Sunday, June 12, 2022

TransIAm: Wheeling Through Hard Times

Introductory Note

I wrote this article by request for a compendium of articles on how trans folks survived through hard times.  I sent it to the editor in October 2021.  Two months later, the editor responded that they did not like it.  Why?  Because it sounded too much like a love story, the object of affection being a bicycle.  It turns out that the editor wanted an article not on how I survived through hard times, but what it was that I survived.  Signals thus uncrossed, I wrote a new article that will appear in the compendium that should be coming out in late 2022.

That said, I still like the original article on how I survived and offer it here.  It is unabashedly a love story, one that continues.  My next adventure with Woodswoman will begin a week from today as I bike-pack south from Deadhorse, AK, on the Dalton Highway and onward through Yukon Territory, British Columbia, and Alberta to reenter the US near Glacier National Park.  Stay tuned.

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I call her Woodswoman.  She’s my Rivendell Atlantis touring bicycle.  To be precise, I have two Atlantis touring bicycles.  One is Woodswoman I, and the other – surprise! – is Woodswoman II.  The names are my homage to Anne LaBastille, the author of the Woodswoman series.  Since Anne wrote four Woodswoman books, perhaps one day I’ll add Woodswoman III and Woodswoman IV to my collection?

Mine is a story of wheeling through hard times.  I’m what you might call a traditional trans woman.  Although I played with my sister’s dolls and loved it when they would dress me in their clothes, I was otherwise a pretty traditional child from a pretty traditional family.  I was also a pretty traditional child cyclist, first on three wheels, then on a hand-me-down from my sisters, and then on my own Raleigh three-speed English racer when I was eight years old.

Eisenhower was in his first administration when I entered this world.  When I first heard a term to describe what I felt deep inside, that term was transsexual.  I don’t reject it even today.  As I said, I’m pretty traditional.

What I really thought in the 1960s and 70s was that I was insane.  How could anyone be transsexual?  That was the stuff of tabloid headlines, something to run away from even as I wondered when my breasts would start to develop.  I played with the other girls at school recess until teachers made me go out to the sports field where I knew I wasn’t wanted.  Instead, I would go to the edge of the field and sit down alone, usually with a book.  What would people think if they knew what was going on in my head?

Only in college when I read Jan Morris’s Conundrum did I understand I wasn’t the only one like me in this world.  I reached out to gender identity clinics and for nearly a year lived a double life, appearing as male to friends and professors but as female at a solitary night job.  On my first ten-speed bike, a French Gitane, I took long rides through the countryside around Charlottesville, VA, trying to make sense of my feelings and what I now knew to be possible.

In graduate school I ran from the word, the white noise of feelings that could only be drowned out but never entirely driven away.  In academics and work I found the socially acceptable drug of choice to mute the feelings.  A double major in college, two Masters degrees, and an intense career in space flight dynamics were only part of the formula.  I threw myself also into Russian and Soviet history, getting research grants, working in Soviet archives, and publishing in academic journals.  Along the way I married even though I had never dated.  My spouse-to-be, also a historian, popped the question.  Somewhere along the way in the 1980s, I put the bicycle away as I strove to be the perfect husband, professional, and owner of a fixer-upper house in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC.

Being a round-the-clock activity machine can only get one through for so long.  The sand in my hourglass ran out in 1990.  That spring I was part of the launch and early mission support team for Hubble Space Telescope.  I also had a publication deadline for a major history paper.  On top of this, I was now a parent who was going through on-the-job training with a year-old son.

I spoke the trans word to my spouse for the first time that summer.  I had been at the University of Illinois with a writing grant to finish my history article, but I found I was unable to work.  It wasn’t writer’s block.  At the time of my greatest career successes and joy at being a parent, the contradictions inside me were yelling, "Enough, this can't go on!"  

A day after speaking the word, I found myself in a psychiatric ward at a local hospital.  My spouse declared me persona non grata and threw me out of the house.  The consequences of speaking the word were as bad as I feared, even worse.  I stood at the edge of a DC Metro station platform and wondered if it might not be best to end it all instead of facing the condemnation of family, friends, and co-workers.  In the end it was my own sister who took me to the hospital out of fear I might put my thoughts into action.

This was my first encounter with psychiatry.  It was not a pleasant one.  I don't remember the name of my psychiatrist.  I recounted to him my history of gender-confused feelings going back to earliest childhood.  He sat stony-faced, never commenting.  We met daily for a week.  Only at the last session did he pronounce his verdict, telling me, "What you are is overworked and depressed."  He was convinced there is no such thing as gender dysphoria, so he prescribed an antidepressant.  He released me to the care of my spouse, assuring her I would be fine.  I went back to work after having disappeared for a week.  No one said a word about my unexplained absence.

