Russia may ban transgender transitioning

Officials in Russia now often discuss the lives of transgender people: for example, according to Vyacheslav Volodin, Speaker of the Russian Parliament, “a person gets up in the morning and decides for himself that he is no longer a man, but a woman; not a woman, but a man,” and on the Russia 1 TV channel they report: “A stamen will never become a pistil, and a pistil will never become a stamen.”

 In 2021 the Ministry of Health was preparing to adopt a law with advanced approaches to helping trans people, but, over the past year, the situation of the community in the country has deteriorated greatly. In October 2022 , a new law “on propaganda” was adopted, and in May 2023 the Ministry of Justice actively discussed either making it more difficult or completely banning gender reassignment treatment.

In light of the possible adoption of a law prohibiting gender transitioning in Russia, Holod magazine asked the community and experts about what is to follow.  On behalf of Holod, LGBTQ+ activist and writer Sasha Kazantseva spoke to psychologist and Center T director Jan Dvorkin, KilkoT Action activist Anton, and trans activist and gender researcher Anna about what trans people are preparing for in Russia.” Global Voices translated and published the article with permission from Holod.

Holod: How will the new initiatives affect the lives of trans people?

Jan:  It is very difficult to manage uncertainty and threats from the state.  A lot of transgender people in Russia have anxiety or depression and statistically, 40 percent of these people have attempted suicide (in comparison with the overall population rates of 5 percent).  This statistic is horrible and it may get worse. 

It is frightening when you are called an ‘enemy of the state’ at the state level and they want to forcefully treat you.  Rejection and violence against trans people are likely to rise with the legal backing of such discrimination.

In particular, I am concerned about teenagers. Since 2013, they have had limited rights and access to support, but they held onto the hope that things would improve after turning 18. (Ed: After adopting the law “on propaganda” of LGBTQ+ to minors in 2013, LGBTQ+ organizations and LGBTQ+-friendly doctors in Russia lost the opportunity to interact with teenagers legally. Teenagers could no longer seek psychological help or information and could not communicate with them about problems related to gender and sexuality.) With diminished hope for the future, coping with the challenges they face will become even more difficult.

Despite the potential illegality of hormone therapy, transgender individuals will likely continue to pursue it due to its efficacy in alleviating gender dysphoria. However, illegal hormone therapy poses health risks, and the inability to change legal documents will lead to avoidance of situations where identification is required. This marginalization will hinder integration into society, and complicate travel, legal transactions, and access to medical care. Ultimately, transgender people will face increased exclusion and lack the basic rights afforded to others.

Anna: The consequences of these initiatives in Russia will result in the majority of transgender people losing opportunities for easy societal integration, losing opportunities  for relief from gender dysphoria, and the ability to live comfortably in their affirmed gender. In fact, we will see the marginalization of transgender people. 

There would be only two ways out: to stay and live in secrecy or emigrate. I estimate that only about 10 percent of transgender people in Russia have the ability and resources to emigrate. And for those staying in Russia, the possibility to find work will be much more difficult, and the scale of involvement in marginal work, sex work, would increase, and income would decrease.  There would also appear a heightened dependence on potentially transphobic family members. It is important to know that many relatives [in Russia] are transphobic and communication with them will affect the mental state of a transgender person. They live and know that they are not accepted by a society, but they also constantly receive condemnation from those close to them.

Anton: Even the anticipation of these changes has already had an impact on the lives of trans people in Russia. The news alone has shocked even those who transitioned in the past, in 1990s and 2000s, and have already witnessed a lot of bad things happening. 

There is now a rush among transgender people to obtain diagnosis and change their legal documents, but limited availability of certification commissions may prevent many from completing the process before the new law is implemented. This means that people who have spent a significant portion of their lives preparing for transition, hoping to alleviate gender dysphoria and live authentically with appropriate documents, will now face immense obstacles.

As an organization working with the transgender community, we anticipate a significant increase in suicides as a result of these changes. Many people are already on the brink, and it is possible that suicides are already occurring in silence. There will be silence around this because official statistics would not show that it had been a trans person [who died by suicide] because there would have been no change in person's official documents. And of course, it is primarily teenagers who would suffer, because they have already been the most vulnerable among the transgender community.

Some opponents argue that focusing on suicide is mere speculation, but it is impossible to ignore the gravity of the issue when it is the main problem faced by trans people. Such dismissive remarks reflect a deep misunderstanding of the situation.

Holod: Who else will be affected by the change?

