Monday, 7 April 2014

Interview with Robyn Alice McCutcheon

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Robyn Ann Jane Alice McCutcheon, an inspirational American woman, diplomat (Foreign Service Officer -- FSO) who has served at U.S. embassies in Uzbekistan, Russia, Romania, author of a number of publications on Russian and Soviet history, a former engineer on NASA projects including Hubble Space Telescope, author of a web journal titled Transgender in State. This year she is working at the U.S. State Department in Washington, DC, where she also serves as president of GLIFAA, the LGBT+ pride association for U.S. foreign affairs' agencies. Hello Robyn!
Robyn: Hi, Monika! I've enjoyed your profiles of transgender heroines, many of whom are my personal heroines. It's quite an honor that you would want to include me in that number!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Robyn: Well, I'm 59 going on 29, divorced, and happier and more excited about the world than I've ever been. I come from a Scotch-Irish family but fell in love with the Russian language and "things Russian" when I was in the university.
I grew up in the 60s in the early days of the space program. That's how it is that I ended up with two careers: 25 years of working on NASA projects and now 10 years of working for the U.S. Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer.

Speaking at the 2012 Regional LGBT
Workshop in Tirana, Albania.

Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Robyn: I certainly did. Most of all I admired and followed in the footsteps of Chloe Schwenke, a senior specialist on African development issues who was employed by a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) at the time she announced she would transition in 2008.
USAID is the Department of State's "sister agency." Chloe's employer fired her. It was her courage that led GLIFAA to fight for the inclusion of gender identity in the non-discrimination statements at the Dept. of State and USAID. Without Chloe's courage of being first in our foreign affairs' community, I might not be here today.
By the way, although Chloe's employer fired her, President Obama turned around and appointed her to USAID as one of the first four transgender appointees to the U.S. government! Today she is Vice President for Global Programs at Freedom House.
Monika: You are the first U.S. Foreign Service Officer who is openly transgender. Was it difficult to transition in such a workplace?
Robyn: When I began my transition in 2010, I presumed I would lose my clearance and find myself without a job. It was my fourth-lifetime transition attempt, a time of "now or never" when losing a job and career seemed preferable to continuing as I was.
Historically the State Department was known to be socially conservative. President Truman once referred to the "striped-pants boys in the State Department." As recently as 1970, women were expected to resign their FSO commissions upon marriage. That began to change, however, and today I would say the State Department is one of the most accepting, inclusive employers I know of. After all, almost everyone who works here loves to learn foreign languages and to live in and learn about foreign cultures. People are very open and accepting of differences.
Gays and lesbians, however, were routinely routed out of the Foreign Service into the early 1990s until a few of them had the courage to stand up and say "Enough!" They founded GLIFAA, known at that time as "Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies." Only in late 2010, when I learned of Chloe's experience at USAID in 2008, did it start to dawn on me that I might actually transition and keep my career.

Bucharest Pride march in June 2013.

Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Robyn: I have a typical story for a transgender woman of my generation. I reached out to the gender clinic at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in the 1970s but did not have the strength to follow through.
Married to a spouse who knew nothing, I said nothing until 1990. That led to a week in a psychiatric ward -- not uncommon even at that time -- followed by another two decades of deep hiding.
When I finally did come out at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest, Romania, in 2010-11, the reaction was just the opposite of what I had experienced during my earlier transition attempts. What once seemed impossible now seemed, if not easy, entirely possible. It was a matter of building support slowly among my colleagues and at higher levels both at the Embassy and in Washington. We even had a "Gender Transition Committee" with representatives from the various embassy offices to coordinate how we would prepare the Embassy's American and Romanian staff and make the announcement about my transition.
Press guidance was prepared just in case there would be press interest. (In the end, there was just one article in the Romanian press, and it was entirely favorable!) There were fears and jitters, but when we made the announcement on November 10, 2011, the expressions of support from both the U.S. and Romanian staff were overwhelming. Two days later I had my "coming out" at the Marine Ball, which is the height of the social season at any U.S. embassy.
Monika: You spent some time in Uzbekistan, Russia, and Romania. What is the situation of transgender women there?
Robyn: I served in Russia and Uzbekistan before my transition, so I don't know anything first-hand about the situation there. Romania, however, came to feel like a second home to me. I have many friends in the transgender communities both there and in neighboring Moldova. A few of them are more like family than friends.
In blue.
Since my own transition in Romania was such a success, it grieves me to see how much more difficult the situation is there for my transgender sisters and brothers. Changing documents for anyone in transition is extraordinarily difficult. I don't think more than a dozen people have succeeded so far.
For the most part, Romanian courts refer document change cases to the Institute of Legal Medicine where the methodologies of diagnosing and treating transgender persons are most definitely pre-WPATH. For this reason, many transgender women find themselves forced into being sex workers because they have little other choices. (I applaud them for living their lives in the only way open to them.)
For others who manage to find jobs, there is always fear that they will be found out. I know a young man who lives in fear that the church where he is choir director will find out that he is transgender. I know many transgender women and men who have been denied government services because their documents are at variance with their appearance and gender.
I tell all my transgender friends in Romania and Moldova that they are my heroines and heroes. They are bravely living their lives in societies where social conditions are like they were in the US of my youth. I did not have their strength when I was their age.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Robyn: George Kennan, one of the leading U.S. diplomats of the 20th century, wrote some sixty years ago that one of the ironies of being an FSO is that one gets better and better at representing U.S. interests abroad while coming to understand one's own country less and less. It comes from living most of one's life abroad. Thus the irony of my life is that I know more about transgender life in Romania than in the US! It's only since returning to Washington last summer that I've begun to know something of transgender society in my own country.
Even in this short time I've come to know that although we have come a long way in my lifetime, we still have a long way to go. Only sixteen of our states plus the District of Columbia have laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression.
Throughout most of the US, it is still entirely legal to fire someone just for being transgender. Even though those of us who work for the federal government are protected more and more by an increasing number of court decisions -- in particular the 2012 Macy vs. Holder decision by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- we are still denied transgender-related health care. There is a specific "transgender exclusion" in all health insurance policies for federal workers. One of my goals as president of GLIFAA is to see to it that this exclusion is removed.