My dad wanted to take over my finances since I was obviously mentally disturbed. Continuing discussions with my spouse made it clear that I had to choose.  Pursue transition or take the pills.  It was also clear that if I went for the former, I would find myself divorced with no access to our son.  It was a stark choice.  So I chose to stay married, be a parent.  I chose to ignore my own desires, to accept the diagnosis of depression, to take the pills and go on for the good of all.

But there was one bright spot in the person of a housemate from the group house where I had lived in the 1970s.  We had not been particularly close.  Our politics were too different.  I was the progressive liberal while he was an arch, almost reactionary conservative.  Still, we had managed to stay in touch.  

He came the day after my release from the hospital.  We took a long walk, and I found the nerve to tell him my story.  When I was done, he stopped, turned and looked at me.  "Maybe this really is you," he said.  "Maybe you really were supposed to be born a woman."  I was stunned.  The person I least expected to accept me was the one person who validated my feelings.

Lost in my thoughts, I almost missed it when my housemate friend suggested joining him on a group bicycle ride the next weekend.  He thought the physical exercise would be a good release for me after the stresses of that long summer. 

A bike ride?  My college bicycle was gathering dust in the basement, but why not?  The next weekend I pumped up the tires, oiled the chain, and went on that ride.  It couldn’t have been more than ten miles through the Maryland countryside.  Thirty-six years old, I was woefully out of shape from a life that for a decade had revolved around office, libraries, archives, and family.  I had to push the bike up many of the hills, but I made it.

In the weeks and months to come, I kept riding.  I started commuting by bicycle, marveling at the stars when I commuted home on winter nights.  By now I was a senior pointing control analyst for Hubble, and I worked through many new algorithms as I pedaled the fifteen miles from work to home under the night sky.  The rhythm of my legs and the quiet of the night road became a solace and a source of peace.  The words from an old Gordon Lightfoot song played in my head:  

          Bless you all and keep you with the strength to understand,
          Heaven can be yours just for now.

Soon I was riding over 5000 miles a year.  Where psychiatry and its pills failed, the bicycle saw me through to a better day.

I also found refuge at a Potomac Appalachian Trail Club cabin in western Maryland.  It’s there that I discovered the first volume of Anne LaBastille’s Woodswoman series in the cabin’s book collection.  I couldn’t put it down.  Here was a woman who in the 1960s defied convention by divorcing and then building a cabin on a remote lake in the Adirondacks.  When I say she built a cabin, I mean just that.  She built it with her own hands and lived there without electricity.  There was no road.  Going to town meant a canoe trip in summer or snowshoeing in the winter.  Yet she thrived in nature and went on to become an Adirondack guide and an internationally recognized ecologist.  I understood the peace she found.  I felt it at the PATC cabin, on mountain hikes, and on long bicycle trips.  I found it in my first bike-packing journey, all of 184 miles along the C&O Canal from Washington to Cumberland.  I started to think of myself as an Aspiring Woodswoman.

Our son grew.  In 2004 I made a radical career change to the U.S. Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO).  Why?  Well, why not?  Hubble was using only the mathematical part of my brain while I pursued my interests in Russian language and Russian/Soviet affairs as a sideline.  In 2007, with our son now in college, my spouse and I moved toward divorce.

Transition?  It was not on the agenda.  I thought it was too late, that I was too old.  I said nothing about gender issues when interviewed for a security clearance.  I didn’t know much about the history of gays and lesbians in the Foreign Service, but I knew it hadn’t been good.  As late as the early 1990s any FSO found out to be gay would lose their security clearance.  Transgender persons weren’t even on the radar.  

I lied through omission, and I feared that the secret would come to light one day.  But when?  In 2000 a NASA scan of its computer systems determined that someone at one of its Maryland facilities had been visiting pornographic websites.  A warning went out to all staff.  No one was named, but I knew it was me.  The warning identified a URL for a website with information about gender transition as the pornographic site.  What would the State Department do if it found out about my gender-conflicted life story?

I continued to ride.  Through the 1990s I had ridden a number of garage sale Motobecanes and Fujis.  I rode them until they could be ridden no further.  One failed when the top tube snapped in two on my morning commute.  

