Musings of an “East Coast liberal elite” on Thanksgiving

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It’s Thanksgiving, and so far I have sat mute as numerous messages have reached me across the Internet from friends and family, effusive in their gratitude for the many blessings that characterize their lives and relationships. These are sincere, warm, caring messages, and it is wonderful that this holiday opens the door to such expressions. Throughout the rest of the year, none of us says “thank you” nearly enough.

This year, however, I have not found the words inside me to be warmly responsive to these sentiments. Maybe I am just in a funky place…which might be forgivable in my current circumstances. I’m still trying – without measurable success – to make any sense of the recent presidential election, as the American political landscape seems to have entered into a place of irrationality and deep division. While the world around me seems very insecure, my own personal world also has more than a fair share of insecurity.  I’ve been unemployed (not counting a few consulting assignments and some modestly-remunerated adjunct teaching) for the past two years, despite my monumental efforts to find a new job. Success in securing employment eludes me. My small savings long ago were depleted, and despite many job applications still “pending” my prospects continue to look bleak. So…I am finding myself blocked from that congenial space in which to muse upon my blessings. I might take some small satisfaction in laying some blame for my plight on ageism and transphobia, but placing blame won’t change a culture that excludes well-qualified people from employment opportunities simply because they are mature, experienced, and living authentically.

Still, I know all too well that I am blessed.

I do indeed have much to be thankful for: my health, my family and friends, my Quaker faith community, my excellent education, my life’s narrative of so many international adventures, my growing and inspirational global community of LGBTI persons and allies. I should even be grateful for my cat…he’s a good cat.

Optimistic, idealistic do-gooders are generally not esteemed in society (cats or no cats), especially by those of a more hard-edged, pragmatic character. Still, I am grateful for my resilient idealism, despite the many knocks along the way. Among these ideals that mean the most to me are two: 1) that human dignity is universal, and 2) that ethical leadership makes all the difference in getting to a place where societies honor that dignity…for everyone. Continue reading Musings of an “East Coast liberal elite” on Thanksgiving

Wrapped in the flag

 

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Following the recent election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America, the prospects for a strengthening of universal respect for human dignity and human rights around the world are hardly sanguine.

There exists a long if occasionally erratic tradition of American leadership in the promotion and protection of human rights around the world, stretching back to 1919 when President Wilson carried his Fourteen Points to the Versailles conference, and later bolstered dramatically in 1948 by Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership in the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That legacy is threatened to fade into obscurity and irrelevance as this new Administration adopts an emphatically pro-American, self-interested stance in its foreign policy. We already know from the 2016 Republican Party platform that U.S. foreign aid is being construed first and foremost as a “critical tool for advancing America’s security and economic interests,” and that U.S. foreign aid must therefore serve U.S. strategic interests first. As for the plight of the impoverished and powerless people in countries where an authoritarian ruling elite has adopted an anti-American posture, Trump’s “America First” agenda and his pledge to “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us” are likely to compound their suffering. The RNC’s platform does make a commitment to the integration of human rights issues at “every appropriate level” of American bilateral engagements, yet it remains unclear whether this view of human rights is strictly linked to tightly legalistic interpretations of international treaty commitments or whether the deeper moral principles of universal human dignity and human rights will be accessed and accentuated by the new Administration. We can but hope at this stage, yet the Republican Party’s stand on sexual orientation and gender identity certainly begs the question of whether Trump’s team will even consider LGBTI concerns as human rights issues, particularly whenever such concerns come into conflict with the priorities of certain influential faith-based groups.

There is even talk within the Washington rumor mill of transitioning the US Agency for International Development (USAID) directly into the US State Department, intentionally obscuring the institutional division between diplomacy and development. This division has been very important to date, as “development people” tend to view their mission as being first and foremost about fostering freedom and human well-being around the globe, recognizing that this is a long-term endeavor that ultimately serves the interests of the entire planet – which includes America. The diplomats carry out a different and also important role, looking after the strategic short-term interests of this country as we engage with other nations around the world in a wide variety of contexts. There’s significant overlap between these two international frameworks and their respective roles, but they are distinctive and they are different. Were we to lose that autonomous voice of the world’s largest bilateral foreign aid entity championing human development, seeing it subsumed to a mere footnote in an American diplomacy focused only on “making America great again” in the short term, we would all be diminished.

