guthrie's The City of New Orleans played on my telephone.

Sunset Over the Steppe
Our hotel in Aktau was not even a two-star, but it was only a block from the sea.  Sultana had never seen a true sea.  We walked endlessly along the beach.  After sunset we sat on rocks, dipping our hands into the Caspian and listening to the whisper of the waves.  

I had learned there is a ferry from Aktau to Baku, but it is mysterious.  There is no schedule, and the office and telephone of the agent keep changing.  We learned there would be no ferry on Monday and spent another day together walking for hours through Aktau and back to the Caspian.

My call on Tuesday was met with the news that there would be a ferry that evening.  I was told where to go and to be there at 6pm.  The ferry is a freight ferry used almost exclusively by truck drivers, and the port is designed for freight and trucks.  We found the ferry office and were told that boarding would not start for at least another two hours.  We found the one cafe there is in the port, and there I had my last supper in Kazakhstan.  When we returned to the office, we found that several German and Swiss tourists were waiting as well.  Only after 9pm was boarding finally announced.

The memory of Sultana's final hug stayed with me as I found a place on the deck.  It was after 2am when the ferry finally pulled away from the dock.  I remained on deck until 4am, watching as the lights of Aktau, the last lights I would see from Kazakhstan, faded into the distance.  I felt myself in a 1930s movie in the days before air travel as my tears, anger, and hurt mixed with the Caspian mist.  Back there I knew Sultana was looking as I faded away into that mist. . . .

* * * * * * *

The Caspian crossing was like a time capsule.  The ferry had been built in the time of Brezhnev and was likely subject to instant aging even when new.  The cabins and food were basic.  I found myself designated as the unofficial assistant to the Azeri woman who was responsible for the cabins.  She spoke no languages other than Azeri and Russian, and none of the European tourists spoke either.  I became her interpreter, and she repaid my service by putting me in a private cabin and treating me to tea and dates.  The voyage was uneventful except for the moment when a bucket of water came like a torrent through my porthole and drowned my bed.  Luckily for me, I wasn't in the bed when it happened.  The crew had forgotten to tell the passengers that they would be cleaning the deck and that we should close our portholes.  I was not the only one whose cabin received an unexpected bucket of water.

Crossing the Caspian
I chose this way of leaving Kazakhstan to distract myself from the pain and anguish over the actions of our Consular section.  When I boarded the ferry in Aktau, I knew only that I would be going to Baku.  I had no idea where I would stay there, for how long, or where I would go next.  These were all things I would need to figure out as I went.  The mechanics of plotting this solitary journey would occupy my brain.

But I would be haunted the entire way.  Unlike Kazakhstan, few people in Baku speak Russian well.  All signs were in Azeri.  I had arrived in a different kind of nationalist post-Soviet space.  The city was hot and humid.  For two days I took sweaty walks around the old walled city and through the pedestrian areas in the center.  I sat on the embankment and looked eastward across the Caspian, taking a picture of my hand waving to friends on the other side.  I thought of the coolness of Astana and my many long walks with NN at all times of year, day and night, no matter what the weather and wind.  My first evening I had dinner at Traveler's Coffee and thought back to my dinners at Traveler's with Sultana in Almaty in July when I was certain everything would still work out.  On my last evening, I found a KFC at the train station and had a quick dinner there, smiling to think how NN had thought the chicken at KFC in the US last year “just didn't taste like the real thing.”  

An overnight train as old as the ferry took me from Baku to Tbilisi, to a Georgia I had not visited since the days of Brezhnev.  Somehow I had found a Russian-owned bed and breakfast, perhaps because the default setting of the smartphone I had purchased in Kazakhstan is Russian.  Outside of the hotel, I was better off speaking English in this, a country that has been at war with Russia.  For two days the beauty of this ancient city softened my anger in the warm hospitality of the old city.  I walked from morning to night.  I rode the funicular to the park above the city where I sat on a bench with a Russian woman from Kislovodsk who had come on a solo vacation.  We shared ice cream and talked about the challenges of our lives.

