Six months ago I started planning for a trip to Russia. I was to accompany a group of students and faculty on a two-week educational exchange. We were going to visit Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Yaroslavl.
I had always wanted to visit this nation. I knew that many changes had occurred since my days in the Air Force when the Cold War was still raging on, but images of the Soviet Union still lurked in my mind. I wanted to ask Russians what they consider to be the biggest difference between their country and the United States. Does the Cold War propaganda of the past still linger in their minds? I also had more personal questions, and worries that go far beyond the battles of days long past. From the trip's planning stage to my last day in Moscow, I wondered and worried about my secret, but the beauty and differences I found in Russia kept me busy every moment.
When the plane left the runway in New York City, I tried to communicate with the passengers on each side of me. There were plenty of smiles but little conversation. I knew I was way out of my comfort zone, but I was still excited. Soon I was going to be living with a beautiful host family. They have three girls, ages 16, 8 and 3. I had a slight hint of apprehension if not fear as I mentally prepared myself for the family visit. I hoped to share my family and my values and show them that we all want the same things, that we all want to be loved, to grow and to be provided with the same opportunities to prosper. It is the same speech I give to groups in the United States, but without the LGBT -- and definitely not the "T" -- message.
As I prepared for the trip, I read troublesome news stories. I questioned whether I should even risk the trip. My family and some of my friends suggested that I wait for a better time, but I could not stop thinking that I might never have the opportunity to go again.
The more I researched the status of LGBT rights in Russia, the more I came to the conclusion that I must keep my family history top-secret. I could not discuss transgender children or transgender rights without real risks. It seemed surreal to think that I might create a "situation" abroad. I sought advice from people in tune with the politics in Russia, and they suggested that I still go and just be a tourist and enjoy the trip.
Soon I was walking around Red Square. As I soaked in this world treasure, I tried to imagine the millions of interactions that had occurred since the 18th century, when Catherine the Great started to build the square that we see today. The history of this place has been filled with glory and fear. I thought about how hard change can be when people are afraid and helpless.
I reminded myself that fear can motivate people to do things they never imagined. My own fears helped me change in ways I never thought possible. I learned to love and help support the transgender community, to become a voice for change. As I snapped pictures of Saint Basil's Cathedral, a student asked me, "What is the big smile for?" I said, "Freedom." She smiled. I think she thought I was talking about national freedom in general, not the basic freedoms we have recently won for LGBT people in the United States. I thought about how amazing change has been under President Obama's leadership. I am hopeful that this will continue, with those who come after him continuing to raise the bar even higher.
The people in Moscow appeared to be a bit standoffish, but they did not seem too concerned that a bunch of Americans were in their city. With all the news hype, I guess I imagined that we might see some hostility, but it was just the opposite. As we traveled as loud and often-animated Americans, the people provided numerous positive interactions. I had special moments with people in each city. Each brief encounter revealed that even during times of political unrest, people from around the world are still the same.
I brought a number of small gifts-- a few small Disney dolls, law-enforcement honor coins and a few special American coins -- to help break the ice. I presented a Walt Disney commemorative coin to our train attendant; she was all business and very serious until I showed her pictures of my babies and gave her the coin. She did not speak English but said "Mickey Mouse"; she smiled and said "thank you" many times. When we left the train I received a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. It was a special moment in time, some 21 hours north of Moscow.
When we arrived at our northern destination, a young soldier stepped off the train and into a large crowd of his friends. It was as if we'd been thrown back in time by several decades. His brown wool uniform easily could have been 1950s vintage apparel. He was beaming as he stepped off the train, receiving hugs and cheers from friends and family.
It must have been very odd to see a group of Americans step off the train right behind him. No one seemed to notice at first; they were caught up in the moment, celebrating this young man's return home. I was the last person off the train, and I too was soaking up the moment. I was wondering if it was safe to join them. I thought to myself, "I wish I had had the same opportunity when I arrived home from military service years ago." Within minutes I found myself walking up to that young soldier and presenting him with a Sheriff's Office Honor Coin from the City of Portland, Maine. The entire group went silent, but as he carefully inspected the gift, a huge smile appeared, and he said something to his friends. A big cheer broke out, but before I could enjoy the moment, I was quickly rushed away by our group leader, because I was lagging behind. I wondered what had been said and how the story might be told when he arrived at his home.
Time and time again I met and shared special moments with people in this huge country. I learned that once you get to know these somewhat closed and cautious people, they let you in. When they did, we shared stories and the things we love. Family comes first in Russia; they are hardworking people who want their children to have more than they had. They shared their homes, special meals, and banya (sauna), and we shared gifts from each other's countries and our hearts. I explained that it is the same way in the United States, but I stopped short of telling more about how we are different and how my family is different while also the same.
I am home now, wishing I might have told them more of the truth. I wish I could have discussed what it means to raise a transgender child. I wanted to help them understand that I learned that it is OK to be afraid, but that we cannot let our fears control our minds. This approach would be a great way for both countries to start a new dialogue.
I would like to have explained that when I meet people in the United States who are afraid or uncomfortable with transgender children or transgender rights, my most successful strategy is to share common bonds and tell the truth. I know from experience that doing so helps reach people's hearts so that we can all have the chance to learn and change our minds.
I met some amazing young people and a few great families in Russia. It was difficult to not be totally honest. I hope that I can now begin to communicate with my new friends from the safety of my own home. I hope that the bonds we formed will be strong enough to keep the doors open. Maybe someday the right dialogue will create positive change so that I might be allowed to return with my family so that they can experience the beautiful things I experienced in a land that is quite different from ours while still somewhat the same in many loving and proud ways. I hope we will continue to build on common ground so that our children might make the future safe and productive for all.