Woodswoman I, my first Rivendell Atlantis, entered my life in 2004 just as I was joining the State Department.  I rode her that year as a daily commuter to Foggy Bottom and my first position as a Political Officer on the Russia Desk.  I had jumped from being a respected, senior analyst on Hubble to being, “Hey, you!”  I was the most junior person on the Desk.  I could hardly find my way around the building, let alone navigate politics and policy.  Woodswoman steadied me and saw me through on the morning commutes and on the late evening rides home.

A year later the State Department sent me to Moscow.  Woodswoman went with me.  I was now an urban commuter in one of the world’s largest cities with traffic jams that made Washington look tame.  For the first year I did visa interviews, cringing at the thought that I held lives in my hands.  For the second year I covered the Russian nuclear energy industry when someone realized that a physicist/engineer who had worked on Hubble could be put to better use.  In the tumult of embassy culture and never-ending assignments from Washington, I found my peace with Woodswoman.  On weekends I would ride to the outskirts of Moscow to ride on the bicycle track that had been built for the 1980 Olympics.  On one long summer weekend I bike-packed to Borodino, camping along the way in woods where I hoped no one could see me from the road.

After Moscow I moved on to our embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where the State Department in its wisdom had assigned me to cover economic and business issues.  When I objected that I knew next to nothing about either economics or business, the wry retort was, “Neither do the Uzbeks.  You are well matched.”

Again I found balance with Woodswoman.  A 45-mile ride around Tashkent on the Ring Road, the city’s version of a Beltway, became standard for the weekends.  I rode 100-mile century rides to the dam at Charvak.   I rode the back roads for three days from Tashkent to Samarkand.  

Another time I rode to Khujand, Tajikistan, in the process gaining both a rebuke and a reputation.  Our political chief had loaned me out to Embassy Dushanbe to support a regional economic conference.  Relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were so poor that there were no flights between the capitals.  The only way to get to Dushanbe was to go overland from Tashkent to Khujand and continue from there by domestic flight.  In Tashkent no one believed me when I said I intended to bike the 100 miles to Khujand, but that’s exactly what I did.  When I got back to Tashkent, our Regional Security Officer rebuked me and told me never to repeat such a stunt.  Washington, however, viewed it differently, even as a positive for our relations.  Along the way I had attracted crowds wherever I stopped.  No one could believe that an American diplomat would ride a bicycle.  Even the guards at the Uzbek/Tajik border wanted photographs with me.

The fear that one day my trans secret would come to light was realized in 2010.  My divorce, conducted long distance from Tashkent, proved to be messy.  My trans history complete with my 1990 psychiatric ward sojourn was woven through the discovery materials.  It became a factor in the property settlement agreement in which I gave up, essentially, everything.  Word got out.  I was summoned for an interview with Diplomatic Security and found myself on leave without pay as my fate was decided.  

In the fall of 2010 I took long rides as Washington decided my fate.  With what little money that was left to me, I had bought a small camp in northern Maine that summer.  It was there that Woodswoman II entered my life.  I expected the worst from Washington, but I wasn’t aware that the world for transgender persons was changing.  Although I was stripped of a follow-on posting back to Moscow, I was allowed to take what the Foreign Service calls a down-stretch to a position below my grade in Bucharest, Romania.

As Woodswoman and I watched the Maine foliage change colors, it began to dawn on me that my biggest issue was that I had a secret.  What if I came out openly?  

Life on two wheels had taught me important lessons about visibility.  In the 1990s I learned the lessons of urban bicycling the hard way.  I hugged the curb, trying to stay out of everyone's way – which resulted in repeated mishaps and injuries as motorists pushed me into the gutter or off the road entirely.  As I gained experience, I learned that bicycle safety means taking one's rightful place in the traffic lane and being visible.  One is far safer positioning oneself as a vehicle, taking as much of the lane as needed.  Motorists might not like seeing me in their lane, but they accept me as something that cannot be ignored and pushed to the side.

In Bucharest it dawned on me that these lessons from my two-wheeled life applied to my transgender life.  In college I had gone forth as myself only in the shadows, scared to death what would happen if anyone recognized me.  In my trans life I had hugged the curb, doing my best to stay out of everyone's way.  Now I applied the same, hard-learned rule of riding a bicycle:  Be visible, be assertive, and join the traffic.  I had as much right to walk down the street as anyone.  “Yes, I am transgender, and I don’t care who knows or what anyone thinks.”  