Under such an institutional revamping in which the longer-term view is waved aside, the prospects for the world’s poorest people look particularly bleak. Continue reading Wrapped in the flag

The fight for America’s soul

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Transgender people know what it means to fight for our souls. After all, it really isn’t a choice. If we fail to live our lives in full commitment to who we are, we lose our identity. Without our identity, we lose meaning. We lose joy. We lose self-respect.

We lose.

Yesterday evening America lost. Now we have to fight to get her back again. After all, it really isn’t a choice. If America fails to conduct itself as a nation committed to the principles she was founded on – “American values” for which so many have sacrificed and struggled and died – we lose our meaning and our place in history as a great nation. We lose any reason to be proud. Far from becoming “great again”, we become small…just another country with a narcissistic, self-serving, unprincipled ruler, and a citizenry who has been conned into thinking that this is who we are.

If that becomes the status quo, we all lose.

It may not seem very obvious this morning, but America is still a nation of ethical principles founded on revolutionary ideals of universal dignity and freedom. We are a nation where human rights values are manifest in our laws, and where we innately know that our (much eroded) tradition of civility in public discourse is necessary if we are to foster our co-existence as a diverse society with a common identity. We are a nation where we have labored hard to create and sustain strong democratic institutions characterized by integrity, self-sacrifice, justice, compassion, and the service of the common good. America is about freedom of religion. America is about caring for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. America is about responsibility to our children and our grandchildren and generations yet unborn, especially in the face of a threat as existential and monumental as global climate change.

That is my America, but this American awoke this morning with a new edge of vulnerability.

My suspicions are that the vast majority of those who voted in Donald Trump yesterday do not view me and those such as me as human beings worthy of respect. If you think locker room talk is corrosive to the dignity of women, that low standard of behavior that the majority of American voters chose to overlook isn’t limited to misogyny and tough-guy boasting. For those who are at home in that particular locker room, there is a special dialogue of enmity and scorn for anyone who dares to challenge the assigned-at-birth gender binary. The prospects for transgender rights were dealt an enormous set-back last night, and that has implications across the civil rights spectrum for so many minorities in this country. While we may all be Americans, we who are members of sexual minorities find ourselves set-aside and “othered”.

Yet…if we bother to try, each of us is able to feel what “America” means. OK, this morning it is harder: it is now more darkly obscured by venal politicians, the irresponsible media, self-righteously intolerant faith leaders, faulty polls that we won’t ever trust again, and by all those Americans who cling to “deplorable” sensibilities and values. Yes, Secretary Clinton was wrong to use that adjective for the people she targeted, but she was absolutely correct using it to describe their behavior and their attitudes – their intolerance, smallness-of-spirit, isolationism, misogyny, racism, and profound lack of civility. “Trump the bitch” is deplorable. Threatening one’s political opponent with jail is deplorable. Promising to renege on the Paris Agreement on global climate change is deplorable. Suggesting that America will return to torturing suspected terrorists with water boarding (or worse) is deplorable.  Urging the summary deportation of millions of undocumented people is deplorable. Claiming Mexican immigrants are all rapists and criminals is deplorable. Closing the country to Muslim visitors and igniting a national witch-hunt against Muslims who are already here is deplorable.

Voting for all of this was deplorable, and frankly beyond my comprehension. Continue reading The fight for America’s soul

Normalizing America – in a vacuum of values

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I would never have believed we, as a nation, could come to this.

Perhaps I should take some comfort in knowing that I’m not alone in my perplexed disbelief. In an op-ed in the Washington Post published today, Republican columnist and former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson shared his own incredulity, and his words speak directly to my own pre-election anxieties:

“It is almost beyond belief that Americans should bless and normalize Trump’s appeal. Normalize vindictiveness and prejudice. Normalize bragging about sexual assault and the objectification of women. Normalize conspiracy theories and the abandonment of reason. Normalize contempt for the vulnerable, including disabled people and refugees fleeing oppression. Normalize a political tone that dehumanizes opponents and excuses violence. Normalize an appeal to white identity in a nation where racial discord and conflict are always close to the surface. Normalize every shouted epithet, every cruel ethnic and religious stereotype, every act of bullying in the cause of American “greatness” … In the end, a Trump victory would normalize the belief that the structures of self-government are unequal to the crisis of our time.”