Anton:  Aside from transgender individuals, intersex people will also be affected by these changes. Intersex individuals are born with physical characteristics that do not fit into clear male or female categorizations. For example, there are cases where a person was assigned female at birth, but, during puberty, their voice deepens and they grow a beard, which prompts the desire to obtain male documents. However, there is no separate legal procedure for changing legal gender for intersex individuals, so they follow the same path as transgender people. Hence, the new initiatives will have an impact on them as well.

Holod: One possible scenario is that the certification process can only be completed in public clinics. Why is this bad?

Jan:  State clinics that provide medical commissions for confirming gender transition necessity have existed in Russia for a long time already. However, using them, and not private clinics is problematic because public clinics in the country often employ transphobic individuals who may insult and humiliate transgender individuals. Their main objective seems to be finding reasons for denial. For instance, a transgender man may be told that he is not truly a man because he took off his shirt in a “feminine” manner during the examination.

Russian medical universities generally do not provide training for doctors to work with LGBTQ+ individuals, despite the specific needs that arise in fields such as gynecology, urology, psychiatry, and endocrinology. Doctors in state clinics tend to view transgender people through a pathological lens, perceiving them as sick or mentally unhealthy. The certification process becomes a humiliating experience, involving boorishly worded questions. There have been cases where a psychiatrist, not a gynecologist, asked a transgender person to undress in order to examine their genitals, stating curiosity about the effects of hormone therapy.

Passing the certification process in state clinics is usually a difficult, humiliating, and traumatic experience. Additionally, it is often disproportionately expensive, making it inaccessible for many people. Medical assistance is not adequately provided in this context.

Anton:  Private clinics that conduct certifications employ competent specialists who are well-versed in transgender issues. Many of these specialists have received international training according to modern standards and are familiar with WHO documents. However, with the new laws, it is imaginable how LGBTQ+ individuals will be treated in ordinary public hospitals, where communication with cisgender people often leaves much to be desired.

Holod: And if they make it mandatory to undergo surgery to change  documents?

Jan: If mandatory surgeries for changing legal documents are introduced, it would render the transition impossible for many people.. Furthermore, forcing people to undergo invasive procedures or sterilization is a barbaric approach. Not all transgender individuals desire genital surgeries, as they are complex and can have lifelong health consequences. Essentially, this would legalize physical violence against transgender people.

Anton: This scenario would be highly detrimental because many transgender people already face employment and financial challenges before changing their documents. Their appearance may not align with their documents due to gender dysphoria or their use of hormone therapy to alleviate it. In such cases, they would face difficulties in securing employment for many positions.

Holod: What if transitioning is banned altogether? 

Anna: If transitioning is altogether banned, it would set transgender people back by centuries. They would have limited options, being unable to fully exist in their desired gender roles as indicated by legal documentation.

The trans community will face greater challenges in terms of visibility and discourse. DD: We may regress in our understanding of trans people. Currently, there is a lack of adequate statistics in Russia regarding the trans population, including the number of trans individuals and the crimes committed against them. However, there are at least separate stories that provide some insights. If transitions are prohibited, even these stories will cease to exist. Trans persons will exist in isolated and loosely connected groups, with limited opportunities for integration into society.

The work of  supporting organizations and activists will undergo significant changes. Activists will have to focus more on negative aspects. Currently, many trans people are capable of resolving their issues independently, such as obtaining documents or navigating the healthcare system. They successfully socialize and integrate into society, although they may face glass ceilings in some areas. However, these barriers will become more solid and impenetrable.

This forced marginalization will establish a limit on the quality of life for transgender individuals in Russia, which 99 percent of them will be unable to overcome. Previously, activist organizations could assist with initial challenges, after which people could integrate into society and progress independently. But now, constant support from human rights activists will be essential.

Instead of improving services for trans people, activists will need to address more urgent issues, such as ensuring individuals have access to basic necessities like food. People will have to search for low-paying jobs, rescue those trapped in sex slavery, and intensify efforts to combat domestic violence. The reduced autonomy of trans people will lead to increased dependence on often transphobic family members. Our focus will shift from improving the living conditions of people to simply ensuring their survival.

Currently, trans people are the most visible to the state among the LGBTQ+ community. The Ministry of Internal Affairs maintains lists of those who have changed their documents, and they have expressed their intentions regarding this. Trans people are the easiest target for anti-LGBTQ+ repression by the authorities. We believe that people should not be left to face the state alone.

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