In Embassy Bucharest in 2011, I became the first FSO to transition gender while posted overseas.  A bike-packing trip in Transylvania that summer helped to ease me through the period when my gender presentation could at best be described as betwixt and between.  I found a local endocrinologist and a local electrologist.  One senior embassy official wanted me out of the country on psychiatric grounds, but our regional psychiatrist pronounced me quite sane, only transgender.  Washington fretted about how the Government of Romania would react and insisted on press guidance, but in the end all loose ends were smoothed over.  My coming-out was the annual Marine Ball on November 12, and I never looked back.  Moreover, Washington now saw me as an asset with access to the Romanian LGBT+ community that no one else had.  Over the next two years I penned many reports on LGBT+ rights and conditions for transgender persons in Romania.  My Bucharest apartment became a regular meeting place for the community.

I continued to ride.  In Romania I rode with dykes on bikes and with an elegant Scottish ex-pat who had lived in the country for over a decade.  I found myself at rallies for bicyclist rights in Bucharest while also organizing events promoting LGBT+ rights. 

In 2013 I returned to Washington for a one-year assignment at the Nuclear Risk Reduction Center that overseas our arms control treaties with Russia.  That was the day job even if it was 24/7 shift work.  The real job was at glifaa, the State Department’s affinity group for LGBT+ foreign service, civil service, and locally employed staff overseas.  I had been elected president.  Still only a mid-level FSO, I now met regularly with John Kerry’s staff and other senior officials in Foggy Bottom as we worked through new policies on same-sex partners and trans-inclusive health insurance.

I was again a Washington commuter on Woodswoman in all weather and often at night.  I lived that year in a basic, spare apartment less than a mile from the home I had owned for 25 years.  On one rare snowy winter evening, I realized this spare apartment had become home.  Woodswoman and I had just rolled out of Foggy Bottom sometime after 11:00 p.m.  A light snow was falling.  I pedaled up Virginia Avenue and then into Rock Creek Park.  There was not a single car in sight on Rock Creek Parkway.  A thin layer of white covered the roadway.  What on most days was a busy car commuter route had become a silent, beautiful enchanted forest with wet snow hanging heavily in the trees.  I pedaled as slowly as I could, wanting to make the moment last.

When I finally arrived at my apartment, Woodswoman was dirty and snow-caked.  There was no way I could bring her into my living room.  I spent an hour bringing rags and buckets of warm water out onto the stairwell.  When I finally rolled her inside, I looked around and said quietly, "This is home.”  More than that, I was at home in the same area I had lived in during my former life.  I was at home in myself.

My overseas State Department career ended with a posting to Astana, Kazakhstan, in 2014-17 as the Regional Representative for Environment, Science, Technology, and Health.  I, a trans woman, now ran my own section with my own budget and travel that took me to all five post-Soviet ‘stans covering issues as diverse as climate change, water management, and global health security.

Of course, Woodswoman was with me.  I didn’t just cover environmental issues.  I walked the walk.  When I was invited to address a conference on ecotourism at a town 75 miles north of Astana, of course I went there on Woodswoman, thereby earning mention in the local newspaper as the American diplomat who lives the life she preaches.

I also walked the walk on LGBT+ life in Kazakhstan.  My apartment became a group home and a gathering place for the community.  We even got funding from Washington for a round table on transgender rights that included representatives delegated by the Government of Kazakhstan.  

I am retired now.  Being an FSO is one of the few careers left in the US that has mandatory retirement for age at 65.  After seeing more of the former Soviet Union in my working life than I had of the US, I finally have the time to discover my own country.  In 2019 I celebrated retirement by bike-packing from Washington, DC, to my home in Maine.  In the Covid year of 2020 I rode across the US on a route known as the Northern Tier.

2021 was my year to ride the TransAm from Virginia to Oregon with nine crossings of the continental divide along the way.  The TransAm, known originally as the Bikecentennial route, was created to celebrate the U.S. bicentennial in 1976, a time when I was deep in my college struggles with gender identity.  

In Kentucky a young trans friend from Western Kentucky University joined me for a day and two nights.  As we climbed the hills of Appalachia, Levi declared, “It should be called the TransIAm route.”

“How appropriate, how right he is,” I thought as Woodswoman and I pushed westward through the Ozarks with the Rockies and Cascades yet to come.  The passes we climb in our TransIAm lives take all our strength and effort, but we all have what it takes to make it to the top.  Woodswoman and I have climbed many passes together and will climb many more.  Whatever passes life may yet have in store for me, I am ready for the climb. 

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You can find my day-to-day travel log of my TransAm adventure, complete with slideshows, in my alternate blog at:

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