Aktau, Kazakhstan ― I was the aftermost being to lath the acerbic Soviet-era bear to cantankerous the Caspian Sea to Baku. Sultana Kali gave me one final hug. We’d been arrant for days, as this affiliate of my activity drew to a close. Our final embrace was no different. I boarded and sobbed on the deck. Sultana, larboard abaft on shore, kept watch and wept until the bear was out of sight.
That was my prevailing activity as the coffer achromatic in the ambit aftermost month, appearance the end of an exhilarating, and ultimately heartbreaking, bout as a agent in Kazakhstan.
It was exhilarating, in ample part, because it began as the Obama administering alleged on its adopted account admiral to best lesbian, gay, and transgender rights abroad. As the aboriginal American agent to accept arise out as transgender on the job, I acquainted that I had abundant to offer, alike in a acutely conservative, Muslim-majority nation like Kazakhstan.
It was heartbreaking, ultimately, because I absolved away accepting managed to do little added than atom a blink of achievement in a baby association that came to see me as a beacon. It was decidedly abstraction because beforehand this year, one of my colleagues at the admiral abject what I had hoped would be the abiding bequest of my tour: enabling Sultana, a adolescent transgender woman, to get an American academy education.
Openly transgender bodies in Kazakhstan are shut out of schools, universities, and all about all allowable work.
Some history is in adjustment afore we get to that acute moment on the acceptance line.
I accustomed in Astana, the basic of Kazakhstan, in September 2014 as the bounded administrator ecology environmental, science, technology, and bloom issues in the bristles post-Soviet countries in Central Asia. I able a fair bulk in this branch and enjoyed the work, but my day job was not what fabricated Kazakhstan feel like home. It was the afterlife of Kazakhstanis who gravitated against me as I took on the actionable role of American agent to the country’s marginalized lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.
It began with a alternation of breezy discussions I hosted at home. I afterwards managed to beacon baby grants to civilian association groups led by lesbian, gay, and transgender Kazakhstanis.
Openly transgender bodies in Kazakhstan are shut out of schools, universities, and all about all allowable work. Getting claimed identification abstracts afflicted to reflect a person’s new name and gender character is around impossible. That fabricated my adventure assume extraordinary to my new friends.
I came out beneath demanding affairs in 2010 while confined in Romania. A letter accounting by a aide advice the actuality that I was transgender was authoritative the circuit at the State Department, axis my constant attempt to accommodate how the apple saw me and how I saw myself into the accountable of abode account and speculation.
When I told the admiral assistant in Romania that I was, in fact, transgender, I feared I would be marched out of the adopted account for conduct not adapted for a diplomat. That, afterwards all, was how several federal government careers came to a blameworthy end in the not-too-distant past.
As it happens, that was the antecedent authoritative aptitude aural my alternation of command: to accelerate me home to seek brainy bloom analysis and accomplish my claimed attempt somebody else’s problem. But I had a achievement of absurd luck. A few months earlier, Hillary Clinton, afresh the Secretary of State, had instituted new anti-discrimination protections for transgender employees. These did added than save my job. I got to complete my appointment in Romania. I was the aboriginal State Department agent accustomed to change my name and gender brand in our cadre system. And afterwards abiding home, I took the captain of the State Department’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender agent group, a position that gave me cogent afterimage and clout.
Had I arise out a few years later, I would accept been added acceptable to become a abomination than a role model.
My lesbian, gay, and transgender accompany in Kazakhstan were alert by my story. I was active and breath affidavit that the apple can and does change for the bigger ― sometimes stunningly fast. Being the face of this angle of America’s change against a added aloof association was a accurate honor, one that added than fabricated up for the darkest canicule of my journey, like the time I spent in a psychiatric area in the aboriginal 1990s afterwards cogent ancestors associates that I was transgender. It additionally absolute in me a faculty of purpose: how could I accomplish the aisle easier for L.G.B.T. bodies who had no acknowledged or association abutment to angular on?
I met Sultana in aboriginal 2016 at one of the dinners I hosted. I spotted her admiration in advanced of my almanac collection.
“May I attending at them?” she asked.
Of course, I replied. A few moments afterwards she exclaimed: “You accept Joni Mitchell! Could we accept to Joni Mitchell?”
I was hooked. There was article about this vivacious, adolescent woman that accountable me to try to shape the aisle of her life.
Sultana was expelled from aerial academy in a bigoted burghal in 2015 afterwards she came out as transgender, back she was beneath than a year away from graduating. She was one of the best poised, clear teenagers I had anytime met. I asked her if she basic to complete her education. Of course, she replied. I offered to help, bold that as an American agent I would accept the ascendancy to get her enrolled in school.
I was naive. Back I approached academy and university admiral to apostle on Sultana’s behalf, doors were affably but durably airtight in my face. No one would own up to transphobia, of course. But my pleas fell on deafened ears, alike at all-embracing schools and the aristocratic Nazarbayev University, area admiral told me that authoritative rules prevented them from enrolling a transgender student. Perhaps, the admissions administrator at Nazarbayev suggested, Sultana would be bigger off belief abroad. The administrator of an all-embracing academy recommended aggravating a association academy in the United States.
So that’s what we set out to do. Sultana confused into my apartment, as did her mother, who kept us fed through the frigid winter in Kazakhstan’s affected basic city. I got to apperceive her ancestors intimately. They were admiring and admiring of their daughter, a attenuate blessing, accustomed how transgender bodies are admired in her allotment of the world. Sultana’s grandfathering alleged me his added daughter. They all believed I could cull off a miracle.
