On May 26, the State Duma drafted a bill aiming to ban transgender transition. In June, the bill was unanimously passed in its first reading. Transgender activists and human rights advocates firmly believe that this initiative will have detrimental effects on the physical and psychological well-being of transgender individuals, as well as those who are contemplating transitioning.
7x7 interviewed activists and transgender people from various regions to understand how this bill will impact the most vulnerable and marginalized group in Russia.
"Anything, even a lobotomy, but just get me out of this state"
"Women are sexually attractive females. You are a man, and you perceive women as such!" - These words were spoken during a hypnosis session, causing transgender woman Xenia, who had yet to begin her transition, to realize that her efforts to become a "normal man" had once again ended in failure. She still didn't feel like a man, nor see women as sexually attractive objects.
Recalling past experiences, Xenia adds with a puzzled tone, "Don't assume that the doctors were forcing me. On the contrary, they hinted at the need for transition. But I kept asking them, ‘Let’s try something else.’"
Xenia knew she was different from an early age, since kindergarten. She didn't have an interest in boys' activities, and they told her directly: "You're not a boy at all, you're a girl." Watching cartoons, Xenia never thought of identifying herself with princes; her ideals were The Little Mermaid and other princesses. Girls gladly included Xenia in their games, and she once confessed to one of the girls, "I want to be like you, I want to wear dresses."
As time went on, Xenia learned to keep her thoughts and desires to herself. She even managed to adapt to the boys' environment at school, studying in a physics and math class that had no girls.
When she turned fourteen, her friend's parents went on a business trip, leaving the apartment empty, and the teenagers had a party, which ended with watching porn. Again, like when watching cartoons, Xenia identified herself in the female role.
"That's when I realized that my sexuality was completely different from theirs. I didn't share this with anyone, but one thing was clear: it was a problem, and if I didn't make a change, I wouldn't have a normal life."
This is how Xenia’s journey to understand what was “wrong” with her and how to become a "normal man" began. It took her another 15 years. At the age of 26, she couldn't fight it any longer and sought help from a psychotherapist. Two years later, she turned to a psychiatrist. "Do whatever you need to do, even a lobotomy, but get me out of this state," she begged the doctors.
"Young people today, specifically Zoomers from Moscow and St. Petersburg, embrace queer theory. However, this theory reached me at a time when I could no longer relate to it," Xenia says. "I was influenced by hardcore sexology and viewed what I was experiencing as a pathology. I believed in psychoanalysis, thinking that maybe my desire to become a girl stemmed from a lack of motherly love."
There are two dolls on Xenia's table, brunette Evelyn and blonde Katya. Xenia delicately picks them up and demonstrates. These are gifts from her mother for her coming out that happened a year ago. Now 32, she is gradually expanding her social circle as Xenia. Her classmates, childhood friends, and graduate school colleagues are already aware of her transition. While everyone has reacted differently to her coming out, the overall response has been positive. "People have been kind," she says.
"Sometimes people detransition because of the rejection as transpersons by society"
When attempting to explain her transphobia, Xenia thinks that the homophobic environment she grew up in may have greatly influenced her. "I felt it was wrong. I wasn't subjected to abuse or physical violence, but there was an underlying atmosphere that regarded it all as negative. I didn't have anyone to discuss this issue with, and I was left alone with my struggles. That's likely why I followed this particular path."
Xenia was born and raised in Barnaul, a Siberian city with a population of half a million people, known for its universities and wooden architectural monuments. In the eighteenth century, the Barnaulka River witnessed the first tests of the world's inaugural steam engine. Today, the city has a chance to etch its name in transgender Russian history, as it became the home of the first openly transgender female politician, Yulia Alyoshina.
However, today, for transgender individuals in Barnaul, or in smaller cities, to undergo transition is almost impossible. There is a scarcity of sexologists qualified to make critical decisions on the feasibility of transitioning. Only a handful of metropolitan universities in Russia produce such specialized professionals. In Barnaul, there was only one sexologist for the entire city, who has since left Russia as the war began. Now, those who’d like to transition before the new bill is passed have to travel to Novosibirsk in search of a specialist.
According to activists working with the LGBT community, Russia experienced a significant increase in applications for gender transitions in 2018. This surge can be attributed to the new regulation that had allowed trans individuals to change their documents through the civil registry office, instead of going through the previously required lengthy and emotionally taxing court process.
Arseniy Pastukhov, a representative of the LGBT Resource Center in Ekaterinburg, says that since the document change process had been simplified, they have observed an easier integration of transgenders into society. With obtaining new documents sooner, people have less trouble finding official employment and making a living.
However, Arseniy is not quite satisfied with the Russian transition system. The trans community is divided on how authorization for transitioning should be regulated, making it difficult to reach a consensus. Arseniy believes that medical commissions in their current form are not needed. Instead, accessible psychological support should be prioritized. Such support would assist individuals in better understanding themselves and making informed choices about whether or not to pursue a transition.
"On the other hand," Arseniy explains, "we have the concept of separating physical and legal transitions. Trans individuals have the autonomy to decide whether they wish to undergo physical changes, legal changes, or both. The commissions give them the right to hormone therapy, surgeries, and the ability to update their legal documents."
“It is your choice - to change your paperwork first and then undergo physical changes. Or vice versa. Our system allows flexibility according to your needs. Not even every European country can brag the same. Our system is not bad at all, and it is disheartening to see that with the new law, we will lose it all.”
Resource center employees comment on the transphobic activists’ claim that people regret their decision after transitioning. While Arseniy confirms that cases of detransition do occur, they are rare and isolated. In Russia, no studies on a potential correlation between legal transition systems and the number of detransitions have been conducted. However, Norway serves as an example where individuals do not require commissions or extensive research. There, self-identification is sufficient for transition. From 2008 to 2021, only five individuals in Norway opted for detransition.