When I boarded my next train to Poti, over a week had passed since I left Astana.  Another port city, Poti made Aktau look luxurious by comparison.  There were palm trees, but look down, and all one saw was an unreconstructed Soviet city for port workers.  I had to search for the next ferry office, this one owned by a Ukrainian line.  Once again I was told there would be no ferry  that day.  I was stuck in Poti for two days.  I had already walked the city through on my first day, watching the Sun set over the Black Sea from a crumbling embankment dominated by an English lighthouse brought here in the nineteenth century.  The owner of the no-star hotel where I stayed took pity on me the second day and drove me out to another hotel he owned in a more tourist-friendly area outside the city.  For the first time since 1978, I swam in the warm, clear waters of the Black Sea.  Later in the day I made my way to a national park outside Poti and rented a kayak, all the while remembering my best day in Astana, the September Saturday when EV and I launched an inflatable kayak into the Esil River across from the Akorda presidential palace.  I ate shashlyk at every meal, wondering when I might ever find shashlyk on the menu again.

On the third day the women at the ferry office told me to come at 6pm.  Aktau repeated itself.  When I arrived at the office, I was told to take a walk and come back in two hours.  I again walked up the crumbling city embankment from one end to the other.  When I got back, there was still no hint of when boarding might begin.  Only at 10pm did we start making our way to the ferry.  By then I had made friends with a young Ukrainian couple that had been backpacking in Georgia and with a vacationing woman from Kyiv.  

I breathed a sigh of relief when I got on the ferry.  Unlike the one on the Caspian, this Black Sea ferry was new, clean, and modern.  My cabin was almost luxurious.  The cafe was cozy, and the food was decent.  In the morning I watched as dolphins swam alongside us, jumping out of the water as they swam.

But this relief and comfort was interrupted by a brutality that brought back everything that had happened in these months.  I was raped.

It started innocently enough.  A Georgian policeman and his friend sat down at the deck table where I was sitting in the evening.  My new friend from Kyiv was there also, and thus we were a foursome.  The Georgian, my Georgian, was expansive and, although overweight, handsome in his way.  The other Georgian said almost nothing.  My Georgian started hugging me and introducing me to others as his future wife.  I knew it was crazy, but lacking basic 101 training, I didn't recognize the danger signs.  He was getting drunk.  In the end his quiet friend and I had to help him back to his cabin.  My Georgian drunkenly asked me to lie on the bed next to him.  No sex.  Just lie with him.

Perhaps 20 minutes later I realized I was being fondled.  We were not alone on the bed.  The quiet Georgian was there too, naked and coming into me from the rear.  My Georgian was caressing me from the front and telling me to have sex with his quiet friend.  I was terrified for the first several minutes, frozen in place, but then I screamed, jumped, and ran.  I ran down the hall to my own cabin and locked myself in, oblivious to the pounding on my door from the two Georgians.  Shaking, I took a hot shower, scrubbing as hard as I could to somehow wash away what had just happened.  I put on headphones and listened to music and cried almost until dawn.  What the Consular section had done figuratively with their visa denials had now been done literally by these two Georgians.

Arrival in Odessa the next day was a relief.  I walked out of my hotel in the morning, relieved to be in a city that felt comfortable and familiar.  No one here cared if I spoke Russian.  I went to the store to buy a few minor toiletries, the last time I would be able to buy them with labels proclaiming them in Cyrillic.

In the afternoon I boarded a Bulgarian bus bound for Varna.  The passengers consisted of me and three other women.  The two bus drivers said they were pleased there were so few of us.  We made our way westward through the rolling Ukrainian countryside.  Around 4pm we stopped at a border town where I used my last Ukrainian grivny to buy anything I could at the one kiosk I could find.  A few minutes later we reached the border with Moldova and passed slowly through customs and passport control.  Just thirty minutes later we were at the Romanian border.  

I had passed out of post-Soviet space.  Now no one would understand me if I were to speak Russian.  How strange that the language I had come to think of as my primary language for day-to-day communication would no longer be understood!  By prior agreement, Sultana and I now switched languages in the daily messages we were sending to each other.  For a year we had communicated only in English to help prepare her for college in the US.  Now I was the one who would need practice.  If not with Sultana, then with whom?

At midnight the bus pulled into the Romanian city of Constanta on the Black Sea coast.  I stepped down on the sidewalk, the only passenger to get off here.  I looked around to see NC walking quickly toward me, having come down from Bucharest to be with me.  For the first time since that hug in Aktau, I had a person I care about before me.  We hugged.  