Why are such pernicious, appalling values being normalized? Why are so many Americans completely unconcerned as Trump wreaks havoc with truthfulness by doubling down on lies and on his distortions of well-documented facts?  Why are so many Americans committed to a leader who assaults the very premise of our democracy, i.e. that we as a nation are able to rise together in collaboration to address the challenges that confront us, and to seize the opportunities that await us?  Why are so many Americans so  enthusiastic in their support of a leader who takes pride in turning his back on the urgent threat of global climate change – despite the proven (and progressively self-evident) devastating impacts that will affect their own children, grandchildren, and generations yet unborn? Why are the promises of short-term economic gains so alluring, ignoring all of the subsequent trade-offs of long term (and in many cases) irreparable harms to our economy, our environment, our security, and our sense of ourselves as a nation? In short, why are the polls so damnably close, with the election just days away?

My best guess is that we have lost our sense of direction as a nation.  We have no moral compass, and many of us don’t give a damn.

No, a moral compass isn’t the latest app that can be downloaded onto your smartphone. You may know it best by its absence – the lack of any discernible institutionalized process of robust discussion of secular values in our society at large, and specifically in the corridors of governance. Instead, “values” and “morality” have fallen victim to claims associated with narrow ideologies – and to vagueness – with expressions such as “traditional values”, “family values”, the “moral majority”, and even “American values” often being rhetorical devices to advocate for very narrow and often very polarizing political, cultural, or religious objectives. The idea that secular morality and ethics forms a common societal unifying platform – a deliberative space in which people are respected, listened to, and able to share their well-informed and considered views without jeopardy – is now largely a lost notion. Even our fundamental national institution of deliberation, our Congress, has lost even the pretense of deliberative, mutually respectful discourse and debate on the issues that affect us all. When was the last time that Senators or Representatives actually debated an issue?

The mechanism at the heart of any moral compass is ethics – a system of moral values that guides discernment and decision-making. Sadly, that mechanism has atrophied, due in large measure to semantics. Few really know what “ethics” means. In the media and in the public consciousness, “ethics” as a discipline has been narrowly redefined by the lawyers and legislators, who have reduced and reinterpreted the word to mean little more than compliance with codes of conduct and disclosure, with legal requirements, and with avoidance of conflicts of interest (or the appearance thereof). It’s pretty dry stuff, and not likely to stimulate much lively discourse. While compliance and legal propriety have obvious importance, limiting the role of ethics in this way diminishes ethics to nothing more than a skeletal version of its essential secular and governance role.  Secular ethics and morality exist to make our values explicit and meaningful, to provide the societal glue to bind us together and to guide our progress and direction as a society. Through the application of secular ethics, we learn to recognize which values have the most relevance to specific situations, which values deserve to be respected as universal, and how best to use this knowledge to forge a persuasive social consensus on the shared values, rights, and principles that allow us to cohere as a society and as a nation.

In short, we need that moral compass to guide how we normalize the secular values and human rights that ought to define us, and to reject those values that discredit us as a people. Michael Gerson’s description of what is now being “normalized” clearly shows little reference by Americans to the application of such a moral compass.

What might such a moral compass guide us toward? Continue reading Normalizing America – in a vacuum of values

An endorsement for Hillary – from the fringes

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Last night I shared the stage with prominent politicians and activists: Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Neera Tanden (president of the Center for American Progress), Helene Gayle (CEO of McKinsey Social Initiative) and others of note. It’s not my usual crowd, granted, but we were all there with a common purpose – to rally the troops in these final “get out the vote” days of the Hillary Clinton campaign, and to help move her forward to claim her place in history. The first woman President – it’s been such a long wait!

Humility aside, I was delighted to be invited to speak to the large crowd gathered at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C.  But as I began my address I paused; I had to share with them the obvious: that there almost certainly would not be a Republic campaign event anywhere in the country that would have an openly transgender woman at the speakers’ podium.

This was special.

