‘You are drowning and there isn’t a boat’: Trans rights in Russia

CN: discussion of transphobia and mention of transphobic violence

Russia is not an easy country for LGBTQ+ people to live in. From the federal law ‘for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values’, also known as the ‘gay propaganda law’ that was signed by Vladimir Putin in 2013, to the 2017 anti-gay purges in Chechnya in which the government remains complicit, Russian LGBTQ+ people have never felt fully safe and secure. 

Furthermore, Russia is particularly unsafe for transgender people. In Russia, transgender people are classified as mentally ill. Changing gender identity on documents requires an official diagnosis from a psychiatrist, which is practically impossible to obtain because of the extremely low quality of mental health care in Russia. The same goes for hormone treatment. Those who do not have a diagnosis often decide to buy hormones without prescription, which comes with health risks, as DIY hormones often don’t adhere to the same standards of safety. 

On 14 July 2020, the Senate proposed a package of laws that would further discriminate against Russian transgender people. It prohibits changing one’s birth certificate after transitioning, and forces transgender people who have already changed their birth certificate to change it back. It also considers a marriage between a transgender woman and a cisgender man (and the other way around) ‘same-sex’, and prohibits transgender people from marrying at all. If a same-sex couple have married in another country, they are prohibited from adopting children, which makes both same-gender couples and transgender parents fearful of forced separation from their children. Proposed by Yelena Mizulina, a member of the Russian Parliament, the bill is extremely harmful not only to trans people, but Russian queer people in general. However, the legal situation with the bill is much more complicated than it seems.

First of all, according to the Family Code of the Russian Federation, ‘family law proceeds from the need to avoid arbitrary interference in family affairs’, yet the Mizulina bill contradicts that statement completely. According to RBC, ‘family law amendments could increase government interference in families and be potentially dangerous for children’. The bill also proposes to separate children from their families if their parents participate in rallies and protests, which contradicts Article 29 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation which ‘guarantees everyone freedom of thought and speech’, though this is not followed in practice. The consequences of peaceful protesting in Russia are already harsh as they are, with people getting arrested and beaten up by the police.

Second of all, as a lawyer Olga Gnezdilova stated in her interview with RBC, the explanatory note to the draft of Mizulina’s bill criticises the ‘priority of individual family members’ – thus, if a child is being abused by their parents, their rights to protection of life recede into the background. 

So, the new bill contradicts previous laws. But what about LGBTQ+ people, and, most importantly, what about Russian transgender people – the group that is going to be deeply harmed by that bill? Sadly, one of the amendments to the new Constitution that was approved on the 1 July 2020, defines marriage as the union ‘between a man and a woman’. Thus, this homophobic amendment makes it impossible for queer people to get married to a person of the same gender, as well as prohibiting transgender people from marrying people of any gender at all. I asked Theodore Krasnitsky, a transgender man from Russia studying computational linguistics and anthropology, to explain the situation and give his opinion on it.

“I personally am a very lucky person,” he clarifies at the beginning of the conversation. “My experience is not going to be universal, I am still very privileged – and I acknowledge that. I live in Moscow and I study in a fairly liberal university so it is important to remember that some people are not as lucky as I am.” 

When asked about his experience as a transgender man in Russia, Theodore smiles and shakes his shoulders. “My family has been fairly chill about it. They’re not super supportive, of course, but they haven’t kicked me out of the house,” he clarifies. “I am still very dependent on the family, you know, in terms of money, so I did not have the opportunity to transition even before the bill was proposed. 

“General life is weird – I don’t pass at all because of my high pitched voice. I have encountered transphobia at work because I post on social media a lot, so I had a lot of ‘if you don’t delete it we are going to fire you’ kind of conversations. I work as a tutor, and you can’t even say the word transgender because you are a tutor.” 

Theodore believes that the transphobic part of the bill came out of the Constitutional amendments. “I was expecting things like that. However, living in Russia and knowing names like Mizulina and Milonov [a deputy of the State Duma], I never really realized that they are actually in the government and have power over us.” Theodore shrugs and says that when the bill was proposed, he felt numb, and only the day after did he decide that he had to do something about that situation.

Theodore also focuses on the legal side of the bill. “The bill is obviously very poorly structured and it is coming from a very weird place,” he says, “it is known that Mizulina’s son is openly gay and is happily married, so maybe at this point, she is just doing it out of spite. People do a lot of things out of spite,” Theodore smiles and continues, “but, of course, it is also a hatred thing. 

“Say the bill is passed – they will need to restructure so many things because it contradicts the Constitution.” When asked what the bill is going to mean for transgender people in Russia, Theodore responds, “There are two options; trans people who already changed the documents; and then there are people like me people who haven’t done anything like that yet. Somehow, it is harmful to both. The first kind will need to change the birth certificate back, which is also very complicated and traumatizing; people like me, however, will not have the possibility to change our documents at all.”

Theodore also pays attention that the new bill puts the lives of transgender people at risk. “Everyone will be able to know you are transgender, and the level of discrimination is going to rise. Last year there has been a horrible murder of a trans man – and the motive was pure hatred. I feel like if the bill passes that is going to happen way more.” 

In Russia, transgender people are not protected by the government at all. Right after the bill was proposed, Polina Simonenko, a trans woman, was arrested for protesting it. She was sentenced to 14 days in a men’s jail and put in a shared cell. The police not only ignored the fact that it could be incredibly dangerous for Polina, but they also mocked and physically abused her during both the arrest and the trial. She was found guilty for committing no crime. Theodore believes that if the bill passes, “it is going to open the gates for more violence”. 

“Let’s focus on the legal aspect once again,” Theodore says, “we also should not forget that one of the new amendments to the Constitution makes it above international law. We have gone into a loop of sorts, so even if the situation becomes fatal, even if international human rights organizations start paying attention to that, they aren’t going to be able to do anything.” 

“I hope the bill is not going to pass but skeptically I think it is,” Theodore claims. “I think they’re going to try, at least. And the inaccessibility of transition is already messing with my life every day, it feels like you are drowning and there isn’t a boat. Meanwhile, a boat maker charges a lot of money, lives in another town, and is a white old straight republican who does not believe that you should even exist. 

“Many people say that if you don’t like it just move – immigrate, and I just want to quickly talk about why it is not the nicest thing to say,” Theodore states. “People have national identities and moving countries is not as easy as it sounds. Imagine leaving your family – your whole life and starting over. It is scary, and spreading this message is not helping the cause in the slightest – it is just about ignoring the issue, and that way the issue is not going to go away.” 

When asked if he has any message he wants to deliver, Theodore nods. “Russia has a reputation, and it is not the nicest one. Yes, there are horrible things happening, but it is still not the end of the world. It is important to separate the government from the people – we still want to stay hopeful and we want a happy ending. Or a happy sequel, at least,” he smiles. “Russia is conservative and even the majority of the government is conservative, however, we shouldn’t use that to demonize Russia, because, trust me, the majority of young Russian people want the same thing the rest of the world is fighting for today. Equal rights for all.”