It was a long, tearful, but happy reunion.  Our hotel room had a view of the Black Sea.  We walked and walked and walked.  The city was little changed from the time of Ceausescu, but the sea was timeless and especially beautiful at sunset on the rocky jettys that dot the coast.  Most of all, it was good just to be with someone I love and care about.  Two weeks had now passed since Sultana and I had arrived in Aktau.

After three days we boarded a bus at 4am to go north directly to the airport in Bucharest.  The time had finally come for me to return to air travel.  Even if horribly interrupted by the incident on the Black Sea ferry for two and a half weeks I had been able to say goodbye slowly to post-Soviet space and a life I have know there one way or another since I was a graduate student.  Now I had to prepare myself for the greatest culture shock of all, a return to a country I scarcely know since the election of 2016.

Most of all, I would be returning to a country that had turned its back on me.  Is this still my home?  As I boarded my flight in Bucharest, I was no longer sure.  My heart still pulls me to the East where the family I have come to know and love stays behind.  Surely it is not over?  Surely I will return there and yet again make snow angels with NN on a January 1 morning?  Surely I will again row a kayak up the Esil with the spirit of EV beside me?  If I have resolved anything during my journey by ferry, train, and bus, it is this:  I will go back.  Too much of my life remains in Kazakhstan.  My heart is there on the cold, wind-swept steppe, and it is calling me home.

Lake Region, Maine
October 9, 2017

Monday, September 11, 2017

Interview with Botagoz Omarova

Это интервью с журналистом Ботагоз Омарова было записано в Караганде 11-го августа 2017 незадолго до моего отъезда из Казахстана и между вторым и третьим отказами в выдаче студентческой визы Султане Кали.  Интервью включает размышления насчёт отказов и тоже на такие темы как запрет трансгендерным людям служить в армии, опубликован Президентом Трумпом в июле.

Часть первая:

Часть вторая:

Часть третья:

Часть четвёртая:

Friday, September 8, 2017

My Declaration

I sit on the deck of a 33-year-old freight ferry, somewhere on the Caspian.  Kazakhstan lies far behind me.  Azerbaijan is already visible, but we seem stuck in the water, moving neither forward or back.  Who knows when we will actually reach Baku.

Our ferry may be stuck, but I am not.  This is my declaration that I will fight and will not forget:

The triple denial of an F-1 student visa to Sultana Kali is rooted in transphobia and discriminatory views of LGBTQI persons in Kazakhstan.

Why do I believe this, and why will I fight a system that has the means to crush me?  For that, see my Letter to a Senior Colleague.  The evidence speaking most loudly that the denials are rooted in transphobia is this:
Of sixteen students accepted by Lane Community College since 2010 -- four of them this year -- Sultana is the first to be denied a visa by Consular officers in Astana and Almaty.
Read those words again and let them sink in.  In what way did Sultana differ from other Kazakhstani students accepted by Lane?  Were Sultana's finances that much different from those of 15 others?  Were her ties to Kazakhstan that much weaker?  I don't think so.  It will take strong documentary evidence in the form of a spreadsheet comparing these characteristics for all Lane students to convince me that Sultana differs significantly.  I only know of two ways in which Sultana stands out from others:  1) She is tall, and 2) She is transgender.  I put my money on the second as being the characteristic that led Consuls to refuse her visa on the grounds that she is an intending immigrant, the catch-all category of refusal that is used by Consuls when an applicant does not meet their criteria, a catch-all that in the end can mean almost anything.  As anyone who knows Sultana can assure you – as I can assure you -- an intending immigrant is one thing Sultana most definitely is not.  Her life now and in the future is firmly rooted in Kazakhstan.

We've lost our battle with Consular in the sense that Sultana is not going to the US to start college this month.  Her life is on hold for yet another year, denied education in Kazakhstan and now, thanks to Consular, in the US.  My country is now complicit with Kazakhstan in what I consider to be a human rights violation.

I wanted to resign after the first visa denial.  Early retirement still beckons as an island of rest, but  several colleagues prevailed on me to stay in the Foreign Service.   And so here I still am.  I hope, however, that those same colleagues understand that behind my smile, I am a fighter and will use every means available to this pen even if the odds against victory are huge.  I will wield this pen within the U.S. State Department and in public, the personal consequences to me be damned.  

