What Do Uranium and a Transgender Foreign Service Officer Have in Common?

Robyn McCutcheon at the Marine Ball
(used with permission)

Robyn Ann Jane Alice McCutcheon has been a Foreign Service Officer for seven years now. She might be the first openly transgender officer (transitioned in 2011) to live full time as female in the workplace. She writes that “the road to this transition has been filled with twists and turns, and if I succeeded in 2011, it’s because of having learned from failures in the 1970s, 1990s, and even as recently as 2000.”  Her story is a very human story that is both sad, and touching, and I cried myself silly.  It looks like she is living the happy ending now but it has not always been easy.  At one point, somebody from the mission not in the know spotted her, made a complaint and a question was asked if she was mentally stable. “Perhaps I could be persuaded to accept a compassionate curtailment of my posting to go home to the US and take care of my problem?  It was a very scary moment,” she writes.

“Kyna asked me stay into the evening, and she arranged for me to be interviewed by telephone by the Regional Psychiatrist in Vienna.  We talked about Hubble, space, Russian history, and what it is to be transgender.  What a contrast that was to my experience with psychiatry in 1990!

I also knew that there was one very important difference between 1990 and 2011.  I don’t remember exactly when in the Education of a Transgender Rip Van Winkle I first learned that gender identity had been added to the State Department’s Statement on Discriminatory and Sexual Harassment in the summer of 2010, but I certainly knew it by the start of 2011.  On paper, at least, I could no longer be curtailed as unsuitable because I had declared a gender identity not in conformance with my birth sex.  I was later told by a Bucharest friend that inquiries had been sent to Washington about my possible curtailment.  The inquiries, I am told, were answered with a gentle education on the matter of gender expression.

Kyna said afterward that the Regional Psychiatrist had expected to be speaking with a very troubled person, not someone who was accomplished and who was having no issues at work.  I was never again bothered with proffers of compassionate curtailment.

Prior to joining the State Department, Robyn McCutcheon spent twenty-five years with one company under contract with NASA (more than half, she spent working on the Hubble Space Telescope). She is an experienced system programmer who scored somewhere in the top ten of those listed on the political register.

Below is a piece written by Robyn in her blog, Transgender in State (The Improbable Adventures of a Transgender Foreign Service Bicyclist Across Time (Zones), Cultures, and Continents). Excerpted below with permission.

What Do Uranium and a Transgender Foreign Service Officer Have in Common?

Quite a lot, come to think of it.

There is the radioactivity to begin with.  When I first tried to speak of being transgender in 1990, I might as well have been radioactive judging from the speed with which some people in my life ran in the other direction.  Even in this much more welcoming and enlightened second decade of the twenty-first century, some may have preferred to deal with radioactivity than with the announcement of my intent to transition in the workplace overseas.  Special handling seemed called for, much as it might have been for an international shipment of uranium.

But just as with uranium, being transgender implies energy.  We need large stores of potential energy that we turn to kinetic as we walk the transition path.  I tell everyone that today I feel far younger than I did just two years ago.  It’s as though I’m 57 going on 27.

Being a transgender Foreign Service Officer (FSO) takes the analogy further.  Like uranium, I have found that a transgender FSO can find herself in more demand than she ever expected.  It has been my greatest post-transition surprise over the past three months.

For the coming weekend I will be judging twenty-six finalist essays on the theme of tolerance.  Embassy Bucharest is holding an essay contest in honor of Human Rights Day, and the essays were submitted by Romanian high school students.  Last weekend I judged twenty-eight essays in the first round.  Over three hundred essays were submitted in all, and I am one of a dozen volunteer judges.
And then there has been the Esquire interview.  I’m leery of Esquire as the right venue for an article on what it means to be transgender, but just such an article is being written in the Romanian edition.  That article is not about me, thank goodness, but about one of the young Romanian transgender women whom I have come to know and respect over the past year.  (I have already had my fifteen minutes of fame in the Romanian press in a good article, A fi bărbat sau a fi femeie?, published in the opinion and literary journal Dilema Veche last November.)  The journalist from Esquire approached the Embassy for an interview, and with the State Department’s current push for LGBT outreach, both the Embassy and Washington were enthusiastic.
Let’s see, what else?  Oh, yes, this is LGBT history month in Romania, and last Sunday I was a book in a living library event organized by Accept.  When I was first told that anyone who wished would be able to check me out and read  me for 15-20 minutes at a time, I had to chuckle.  The thought of a transgender person willingly offering herself to be checked out and read was just too humorous.  In the end it was a fun evening as I was checked out and read multiple times, mainly by young gay and lesbian Romanians for whom a transgender person is nearly as esoteric as an extraterrestrial.  This book from the foreign literature section learned as much from the evening as did her readers.

Yes, just like uranium, a transgender FSO can be simultaneously radioactive, energetic, and in demand.  Please just don’t put me in a centrifuge.  Although I wouldn’t mind being enriched, I believe I’m already as refined as I can be and can’t be improved.  As long as my half-life is long, I will continue to live as a young 57 going on 27.

Now, where did I leave that stack of essays on tolerance? . . .

She is not only smart and lovely but also “don’t put me in a centrifuge” funny — read in full here.

Domani Spero