Enjoying the outdoors in Western Maryland.

Monika: What has it been like to be the first transgender president of an LGBT association?
Robyn: If I have something to prove this year, it's that a transgender person can be an effective leader of an LGBT organization. GLIFAA has existed for 21 years now, and I am only the second woman, not to mention the first transgender woman, to serve as president. We have on the order of 300 members, most of whom are gay men.
It has been my goal this year to increase our diversity. I am no longer the only transgender FSO. I've been reaching out to bring our lesbian members and straight allies into GLIFAA's mainstream.
At the same time, I've been learning from my gay brothers. When we go into high-level meetings, I am often the one who advocates for what are mainly gay and lesbian issues. It's my gay and lesbian colleagues on GLIFAA's board who advocate for transgender health care. We are learning from each other. By the way, GLIFAA's "tag line" is now "LGBT+ in foreign affairs agencies."
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Robyn: Yes! In fact, I was the principal author of what we call an "ALDAC cable" on transgender issues. An ALDAC is an instruction to all U.S. diplomatic and consular posts. We sent this cable last November with the instruction that all posts push beyond gay and lesbian rights to include transgender issues when reporting on LGBT conditions, when engaging with host government officials, and when conducting outreach to LGBT communities worldwide.
We wanted the "T" to be something more than just the fourth letter in LGBT. The response was gratifying. A number of U.S. embassies participated in or organized their own Transgender Day of Remembrance observances. In the months since our posts worldwide have continued to engage on transgender issues.
Monika: Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in changing the world?
Robyn: Well, Monika, that is GLIFAA's entire purpose -- to lobby for better conditions for LGBT staff within our U.S. foreign affairs agencies! We also have a network of post representatives worldwide. When I was GLIFAA post representative in Romania, I met with government officials to discuss LGBT health issues in general and transgender health issues in particular. I will continue to do so when I go overseas again.

With U.S. writer Kevin Sessums on the Black Sea
in Constanta, Romania.

Monika: Where will you go next?
Robyn: I will be returning to Central Asia later this year. I'll be in a position with regional responsibilities covering: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. If you are anywhere near the "silk road," I may run into you!
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Robyn: The love of close friends and family are important to me. I have a grown, accepting 25-year-old son from my former marriage.
I have four sisters here in the US and have "emotionally adopted" a daughter and sister in Romania and Moldova. I'm still exploring the post-transition dating world. For the past several months I've been dating a wonderful man whom I met at a "speed dating" event last fall. Who knows what the future may bring?
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Robyn: I'm still experimenting. For work, I'm usually in a business suit or dress, but I like fitted jeans and a top when I'm on my own time. Did I mention that I ride a bicycle? That woman you see this summer in a skirt riding her touring bike up 13th Street in Washington could be me!
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Robyn: Right now I'm so busy serving as GLIFAA president that I've had to put my web journal on temporary hold. I'll turn GLIFAA over to the next board in August, after which I'll get back to my own writing. As to a book, who knows? It might be something to start on during long winter nights in Central Asia!
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls, dreaming about such a career as yours?
Robyn: Go for it! If you are a U.S. citizen and are interested in foreign affairs, sign up for the Foreign Service Officer Test at It's competitive, but it's also about the most open and fair hiring and interviewing process I know of. If you are in the Washington, DC, area, come to one of our monthly GLIFAA meetings or happy hours. We'd love to see you! Check us out at Write to us at if you have questions about what it's like to be a transgender woman working for the U.S. Department of State.
Most of all, know that the world has changed for transgender women in the US. What had seemed impossible to me forty years ago -- namely, to transition, live as myself, and have a fulfilling career -- is now entirely possible. I am thrilled to know that as difficult as our life paths are, it is getting better. The young transgender girls growing up today will go further, live their lives fully, and make the world an even better place than it is today.
Monika: Robyn, thank you for the interview! 
Robyn: Thank you, Monika, for your wonderful and much-needed web journal!

Note from Robyn: “Although I am employed by the U.S. Department of State, the views expressed in the notes published here are strictly my own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of State or the U.S. Government.”

All the photos: courtesy of Robyn Alice McCutcheon.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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