The engines of this ancient ferry have started again.  Soon I will be disembarking in Azerbaijan on a circuitous journey to the US.  Behind me lingers the image of Sultana at the seaport in Aktau.  The  physical and emotional feelings of that final hug remain.  For Sultana, her family, all in Kazakhstan's LGBTQI community, all dear friends in Kazakhstan, and for my own heart and soul, I will not walk away from this fight.  To all who have stayed behind in Kazakhstan, I assure you our parting is only temporary.  We will be together again.  I will be back.

Letter to a Respected Senior Colleague

You recently wrote that
For the record:  I have seen no evidence of transphobia or LGBT phobia -- or any other forms of discrimination -- in our consular sections.
Dear Colleague, despite my great respect for you and other colleagues in our Mission, I beg to disagree.  The triple refusal of an F-1 student visa to Ms. Sultana Kali is discriminatory.  I say that even if our Consular colleagues had no realization that they judged Ms. Kali through the rose colored glasses of transphobia when adjudicating her visa application.

Put yourself in my skin for a moment.  As a transgender woman, I know that had I transitioned ten years ago instead of seven, the odds are very high that you would not know me today.  It was common, perhaps standard, for transgender persons to be removed from federal service as recently as 2008.  Even today, there are parts of the US where I fear for my safety.  I mean that in the literal, physical sense should my transgender history become known.  Some states have or are adopting bathroom bills telling me which restrooms I may use and which I may not.   Others are considering laws allowing businesses and even public servants to deny me and my gay brothers and sisters service on religious grounds.  Are such laws adopted, supposedly democratically, by state legislatures discriminatory?  

Whether you feel it or not, dear Colleague, you have white male cisgender privilege.  I, too, have white privilege and can only begin to sense the even greater fear that my black transgender sisters live in as they walk the streets of any U.S. city.  Still, can you begin to grasp my fear and their greater fear?  I say this as someone who used to have male privilege and knows what it is to have given it up.  If I had transitioned ten years ago instead of seven, would you have stood up for me?  Even seven years ago there were some who wanted me drummed out of the Foreign Service.  From what I know of you, I like to think you would have stood by my side.

And now President Trump is pushing policies to bar transgender persons from serving in the military.  Will you stand with me if he next turns his eyes on transgender persons in the Foreign Service?

Now take a further step with me and see if you can put yourself in the skin of a transgender person in Kazakhstan.  I assure you, dear Colleague, conditions for transgender men and women in Kazakhstan harken back to conditions in the US fifty years ago.  Transgender persons are denied education and employment.  I don't mean that as in sometimes.  I mean it as in always.   Schools and universities expel anyone whose sex as specified in identity documents differs from gender identity and presentation.  Employers will not hire transgender persons for the same reason.  An entire class of people is denied both education and employment in Kazakhstan.  Did you know that?

Young people who come out as transgender in Kazakhstan suffer emotional and sometimes physical abuse from their families.  One young woman was chained to a radiator by her parents for days before friends managed to distract the family and rescue her.  Sex work is the only work available to most young transgender women who are rejected by their families.  Many of these young women are further victimized by sex rings and human traffickers.  Some whom I have met personally are savvy street operators who might seem coarse to you, but they have my understanding and sympathy.  Do they have yours?  They have no other choice if they choose to remain alive.

Ms. Kali is one in a thousand:  a 19-year-old transgender woman and feminist who enjoys the support of her family and who has turned herself at age nineteen into an activist leader recognized throughout the LGBTQI community in Kazakhstan.  She, too, was forced out of her school before receiving a diploma, and she has been fired from every job she has tried to hold as soon as her transgender history became known.  QSI and Miras International schools in Astana will not have her, and neither will Nazarbayev University.  None will admit to transphobia or discrimination against LGBTQI persons.  All allude instead to administrative problems or the poor quality of Kazakhstani schools when they turn Ms. Kali away, but those of us who lack white male cisgender privilege know that these are just excuses.  I have run into such excuses again and again in my own life.  Take the excuses away, and you are left with transphobia in its pure, unmasked form. 

