Proposed under the guise of “strengthening the institution of family”, the Russian government’s latest anti-LGBTQ+ move will drastically affect the livelihoods of its trans citizens. Here’s how you can help.
2020 has been a tough year for Russia’s LGBTQ+ community: feminist artist and LGBTQ+ activist Yulia Tsvetkova is facing up to six years in prison for her body positive drawings; recently accepted constitutional amendments define family as “a union between a man and a woman”; and an ice-cream brand has been accused of promoting homosexuality on account of its rainbow packaging.
Under the so-called ‘gay propaganda law’, in place since 2013, there is no space for LGBTQ+ representation in the cultural mainstream -- whether that’s in the media, in public space or in education. The atrocities committed against LGBTQ+ people in Chechnya remain a devastating reality. At the same time, the LGBTQ+ creative underground is on the rise, manifesting through music, art, activism and growing networks of mutual support, they are free-spirited, inclusive, powerful and determined for change, the exact opposite of the current Russian establishment.
Earlier this month under the guise of “strengthening the institution of family”, Russian MP Yelena Mizulina has proposed another new bill in Parliament, it’s another step towards militant conservatism -- and a real threat to LGBTQ+ community, especially our trans siblings.
Targeting same-sex couple who married abroad, the new legislation proposes that their union wouldn’t be legally recognised in Russia and that they wouldn’t be allowed to adopt children. But the consequences for trans people are even more severe. The new bill would prohibit anyone from changing the gender stated on their birth certificate after transitioning. What’s more, it would also force transgender people who have already changed their birth certificate to change it back to their ‘sex at birth’. Given that birth certificates are required marriage paperwork, this means that trans people could be denied marriage rights even after changing all other documents, and that all existing marriages between a trans person and a person of the opposite binary gender would be deemed “same-sex” and therefore invalidated. While the move is yet further evidence of the Russian government’s increasing hostility against the country’s LGBTQ+ communities, it also goes hand in hand with the transphobic rhetoric on the rise in numerous countries including Poland, Hungary, the UK and US.
For non-binary trans activist and sociologist Mira Tay, news of the bill felt like the last straw. “When I read about it, I felt that all that was left to do was lie down and die -- I just had no energy left to fight. But that wasn't an option, so I eventually got up and started planning our next steps with other activists,” he says. “This bill legitimises violence against us on a state level. It shows that whoever wants to hurt us has nothing to fear because, officially, we don’t deserve basic human rights. This means that trans people have to live in constant fear and despair. But we will fight, and we have already started. Over 30 people were detained at recent protests, where police were being incredibly violent -- a trans woman Polina Simonenko was arrested for simply standing next to the protesters. This is our reality, but we will be on the streets demanding our rights regardless.”
“In Russia, the most difficult thing for trans people is to simply be part of society. There is always a huge threat of physical and physiological violence, which often leads to depression, drug addiction and mental health issues. Our priority as activists is just to explain that there is nothing wrong with being trans,” says Maia Demidova, a fellow activist who runs a support group where trans people can access resources on mental health and medical assistance, find help in getting a job and meet people like them: “The hostility towards trans and gender non-conforming people is so high that it’s impossible to live without this kind of support”.
The main organisation fighting and advocating on behalf of Russia’s trans community is St Petersburg-based T Action founded by Anton Macintosh in 2014. Their goal is to create real systemic change; working with legal and medical institutions, job centres and the media, they seek to ensure that trans people have equal rights and respect in all aspects of their daily lives. According to Anton, the situation for Russian trans people had been considerably improving over the last few years, both structurally -- for example, trans people have been able to change their documents by obtaining a form from the medical commission rather than going through court since 2018 -- and socially.
“When we were starting out, being trans was much more stigmatised. There were not many openly trans people in the public eye. Before, only a few doctors specialised in trans health -- now it’s on the agenda”, says Anton. “Trans people are more open and ready to speak out. We have a new generation of parents who are ready to accept their transgender children. When people are more open about their needs, there are more opportunities to change the situation for the better in all the spheres of life and to create more allies. But it still doesn’t mean that the situation is ideal -- trans people still face transphobia, discrimination and hate crimes. News of the proposed bill was a real shock.”
The bill would also have a grave impact on the intersex community. “Intersex people are born with sex characteristics that don’t fit the typical definition of male and female bodies, and can be any gender identity,” says Irene Kuzemko, co-founder of Intersex Russia. “Some intersex people may grow up to realise they have been assigned the wrong gender at birth (often surgically), and some intersex people may want to change the gender marker on their documents. If this draft bill would be implemented, it would make it impossible to change gender markers, as well as get married and adopt children for people who have already changed theirs.”
As in many countries around the world, the bureaucratic process of transitioning is already an extremely dehumanising experience for trans Russians. Still, there are deep concerns around the impact that completely removing it as an option would have on trans mental health, says trans activist Kate Messorosh. “Being trans in Russia, the greatest difficulty is to stop yourself from feeling less than human -- like an abnormality,” she says, with official gender recognition often offering Russian trans people a much sought after sense of legitimacy. “Every day, in your thoughts and actions, you have to remind yourself: I am a trans person and it’s normal, I am human, being trans doesn’t make me better or worse. I exist, we exist -- deal with it”.
In these dark times, however, there’s cause for optimism. Somewhat ironically, there’s hope that this overt display of institutional transphobia could catalyse the trans rights movement in Russia. “I think that this law has created an environment for a massive acceleration of trans activism in Russia”, Mira Tay says. “Now, we have no choice but to act. Sometimes people say, leave the country, nothing is going to change here. But if everyone leaves who will protect the LGBTQ+ people who are born after us? While I can still do something, I will keep going.”
You can sign the petition against the transphobic law here, and donate to T-Action directly via their paypal at firstname.lastname@example.org. On social media, use the hashtag #protectrussiantranslives to show your support.