My invitation to speak – while special – was no accident. Instead, my presence was clearly intended to underpin a central message of the Hillary Clinton campaign: “stronger together”. I was included, alongside the political and activist luminaries, because “stronger together” means all of us – even those whom society typically places at the fringes.

There is also some personal history here. For me, the invitation first came from President Obama, when I was asked by his Administration to become one of the first three transgender political appointees in this nation’s history, and the very first in the foreign affairs agencies. More invitations followed, including a monthly invitation to all three of us to come to the White House. Once there, Amanda Simpson, Dylan Orr, and I were invited to suggest how they – the White House – might best address the plight of transgender people. And they listened, and each month they reported back to us!

At those monthly meetings, the three of us each had much to share. The daily realities faced by this highly-marginalized group – my people – remain bleak. We struggle to be accepted, to avoid persecution and violence, and to access things that most people take for granted…a chance at a job, the ability to rent an apartment, insurance coverage that doesn’t exclude our health needs, and a future free from becoming just another statistic in a worsening epidemic of murder of transgender women sweeping this country, especially for my Black transgender sisters.

Despite this profound set of challenges, it’s not all bad. In many important ways, things have been getting better. Under President Obama, the Democrats have had our backs, and the transgender-specific campaign promises that Secretary Clinton has placed on her website make it very clear that this will continue, and will gain even more momentum. We’re counting on that. Continue reading An endorsement for Hillary – from the fringes

Feisty canaries, and this election.

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With election day just three weeks away, people like me have more cause than many to be wary. American society stands at a vulnerable place, characterized by one political campaign that is built on fomenting anger. Anytime that such deep discontent is viewed instrumentally as an incendiary resource to be ignited to political ends, many unrelated dimensions of societal ignorance are also made kindling to the flames. Intensified exclusion, persecution, bullying, and violence have their roots in that ignorance – and what happens next in that context matters greatly to us.

Ignorance about people who are like me, however, isn’t limited to those of one political party, or to any specific socioeconomic class. There are many with advanced degrees and distinguished careers, people who are successful in business and in government – in short, people who are respected by their communities – who are ignorant about my small group of people at the fringe. Perhaps they can afford to be ignorant; we’ve been kept in the shadows – or far worse – throughout human history, and we’re so few in number that what society does with us really doesn’t seem to matter very much to the majority. As for those few awkward times when – for whatever reason – we can no longer be ignored, our very existence makes ignorant people squirm with discomfort, or look for ways to dismiss the very idea of us. Off-color, hurtful jokes seem to work for some, and self-righteous indignation for others, but it remains a fact: people like me – or at least the idea of people like me – frighten many Americans. I know that ignorance gives birth to fear. Still, I don’t think of myself as particularly frightening.

Such fear is out there, however. I’ve seen the manifestations of both that ignorance and the ensuing fear far too frequently in my interactions with some of my fellow citizens, at least when they have had reason to Google me.   It isn’t pleasant…like when I’ve applied for a job with someone’s organization, and the promising dialogue suddenly goes quiet. Next applicant…!

This is the political season, and political leaders are successful to the extent that they can read the hopes and dreams, worries and fears, of the people whose votes they depend upon. If they are truly transformational leaders, they are busy building or at least refining a vision that will excite, motivate, and inspire their followers. Hopes and dreams are the stuff of such visions and become the grit that electoral agendas depend upon for traction, yet some astute if less principled politicians also know that ignorance and fear can be played to their advantage too, even if at the cost of someone else. Visions need not always be virtuous, or even benign.

Right now, I and those who wear a similar label know that we will never be a “big issue”, yet how this election turns out will have a profound impact on our futures. We know that we’re few, and that we are at the fringes. But in heated, fractious school board meetings around this country, and on far too many places in social media, we are the topic. Some – in fact more than a few – local and state leaders recognize that, and across this nation there are numerous bills that await consideration by legislators and town councils that have but one purpose: to move us back into the shadows from which we have had the audacity to emerge. At times like this, marginalized groups appeal to a higher authority – the state or the federal government – to step up and be counted. And sometimes, even for people like me, they actually do.