The effort to enroll Ms. Kali in a U.S. school where she can earn a BA degree has been an effort lasting nearly one and a half years.  Through crowd funding, Ms. Kali collected donations from around the world, including many significant donations from Foreign Service Officers and LGBTQI leaders in the US and Europe.  Her essay on how she wants to change life for transgender persons in Kazakhstan won her a scholarship from Lane Community College that recruited Ms. Kali for what they saw in her:  an intelligent young woman who will go far even if denied a high school diploma in Kazakhstan.

When Ms. Kali was first denied a visa in on the grounds that her funds were insufficient to cover four years of undergraduate education, I stepped in personally by filing an I-134 Attestation of Support that commits me to making up the difference and guaranteeing that Ms. Kali will never need public assistance.  When the office of Congressman Peter DeFazio informed us that the interviewing Consul had wanted to see letters offering employment upon completion of the BA, we found two who immediately stepped up and offered such letters.  An American sociologist at Nazarbayev University wrote a letter offering career guidance and help getting Ms. Kali established in UN organizations such as UN Women.

None of this made a difference when Ms. Kali went for her second visa interview in July.  In fact, the additional documentation was not even reviewed.  The interview was over in 3-4 minutes with the same result as the first time:  214b refusal on the grounds that Ms. Kali had not proven that she is not an intending immigrant.  The result was the same at her third interview in August despite inquiries from Senators Baldwin, Cardin, and Collins that were instigated at the request of multiple supporters of Ms. Kali's cause in the US.

Dear Colleague, the interpretation of law is in the hands of those who apply it.  In the Jim Crow South, poll taxes and similar measures were used to deny black Southerners the right to vote.  Those applying the laws and denying voting rights would have claimed they were just upholding the law.  Were those laws discriminatory?  I think you would agree that they were.  Might there not have been some public servants who, when applying those laws, personally disagreed with them?  Might there not have been one or two among hundreds who chose to be more liberal in their interpretation and who extended to our black brothers and sisters the right to vote?  What would you have done?  What would I have done?  Don't we both wish and hope that we would have been on the right side of justice?  Or would we have just said we were following the law and doing our jobs?

The same applies here.  Determination of who is an intending immigrant lies in the hands of individual Consuls.  Perhaps income, bank accounts, property holdings, marital status, and children are good indicators of ties to one's country for the majority cisgender population.  I remember using those criteria myself when I did my own Consular tour a dozen years ago after a woefully insufficient six weeks of basic Consular training.  But do you see now that for transgender persons in Kazakhstan, not working, not having a degree, not owning property, and not being married is the norm?  In fact, they are the rule that has no exceptions.  Applying the criteria used for the majority cisgender population is tantamount to denying visas to all transgender Kazakhstanis.  Those criteria are, by definition in the context of Kazakhstan, transphobic.  

But could not a Consul see beyond income and bank holdings to consider the whole person standing at the visa window?  In Ms. Kali's case, couldn't her scholarship essay and multiple recommendation letters have served as substitutes to prove that she is not an intending immigrant?  As someone who has come to know Ms. Kali and her family intimately over the past year and a half, I can give you my personal assurance as a Foreign Service Officer that Ms. Kali is not an intending immigrant.  Her life and what she wishes to accomplish in it are in Kazakhstan.

You wrote:
For the record:  I have seen no evidence of transphobia or LGBT phobia – or any other forms of discrimination -- in our consular sections
Do you see now why I disagree with you and strenuously so?  By applying the criteria used for the majority cisgender population and denying a visa to Ms. Kali, the interviewing Consuls did discriminate against a transgender person.  Their decisions were based on criteria that are transphobic by definition.  Saying that the Consuls were simply applying the law does not make the result any less discriminatory or transphobic.

Dear Colleague, I call on you to take off the rose colored glasses of white cisgender male privilege.  I call on all of us at Mission Kazakhstan to remove our glasses of privilege whatever their shade.  We stand for human rights, and LGBT rights are human rights.  In denying a visa to Ms. Sultana Kali, our Consuls rendered a decision that is discriminatory and that supported discrimination against transgender persons in Kazakhstan.  Our standing as a beacon of hope has dimmed.  It is a sad day for Ms. Kali.  It is a sad day for the LGBTQI community in Kazakhstan that had looked to us for inspiration.  It is a sad day for all of us.

