Friday, January 26, 2018

A Stranger Among My Own

This post could be subtitled "When the World Doesn't Care."  For those who have become accustomed to upbeat articles from me, this will be an exception.

For the first time in over a decade, I greeted the New Year alone.  Not that I've ever been a party woman on New Year's Eve.  Far from it.  It's usually been a quiet holiday for me, but to spend it alone?  How different this New Year was from the past three when NN and I would wait up, usually watching an old movie, and go out on our balcony to watch the fireworks over Astana at midnight.  Last year BP joined us.  We watched the Truffaut movie version of Fahrenheit 451, taking a break only to view the midnight spectacle explode above the Esil' River, the presidential palace, and the endless white of the steppe.  On New Year's Day we would go out into the park and throw ourselves into the snow, making snow angels in the -20C and sometimes even -40C cold.

I'm not really the type of Foreign Service Officer that the State Department wants.  I went native in Romania, and I went even more so in Kazakhstan.  A year ago I had Sultana, her Mom, and NN living with me, sometimes with the addition of BP or whatever guest stayed late into the night.  Ours was a family.  It was the family I had always dreamed of but could only have after transition.  Although I did my job for the U.S. Embassy and am proud of several of my achievements there, it was family that made Astana special for me.

Sultana's triple visa denial was just as devastating for me as it was to her.  I felt as though my colleagues, the State Department, and my country as a whole had turned against me.  I still feel that way. 

So here I am, back in the US.  Alone, a stranger among my own.  Of course, there are compensations, important ones at that.  I get to see my grown son and my granddaughter whenever I want, not just once a year.  Same goes for my sisters.  I did miss them overseas, and watching my three-year-old granddaughter open her Christmas presents was something I wouldn't have missed for the world.  But this was different from being a head of household, in fact a surrogate Mom or older sister, for my family in Astana.

More generally, I have landed in the country of Trump and Pence, a country where I must fear that my rights are under threat.  Trump's attempt to bar transgender persons from serving in the military was turned back by the courts, but does he even realize that there are transgender diplomats?  I doubt it.  I wonder what would be his reaction if he knew?  Given his low regard for the State Department, perhaps he wouldn't care.  Or would he?

In the aftermath of the election in November 2016, I like many progressives jumped into the fray, writing letters and making phone calls, not to mention increasing my monthly contribution to a number of organizations.  Then Sultana together with her college and visa quest took over only to be followed by disillusion and heartbreak.

I've already written at length about my disillusion with my own colleagues in Astana, most prominently in my article Why Is The U.S. Denying This Young Trans Woman A Student Visa? in the HuffPost.  The Kazakhstani edition of Esquire picked up and printed in Russian the interview I gave about Sultana to journalist Botagoz Omarova, and another Kazakhstani news portal reprinted much of the HuffPost article in Russian.  And of course, I have written in this web journal.

Those articles have changed nothing.  The Embassy in Astana has hidden behind Sections 214(b) and 222(f) of the Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA).  Together, those two sections of the INA can serve as cover for whatever a Consul decides no matter what the basis for the decision.  Being a Consul means exercising great power over the lives of others.  If a Consul is homophobic or transphobic, s/he can incorporate that prejudice into visa decisions without ever having to justify the decision to anyone.  It is my view that the job of Consul could be an excellent choice for a petty tyrant who doesn't have what it takes to become an authoritarian on a larger stage.

No one cares that the decisions in Sultana's case amount to a human rights violation.  Certainly my former colleagues don't care.  No one at the State Department in Washington seems to care either.  When I nearly resigned after the third visa refusal, a few supporters within State urged me to stay, telling me that inside the State Department I have a voice.  I don't.  I can write as many articles and have as many meetings as I like at Main State.  No one cares.  I'm just an upper mid-level officer making noise.  More than that, I'm a woman making noise, a transgender woman at that.

My disillusion extends also to those in the LGBTQI and progressive communities.  The disillusionment began slowly when I realized that there weren't many who were ready to contribute even a small amount to Sultana's tuition crowd funding campaign.  People whom I expected to jump in did not.

That disillusionment deepened after the visa refusals.  Those who I thought would care aren't ready to do more than give a shrug and say that Sultana needs to improve her ties with Kazakhstan to overcome paragraph 214(b) of the INA that puts the onus on visa applicants to prove that they are not intending immigrants. 

Pardon me?  14 out of 15 students accepted by Lane Community College from Kazakhstan received visas and only Sultana did not?  Is anyone going to seriously believe that Sultana alone out of 15 applicants was the only one who did not have good ties to Kazakhstan?  I will say until my dying breath that she was refused because she is transgender.  The only way she could convince consular officers that she has good ties to Kazakhstan would be, somehow, to not be transgender.

When I think of those LGBTQI and progressive allies, I find the song Easy To Be Hard playing in my head.

I have also found that the authority and respect I thought I had earned as the State Department's first openly transgender diplomat and as president of the State Department's LGBT+ association GLIFAA in 2013-14 was an illusion.  The people and organizations I worked with actively in earlier years don't respond when I write about Sultana's plight and the transphobic refusals of her student visa.  Last year I was included in a list of The top 50 successful transgender Americans you should know.  Missing in the title of that list was the word influential.

I have also discovered that the liberal, progressive media I had thought would care about Sultana's case don't care at all.  The use of INA 214(b) and 222(f) as a screen for prejudice doesn't rise to the level of public interest when the person targeted by the prejudice is transgender. 

Perhaps this has all been a needed personal reminder whispered in my ear as in Roman times that glory fades.  What success I had as an activist in the US was limited to one year.  I'm better known today in that capacity in Kazakhstan and Romania than in the US.  It is good to remember, in the end, that I am mortal, just one person no more deserving of respect than any other.

More optimistically, there have been supporters, several of who have asked to remain behind the scenes but who have been there with me at even the hardest moments.  My gratitude and my heart go out to them.  They donated money for Sultana's tuition.  They wrote to senators and representatives on her behalf.  They helped me get the word out to those few mainstream publications that were willing to cover Sultana's plight.  The National Center for Transgender Equality expressed interest, and there have been other words of support from a handful of human rights defenders.

And so I go forward.  I'm still at the State Department.  For what?  Yes, I'm here for the money.  I have a year and a half to go until mandatory retirement at age 65, and the way pensions are computed, I need to stay until the mandatory date if I wish to maximize the pension.  Each day I wonder if this is the day I will throw in the towel, but I tell myself that if I wish to help the family I have known, there is good reason to have that larger pension.  I have found myself a very non-political, operations job in a good office with good people.  In their company, I believe I can go forward.

Or not.  Perhaps this flea one day will bite the elephant too hard, and the elephant will respond in the way an elephant would respond to a flea that bites.  And yet forward I go with the words of Percy's Song ringing in my head:
Bad news, bad news came to me where I sleep
Turn, turn, turn again
Sayin' one of your friends is in trouble deep
Turn, turn to the rain and the wind
A young woman has been denied an education in her own country, and the transphobic decisions of my erstwhile colleagues in Astana are complicit in furthering this violation of human rights.
And I played my guitar through the night to the day
Turn, turn, turn again
And the only tune my guitar could play
Was, "Oh the cruel rain and the wind"
I will continue to fight even if no one listens, no matter the cruel rain and the wind.