Still, it’s not always good news. In Texas, Republican state attorney general Ken Paxton’s idea of stepping up is to exploit ignorance and fear by making it part of the political agenda. He filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of more than a dozen states to contest how a different political leader – President Obama – has met the leadership challenge of ignorance and fear. President Obama and his administration knew that they had neither the time nor the resources to educate or foster empathy among the entire American electorate, but they recognized that they could at least take measures that protect us, and demonstrate respect for our inherent dignity.

Even if we are transgender. Continue reading Feisty canaries, and this election.

Honorable – and transgender.

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I have quite an honorable week ahead of me, and it’s giving me pause.

On Tuesday evening, after the genuine honor and delight of teaching my “ethics and international development class” at the University of Maryland, I’ll make my way to a gathering in Washington that is admittedly a political fund-raiser, but also a moment of deep solidarity among Hillary Clinton LGBTI supporters and our allies, organized by the Foreign Policy Professionals for Hillary. I’ll be on the speakers’ panel with some truly distinguished folks – an activist who was once the openly gay U.S. Ambassador to Romania, the former senior LGBTI staffer at the White House, the former Special Advisor on Secretary Clinton’s Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State, the Executive Director of Gender Rights Maryland, and a Research Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University. These are smart, committed, thoughtful, caring, determined, and honorable people, and yes – it will indeed be an honor to be counted among them.

Later in the week, on Thursday night, I will again be in Washington at Center Global’s 4th Annual reception and fund-raiser. This organization works very hard (on a too-modest budget) to assist, welcome, care for, and stand in solidarity with LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers from around the world. Such refugees and asylum seekers often arrive with little more than the clothes on their backs, and with their hearts and minds bruised and burdened by histories of deep trauma, persecution, and even violence. They need to heal. Center Global provides the essential welcome and safe refuge for that healing to begin, as well as much practical guidance to ease them through their adjustment to this new country. Among the Annual Reception’s three awardees that evening will be one who never expected to be there, and who is – quite frankly – overwhelmed at this recognition and enormous honor: the recipient of the Global Advocate Award.

Me.

The following day I will fly to Rhode Island, where on Saturday morning I will give a talk at the annual American Electrology Association‘s Convention. Electrology? Yes – for many transgender women, electrologists are an essential resource on the gender transition journey, and this profession has been at the forefront in accepting, welcoming, and providing quality services to transgender women. Given the fact that facial hair removal can easily exceed 300 hours of (painful!) treatment stretched out over many years, we often develop very good friendships with these caring and professional frontline service providers – our valued allies in the transition process. Still, being honored by this invitation from a national association is remarkable, and I am humbled.

There’s a certain irony to all this honorable attention. While I’m very comfortable in public speaking situations, and believe that my relatively unusual journey as a transgender person has bestowed upon me some important messages that warrant sharing, I’m also by most prominent economic measures a failure. Why would I be honored? Like so many transgender people in the United States and around the world, I cannot find full-time employment. Continue reading Honorable – and transgender.

A “dream career”?

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I recently received an email from my son’s friend at college, a young woman who is a passionate campus ally in her activism on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity here in the United States. She made a passing reference to my own work on LGBTI issues international as a “dream career”.

Is it?

First, “career” is probably not the best noun to describe what many of us who are active in international LGBTI advocacy and development are about. There is almost no money to support such efforts in the Global South (the less developed countries in the world), or in other regions (Russia, Eastern Europe) where LGBTI lives are most at risk. There are also very few actual salaried jobs; very few organizations make such global concerns their priority. Instead, we do this work because we care about the plight of LGBTI people abroad, and we know that just a very modest amount of financial support would move mountains in terms of meeting their development aspirations.

As for “dream”, in reality the dream is more often a nightmare. What many LGBTI persons in the Global South, Russia, and Eastern Europe confront on a daily basis is beyond comprehension by most people in the United States. True, it is now widely reported that homosexuality is illegal in over 70 countries, yet the fact of such illegality is only a top-level indicator of astounding levels of ignorance and pernicious social values that frequently relegate LGBTI people to sub-human status, or otherwise demean, humiliate, persecute, exclude, reject, bully, isolate, scapegoat, assault, torture, or kill such LGBTI persons. In short, throughout much of the world, any discussion of social inclusion and human rights for LGBTI persons is a very tragic narrative indeed.