Robyn McCutcheon
(Former) Central Asia Regional Representative for Environment,
Science, Technology, and Health


Saturday, April 1, 2017

Waters of March

It rained in Astana late last week for the first time this year, but today, March 27, there is a new layer of snow as the long continental winter reasserts itself.  The clouds thickened yesterday morning.  The snow began falling heavily by noon and so continued into the night.  Such is spring on the frozen steppe nearly a week after the Vernal Equinox.  What else should one expect when one is living at the same latitude as the northern tip of Newfoundland?

My reflections on the coming of spring in Kazakhstan are in my follow-on web journal, Alice in State, at .

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Yes, We Can!

I flew home from Kazakhstan to participate in the protests to the Trump inauguration on January 20-21.  My reflections on those days are in my follow-on web journal, Alice in State, at

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Project Sultana: A Plea for Help

Let me be blunt.  Transgender persons in Kazakhstan do not have a right to higher education.  Correction:  even secondary education is problematic at best.  This is my personal plea to my reading public to help Sultana Kali, a talented, dedicated young transgender woman from provincial Kazakhstan, continue her education in the United States.  You can find her crowd funding campaign site at .

So here's the story.  Sultana is an 18-year-old transgender woman from a provincial city in northern Kazakhstan where winters are long and hard.   I met her for the first time at a dinner I hosted last April on the eve of an Embassy-sponsored round-table on LGBT issues in Kazakhstan.  I felt a personal connection when I found her on her knees that evening looking at my vinyl record collection.  When she found my Joni Mitchel albums, she asked if we could put them on the turntable.  I was so surprised that a young woman from a provincial Kazakhstani city would even have heard of Joni Mitchel, let alone consider her one of her favorite singers.

Sultana was bullied out of her college, Kazakhstan's equivalent of our high school, a year before graduating.  Very rare for Kazakhstan, Sultana has a loving, supportive mom and family.  Sultana has presented as female from an early age, but if she "got away with it" through elementary school, secondary school was an entirely different story.  The principal would send her home again and again, telling her to return dressed and behaving according to the gender in her passport.  When this did not work, the principal started summoning Sultana's mom.  When that did not work, the principal started placing Sultana in front of the student body to criticize and mock her publicly.  Friends who had known Sultana since an early age began to turn away, as did the entire faculty.  Finally, in Sultana's third year, the principal warned her of "elements" at the school who wanted to hurt her.  Unless she conformed, the principal said she would let those "elements" loose.  At that point Sultana's mom pulled her out of the school.

When I first heard Sultana's story at the Embassy's round-table, I thought it would be a simple matter for us to find another school for her within Kazakhstan.  Never was I more wrong.  Everywhere we went, including the private international schools in Astana and the elite Nazarbayev University, we were told there was no place for Sultana.  No school in Kazakhstan will accept her.  It's a pretty sad commentary on Kazakhstan that even money will not open doors for a transgender student.

And so was born "Project Sultana," the aim of which is to get Sultana into a community college or four year university in the United States.  Several institutions in the US are willing to take her without a high school diploma based on the academic record she has.  Her English is already very good.  Sultana so far has submitted two college applications and is working on an application for a Point Foundation LGBT scholarship.  I'm guiding her through the college and scholarship application process, but there is a limit to what I can do.

We need money.  Study in the US is expensive.  To cover Sultana's expenses for her first year, we need to raise on the order of $25,000, of which I'll give $5000.  As someone who has given out well more that $10,000 of her own money to help others in the transgender community, I now turn to the world community with this appeal.  If 500 people would give $40 each, we would reach our goal quickly.  But please give whatever you can, no matter how small.  Then please pass the link and the word.  After all, that's what crowd funding is about.

Go to the crowd funding site at, view our video, and please help!

With warm thanks from Astana, Kazakhstan,
Robyn & Sultana

PS -- Or, you can go directly to our donate button HERE and view our video below.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

What Would George Kennan Say?

George Kennan was the U.S. diplomat who, through his long telegram in 1946, put in place the U.S. post-war policy of containment of Soviet expansion.  What would he say of US-Russia relations today?  My musings are at