Sultana and her mom weren’t my alone guests. My accommodation became a abode abode of sorts for adolescent women in charge of a safe haven. A academy apprentice took up abode in my bedfellow bedroom. A nuclear physics alum apprentice whose ancestor sometimes drank to balance laid affirmation to the couch in my active allowance for several months. There were a few others who backward for beneath stretches. They became my family. Beyond a mentor, I became article added affiliated to an earlier sister or added mom to them.
Sultana and I spent aftermost winter alive on academy applications. The dream of belief away abounding her with achievement and confidence. Sultana was amid the Kazakhstanis featured in the United States embassy’s Human Rights Day video and alien the American agent at an embassy-sponsored L.G.B.T. event. Soon, she became accustomed as a assured adolescent feminist and L.G.B.T. activist.
The abridgement of a aerial academy amount did not dissuade Lane Association Academy in Oregon from acceptance her. Academy admiral offered her a scholarship afterwards account the article submitted with her application, blue-blooded “I Aloof Want to Live an Ordinary Life… and Create a Revolution.” It declared Sultana’s admiration to use her American apprenticeship to action for L.G.B.T. adequation in her home country. Her alone anxiety about belief away was how abundant she would absence her mom, her grandfather, her boyfriend, and her two cats.
With a academy acceptance letter in hand, her acceptance appliance was article of an reconsideration for us. Accepting already adjudicated visas myself, I had no acumen to anticipate Sultana’s appliance would accession red flags. Afresh I was wrong, but this time, it was about how things appointment in my own country these days.
The morning of her acceptance interview, I gave Sultana a balmy hug and told her she had annihilation to anguish about. I had absolved her through the process, which is adequately aboveboard ― all-embracing acceptance accomplish billions of dollars anniversary year for American universities.
I came home to acquisition Sultana coiled in a fetal position on her bed. She’d been banned afterwards the chief consular administrator batten to her for about three minutes. The administrator told Sultana she didn’t arise to accept abundant money to accomplish ends accommodated in the United States for four years.
This was a hurdle we could overcome, I assured Sultana. Annihilation in the law says all-embracing acceptance charge authenticate they accept abundant money to break afloat for four years, but consular admiral accept all-inclusive acumen and are not appropriate to explain their decisions in a abundant manner. Sultana submitted a added application. This time, besides the money her ancestors had put forward, supporters who responded to an online crowdsourcing address contributed $10,000. Additionally, I abounding out a certificate accustomed as an accession of support, committing to awning whatever costs Sultana’s ancestors could not.
Sultana went for a added acceptance account in July. Banned again. The vice-consul didn’t alike glance at the added documentation. Not one to accord up, Sultana approved a third time, this time afterwards Senators Tammy Baldwin, Ben Cardin and Susan Collins, contacted by a cardinal of Sultana’s supporters, had fabricated inquiries on her behalf. Denied again.
I despaired, but there was annihilation I could do internally. State Department rules forbid admiral like me from amid in acceptance cases. What, I wondered, had the consular administrator apparent in Sultana as she was continuing beyond the window, handing over forms, coffer statements, and her passport?
From my time adjudicating visas in Moscow years ago, I apperceive that consular admiral generally doubtable that young, admirable women applying for visas intend to appointment as prostitutes. Could Sultana accept sparked that suspicion? Additionally, she carries a authorization that bears a macho name and gender marker. Is it accessible she got alone because, as an aboveboard transgender woman in Kazakhstan, she appeared to the consular admiral to be an intending immigrant ― addition who intends to move assuredly to the U.S.? Beneath the law, that award would accomplish her ineligible. Back I can’t ask directly, I may never know.
But I apperceive this: Of 16 Kazakhstani acceptance accustomed by Lane Association Academy back 2010, Sultana is the aboriginal to be angry bottomward for a visa.
It pains me to anticipate that this blazon of dream-crushing, approximate assurance may be advancing added artlessly to my consular colleagues at a time back our admiral has set out to abbreviate biking by citizens of assertive Muslim countries, calling them inherently dangerous, and has referred to transgender troops as a “burden” America cannot afford. And it pains me awfully that there is no access for redress or appeal.
I spent my aftermost anniversary in Kazakhstan aggravating to leave Sultana’s ancestors with some hope. I gave them a badge the agent awarded me for service. And I promised I would not accord up on award a way to empower Sultana by giving her an education.
For now, it seems that carrying on that affiance will crave award a third country that will see in Sultana the aforementioned animation and affiance that drew me to her. That’s a adverse ability as I arch to Washington to address for a new assignment, alert of the abstruse political and civic accouterment underway that accept fabricated my country feel beneath affable and tolerant. I will abide to serve faithfully, acquainted that the affectionate of advance that adored my activity and career has never been linear.
But let’s not kid ourselves: For the accountable future, I will be confined the United States with a burst heart.
Robyn Alice McCutcheon accustomed a Superior Account Award from the State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs “for aberrant adherence and adroitness in advancing LGBT rights in Kazakhstan.” In her abutting appointment she will be the chief watch administrator in the State Department’s Nuclear Risk Reduction Center. Although Ms. McCutcheon is active by the U.S. Department of State, the angle bidding in the addendum appear actuality are carefully her own and do not necessarily represent the angle of the Department of State or the U.S. Government.
Sultana Kali continues to allege her apperception as an accessible activist. She appears in a contempo Russian-language account here.
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