Behind this narrative are real persons. My “career” fills me with their names and faces, their big hearts and warm smiles, their gentle spirits and youthful exuberance, and their suffering. Some of these “real persons” whom I have come to know and care for are now dead, victimized by the homophobia and transphobia that is so rampant. I carry these “real persons” – the living and the dead – with me every day, but in the absence of much global concern and with so few resources available to help them, “carry them” is often the most that I can offer. It isn’t enough.

In many instances, the toxic attitudes and values that characterize homophobia and transphobia have their origins among faith-based groups and religious leaders – sometimes with the moral and financial support of religious zealots from the United States – although such support isn’t limited to some fringe streams of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. Many Muslim countries, particularly in the Middle East, set grim standards for the abuse, torture, and killing of LGBTI persons, claiming that this is somehow justified by their religions. Around the world, it is relatively easy to distort or misinterpret religious values in all faith traditions to “justify” the hatred and persecution of LGBTI persons.

Aspiring politicians in much of the Global South, Russia, and Eastern Europe (and yes, many in Western Europe and North America too) are also often quick to realize the many advantages of blaming any number of societal ills on vulnerable sexual minorities, which spares them the trouble of actually working to solve genuine public policy issues, fight corruption, or pursue actual principles of justice and caring. Much of the world’s media also sees a lucrative market in exploiting bigotry, prejudice, and hatred directed at LGBTI persons and their organizations – one need look no further that the infamous “kill the gays” headline and list of 200 people alleged to be gay which appeared in Uganda’s Red Pepper tabloid on February 25th of 2014.

We are learning more all the time. LGBTI persons themselves – often with support from wonderful organizations such as Human Rights Watch – are making their voices heard more loudly and clearly each day, in videos, podcasts, blogs, and social media. Take a look at a recent video about the realities faced by transgender persons in Sri Lanka, listen to the podcasts of Nigerian LGBTI activists, see a news report of an LGBTI activist in Myanmar, or read English language news about LGBTI people and issues in Turkey. While we still lack adequate analytical data that is essential to move and to fund major policy initiatives or to support scholarly research, the growth in anecdotal data – narratives – is exponential.

We can no longer plead ignorance. Continue reading A “dream career”?

Squeamish and freaked-out

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The application went in, and in relatively short order I was thrilled to be invited to an interview. The international development consulting firm in the suburbs of Washington, DC is well-established, large, and successful, even if it is headquartered in another state. It would be wonderful to work there. In due course the interview took place, and it was all smiles. I was warmly received, but was told that there would need to be one more interview. A formality, really. More smiles. It would be scheduled shortly. I was cordially escorted to the door, and the body language looked terrific. Yes!

That final interview never happened. I waited and waited, and when I finally inquired, I was told that I was no longer a candidate for this position. No reasons were offered, and none given – even when I asked. They never are, of course.

This wasn’t the first time that such experiences – or uncomfortably similar episodes – have taken place in my now 22-month job quest. There isn’t any way to prove discrimination in what is happening, but it probably isn’t ageism since in each of these episodes I have already made it past that filter – itself quite an accomplishment. That isn’t to diminish how many times I wasn’t invited to an interview because of my age. Despite having great qualifications and exercising a lot of care in the selection of only the most appropriate job opportunities to pursue, even getting to the interview is rare.

Being cast aside after an interview is a curious experience for me. I’m really good at interviews. In some perverse way, I actually enjoy interviews! So why the poor success rate post-interview, all those smiles notwithstanding? My guess is that they subsequently did their more comprehensive digital research and came up with a fact about my “history” that hadn’t surfaced in the interview or in the application process to date.  Something that they would not have known about me just from talking with me at an interview…

They found out that I am transgender.

It is a rare job indeed where that status is an asset in terms of recruitment, and having a “gender history” is relatively difficult to conceal on-line. For those of us who’ve been very active in LGBTQ advocacy and – in my case – have held high-level positions associated with LGBTQ issues, it is integral to who I am. I’m neither proud nor ashamed to be transgender. Those are the cards I was dealt, and I get on with it. And while I don’t ever pin the label to myself in my resume, and seldom in my cover letter, that “truth” is but a few Google clicks away.

