Monday, December 31, 2018

New Year's Tidings of Passport Cheer

To say 2018 was not been a good year for the T of the U.S. lgbtqi+ community would be to put it mildly.  Between the Trump administration's push to expel all transgender members of the military, a leaked memo detailing a plan by the Department of Health and Human Services to erase us, and the recent deletion of the Office of Personnel Management's guidance of transgender persons in the U.S. federal government -- the news has been unrelenting and almost never good.  With each executive branch step to remove transgender protections, the surface area of the island on which we stand shrinks.  Allies who say not to worry as protections are stripped away sound at times like climate change deniers who don't see hurricanes, tsunamis, and wild fires as portents telling us that time is running out.

Another worrying development this year were edits to the U.S. State Department web site regarding changing gender markers in passports.  Ever since Secretary Hillary Clinton simplified the procedures for changing that marker, a U.S. passport has become the ID of choice for most transgender Americans.  Rather than documentation of invasive surgeries that had been required in the past, only a letter from a certified medical provider that the bearer is receiving "appropriate clinical treatment" is needed when applying for a new passport.

Those worrying web site edits included replacing gender with sex, a change that for many of us harks back to the old days of sex reassignment surgery. Did this reflect a change in procedures?  The rules that Secretary Clinton simplified could be changed by a simple stroke of the pen by a subsequent Secretary.  Were the web site changes a harbinger of changes to come?  Adding to the worry, there were several reports from the field that people who had changed the gender marker in their passports a decade or more ago were being asked to provide documentation of their gender transition when they went to **renew** their passports.  The fact that additional factors may have been in play for these persons did little to allay fears.

The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) went into action quickly by requesting a meeting with the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs.  Other organizations also requested meetings, and I was involved behind the scenes in a couple of preparatory phone calls.  The report back from those meetings was not to worry, that nothing had changed other than an unfortunate, ill-prepared edit to the passport web site.  Nationwide, however, there was a rush on the part of many to renew passports sooner rather than later lest those soothing words be replaced by another executive tweet that would change everything.

I should know.  Despite being a Foreign Service Officer, I also worried that things could change and not for the better.  I hold a diplomatic passport with five years' validity and a tourist passport that would expire in 2021.  I had already had some trouble using the tourist passport on its own in that my hair style, hair color, and some facial features had changed since the passport was issued in 2011.  Far better to renew the passport now, I thought, before I retire next summer and surrender the diplomatic passport.  Also, if anything were to go wrong with the renewal, I would rather it happen now while I'm still employed at State and can work the back channels to raise a ruckus.  So it was that in the first weekend of December I dropped into my corner mailbox an envelope containing my application, old passport, new photo, and letter explaining my request for early renewal. 

All of this brings me to those good tidings of New Year's passport cheer.  I arrived in my little Maine town last Friday evening and went to the post office to retrieve my mail on Saturday.  There it was, mixed in with two months' bulk mail:  my new tourist passport.  It was issued on December 21 with full ten year validity.  No questions were asked.  

I now join my voice to the soothing words from NCTE and elsewhere:  the procedures established by Secretary Clinton are still in place.  To this I add my pride in my own organization, the Department of State.  Sane minds are still in contril.  For the first time since the debacle with the denial of Sultana Kali's student visa in the summer of 2017, I applaud my colleagues in the Bureau of Consular Affairs.  They are doing the right thing.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Furlough-di, Furlough-da!

Yes, I'm on furlough, one of those 380,000 or so non-excepted federal employees who have been told to stay home.  I went to my office the day after Christmas to do my orderly shutdown, which for me consisted of tying up some loose ends and writing notes for the one deputy in our office who is designated excepted and who, without pay, is charged with handling any emergencies that arise.

As a non-excepted federal employee on furlough, I am not permitted to do anything related to my job, not even as an unpaid volunteer.  Excepted employees, some 420,000 of them, are required to go to work and do their jobs, but they will not be paid.  Neither status is enviable, and I do wonder to what extent the average citizen will ponder the fact that TSA agents conducting security at airports are not being paid.  

I took the do no work instruction at face value and headed home to Maine two days after Christmas.  I will stay here for the duration.  From all signs the duration will be at least through the first week of January.  I, for one, expect it could go longer, perhaps much longer.
Evening View from my Maine Porch
I make no secret of my Northeast, urban, progressive views, and thus it is easy to guess where I come down in the debate over a border wall.  I believe the November mid-term election shows a plurality of the U.S. population has come down on the same side of the debate.  On this issue, as on many others, increasing numbers can no longer abide the current occupant of the White House who is coming to look more and more like a sore loser, even a cry baby who believes a tantrum will get him what he wants.  I hope that the coming weeks will finally disabuse him of that notion.

Much of my life both in and outside of federal service has involved support for improved human rights around the globe.  That's where the funding should go, not to the construction of a physical barrier that has never proved effective for those countries that have tried them through human history. 

Did I describe myself as someone of "Northeast, urban, progressive views?"  Make that more a "European style social democrat" who at some level believes Marx was right.  Ending mass migrations across national borders means, in the long run, raising living standards on a global scale.  In a perverse sense globalization has been a step in bringing U.S. workers down to the level of workers in other countries.  The golden age of the U.S. worker in the first two decades after World War II was a fluke brought about largely by the circumstance that the US was the only major nation where industry had not been flattened.  It was just a matter of time before the Japans, Germanies, Chinas, and Koreas of the world would make themselves known.  
The great failure in the US during the post-War decades was, in my view, its failure to invest heavily in education and retraining.  Those who want should be able to attend college for free or nearly so, and those who don't should have programs available that train them in the skills needed to work in a modern, information economy.  In this failure I include myself and most of my urban, progressive friends, all of us focused on our own lives and largely blind to a middle America that was coming to resemble the post-Soviet Russian landscape of abandoned, rusting, non-competitive factories surrounded by factory towns with no future.

That's my view, and it's more than just words.  I have been writing my letters since the election of November 2016.  I have been making my monthly donations.  I have canvassed door-to-door for the progressive candidate in my district.  My own efforts have been meager, I know, compared to those of others, but they are a start that I hope to expand after my official retirement next August.

In the meantime, as on this day, I'll look out the window of my small home at the beauty of a sunset and a snowy Maine landscape of white.  Unlike young federal friends who have mortgages, car payments, and families, I've got savings to weather the financial seas when my next paycheck does not come on January 11.  From what I know of many of those young, progressive friends, however, they too look at this as a key moment to stand firm.  To steal from a classic Beatles song,
Furlough-di, Furlough-da, furlough's on, girl!
Democracy it must go on!
Let that be our tune as we cross over into 2019.