Arseniy explains that dealing with a resistant environment, people sometimes develop a false need for transition. They get obsessed with the urge to prove themselves, while a more welcoming transition system leads to fewer instances of reversal. However, this is not the sole cause of detransition; sometimes people come to realize that their transition was a mistake.
"Sometimes people detransition because society refuses to accept them as transgender persons," Arseniy says. "Although their gender dysphoria may diminish after transitioning, they still have to deal with a range of other issues. For instance, they struggle to find employment, and their families may cut off contact. They begin to feel that reverting back would result in fewer problems. However, let me reiterate that cases of detransition are rare, even in Russia."
Transgender transition is a lifelong process
Arseniy was on duty at a resource center hotline when he received a distressing message from a transgender woman. She had cut off a part of her body with a knife. She lacked the financial means for the relevant surgery at a clinic. Bleeding and panicking, the woman was afraid to call for an ambulance. The resource center staff did it for her, ultimately saving her life.
According to Arseniy, the most tragic situations are faced by those who have not yet undergone any transitional changes. They are left to grapple alone with their gender dysphoria.
Sex educator Sasha Kazantseva refers to a statistic from the National Center for Transgender Equality, which states that the rate of suicide attempts or completed suicides in the general U.S. population is 4.6 percent, while in the transgender community, it is 40 percent. Transgenders often commit suicide because of the barriers to transitioning in the form of financial challenges or social pressures. Arseniy believes that the new law may lead to a substantial increase in suicide rates.
Transgender transition is an ongoing process, and it is difficult to determine if it ever comes to a conclusion since everyone's journey is unique. Hormone therapy is typically a lifelong requirement for most trans persons. If they discontinue their hormone treatment, their physical condition gradually changes, potentially leading to gender dysphoria and other health issues.
The availability of medications for transgenders under the new law remains uncertain. Arseniy fears that the ban may also apply to medications. Then at least some people may resort to using underground substances.
"The situation is somewhat easier for transfeminine individuals as estrogen [female sex hormone] medications are not as strictly regulated and can be purchased with a prescription. But transmasculine persons would be in trouble because doctors need special accreditation to prescribe testosterone [male sex hormone]. Using counterfeit and homemade drugs from the black market may lead to all sorts of risks," Arseniy says.
"I was my own biggest transphobe"
Trans activist Ekaterina, now 40, started questioning her identity "sometime during puberty." Initially, she believed she had a personality disorder. She kept her experiences to herself and never sought medical assistance. At 25, Ekaterina discovered transgenderism, and everything fell into place. It took her eight years to finally acknowledge her transfeminine identity.
"It wasn't exactly a joyful revelation, you know? Frankly, it was quite scary. I wondered what to do with this newfound knowledge. What would be the next step? At that time, I had a wife and a child," she shares with 7x7.
Neither Ekaterina nor Xenia from Barnaul chose a legal transition, although for different reasons.
Xenia wants to finish and defend her Ph.D. thesis first and only then apply for a new passport. She tries not to dwell on the possibility that by that time, it may no longer be feasible. She simply hopes that the current situation will improve.
"It's all just nonsense... I've passed through a lot of pain, and I used to be my biggest transphobic critic about myself. When people talk and write about it, it all seems like baby babble to me because I have tortured myself much more. I will live and stay true to myself. If I am unable to change my passport? Then I'll leave the country," Xenia says.
Ekaterina initially did not change her passport because of her marriage. Sometime after her transition, Ekaterina got divorced. With the physical changes already made, she simply updated her passport photo.
"I went through the transition independently, and now I have to deal with people who I don't consider experts in transgenderism, wasting time on these commissions just to change my passport? I don't believe these certificates should even exist. I will update my documents when there is a simpler procedure in place," Ekaterina says.
“If a summons arrives, well, screw it. I will go to the military enlistment office and put on a show. Frankly, I'd like to see the person who sends me somewhere, fully aware that half of the company would like to screw me, excuse my language, while the other half will pretend to be revolted and won't even sit next to me to defecate in the same field. My mere presence in the army would generate such intense emotions that it would disrupt team spirit and cohesion.”
"We will continue to exist: even in Chechnya, where transgenders are getting murdered"
Xenia first wore her mother's dress at the age of 17, after suppressing her desire to do so for a long time. She would tell herself, "Don't you dare wear women's clothes. Once you do, it all begins." However, when her mother went on a vacation leaving her alone at home, she finally decided to try it. The feeling she experienced when she first wore the dress remains etched in her memory. It was more than just pleasant; it was a moment of self-realization.
From then on, whenever she had the house to herself, she would dress in women's clothes, apply makeup, and engage in daily chores. However, she often questioned herself, thinking, "What am I doing? Am I going crazy?" Dressing in women's clothing provided some relief from dysphoria. Still, it is not a solution for trans individuals because you have to go out and have a social life, and without hormone therapy, you can’t be your true self.
"We will be pushed to the margins. The state has effectively declared that we do not exist, that we are mere biomass, and they don’t give a shit. However, we will continue to exist. We exist even in Chechnya, where you can get killed for being one. Trans people exist in every country, under any regime," Ekaterina says.
Arseniy admits that the transgender community is very upset about the impending law. But they try to focus on practical matters. Some are hurrying to complete their transition, while others are contemplating their next steps. Arseniy believes that once the law is passed, there will be a substantial demand for psychological support, sought primarily by those who have already accepted their transgender identity. People still in the denial stage often hesitate to seek help from resource centers, especially when it involves something prohibited by the law.
He recalls a transpersonal training session several years ago, which was led by a trans activist. After the training, Arseniy asked him, "What would have happened to you if you hadn't undergone your transition?"
The activist responded, "I believe I wouldn't be existing now."