My mind plays out several scenarios about how that information is received by a potential employer when it is unearthed through their due-diligence background checks. I have ample scenario-material to draw upon, as I have seen how many people in the typical senior executive bracket (i.e. mostly male, mostly white, mostly straight, and always cisgender) react to the whole notion of transgender women. I think the word “squeamish” describes it well, but “freaked-out” also works. When such senior executives get close to a decision on a candidate, it doesn’t do my cause any good if they are either squeamish or freaked-out! That final interview or job offer never happens. Continue reading Squeamish and freaked-out

Any room for idealism in a “results-driven” age?

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I often (perhaps too often) post on social media about some urgent human rights, social inclusion, or justice issue that I’m feeling deeply moved by. Such concerns are a very prominent part of who I am and what I’m about, and how I strive in my own small ways to make this a better world. Yet I know that personal and family news always seems to score the highest number of “likes” on Facebook or Twitter postings. When I recently posted about my son Ian’s very positive interview to become a Peace Corps Volunteer (possibly in the West African, Francophone country of Benin) the response was overwhelming. I’ve never received so many “likes” on Facebook, from both Ian’s friends and mine.

While Ian and I await a decision on his application, I’m left to ponder what it is that makes the Peace Corps so special in the American psyche, and so respected by me and by so many people here and in developing countries. And perhaps not surprising for someone with over three decades working as an international development practitioner and activist, I can’t help but compare the Peace Corps model to the evolving and ever-consolidating modern American (and increasingly multinational) development “industry” of for-profit firms and NGOs, fiercely competing for each contract and grant in a tight and under-resourced market.

To be clear, the Peace Corps is not universally admired. It’s regularly criticized as a federal Agency without a clear mission: a development agency that isn’t all that good at sustainable development and one that doesn’t hold its development results or effectiveness abroad up to public scrutiny by hard-pressed American taxpayers. It is castigated as an organization that places Volunteers – many fresh out of college and largely innocent in the ways of the world – into situations that are potentially very dangerous, all for reasons that are not all that clear.  Others see it as yet another example of federal government overreach; a chrysalis of globalization or a taxpayer-sponsored development “boot camp” to forge the future leaders of American development firms and non-profits to be competitive in the international arena. Why should taxpayers carry the burden of transforming Volunteers into dirt-under-their-fingernails global citizens made world-weary by the complexities and impact of poverty, diverse cultural values, and faraway community dynamics? Still others see it as a government sponsored extended summer camp, where mostly young Volunteers go to exotic and remote locations to spend a great deal of time over two years interacting with other Volunteers. And then there are those who simply dismiss the Peace Corps as an idealistic experiment from a bye-gone era, barely relevant to the turbulent and hard-nosed international scene in 2016 – an Agency struggling to retain its aura at a time when President Kennedy, its founder back in 1961, is “ancient history” for most Americans born long afterwards.

That’s quite a blistering critique, but it hardly squares with the enthusiastic outpouring of warmth and support for my son’s application process. So quite clearly, there is another side to the Peace Corps.

I’ve seen that other side again and again in my own career. I’ve experienced it in the resilient enthusiasm and sheer gumption of the many Volunteers whom I used to host to Thanksgiving dinners every year at my home in Nairobi, Kenya during the decade that I worked as an architect there. I’ve seen it in the fond, almost dewy-eyed recollections of so many colleagues in international development as they recall with both pride and immense satisfaction those profoundly formative years from their own service as Peace Corps Volunteers. I’ve also appreciated it being made manifest by the sensitive and wise assessments made by former Volunteers of America’s interactions with complicated foreign cultures, even on such charged and often conflicting values-based situations as women’s equality and the social inclusion of LGBTI persons.

I also recognize my own pride that I feel in my son’s choice. Whether selected or not to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’m heartened by his commitment both to public service and to volunteerism. Indeed, I cherish his idealism, as I recall how very difficult it has been in my years of work in international development to find those types of conversations – those passions expressed – among my colleagues, even though it is clearly what motivated most of them into such careers.

We just don’t make space to talk about ideals, or values. But you’ve heard me say that before. Continue reading Any room for idealism in a “results-driven” age?