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‘We should be throwing grenades at people like you’ Life as a transgender person in Russia

Source: Meduza
Photo: Tatiana Vinogradova / Meduza

For the past two months, a North Carolina “bathroom law” targeting the transgender community has fueled a national debate in the United States. The law instructs individuals to use the bathroom that corresponds to the sex listed on their birth certificates. Companies as big as Google, Twitter, Apple, Facebook, and others have spoken out against the law. In Russia, meanwhile, 66 percent of the country says it has a negative attitude toward transgender people, whose civil rights are violated constantly. Transgender people in Russia are denied jobs, they're denied medical aid, they're kicked off trains, and they're attacked. The process for changing your identity documents can take more than a year, and it often requires going to court. Meduza's special correspondent Daniil Turovsky takes a closer look at Russia's transgender community.

‘I want to become a woman’

One July evening in 2013, Denis Yashenkov and his girlfriend Ekaterina decided to have a little vodka with their dinner. They said they'd just have “a drop,” but they ended up downing a bit more than that. “I think I should admit something,” Denis said, when the bottle was empty. “Admit what?” Ekaterina asked. At first, Denis refused to say anything more. Ekaterina spent the next five minutes trying to get an answer.

“I want to become a woman,” he said finally. Ekaterina didn't respond. She says she sobered up quickly. 

The next morning, Ekaterina woke up hoping that it was just the alcohol talking. “I knew he had a screw loose, like seriously loose, but I didn't expect this. I didn't want to talk to him. I needed time to think and digest, because this was not the future I imagined for myself,” she says today.

That same day, “Denis” finally said goodbye. 

He spent the three years before this trying to drive from his mind the constant thoughts about changing his sex. He first experienced the wish when he was twelve. He grew up in a homophobic family that liked to tell jokes about the gay pop star Boris Moiseev. Denis had no idea who transgender people were, and he grew up thinking that homosexuality and “sexual deviance” were bad. In school, he was often called a “faggot” for keeping to himself and not caring about sports. On his parents' advice, he enrolled in the Physics and Mathematics Department at St. Petersburg State Polytechnical University, and a year later he transferred to the School of Management. In 2012, Denis finished at the university and found himself an office job working for a grocery store chain. 

After a while, Denis began to think that his future was becoming extremely predictable, and his life was moving all too quickly. Maybe, he worried, he was living it the wrong way—“for the other person.” He started reading websites about transgender people and ways to “transition.” In 2013, he and Ekaterina moved into her parents' vacant apartment on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. The only room in the apartment is stuffed with all kinds of things: from large plush toys to a knight's sword and a video game console. 

The day after he made his confession to Ekaterina, Denis started taking hormone pills that he'd bought online. The pills cost 4,000 rubles ($60) a month. Then Denis began speaking about himself in the feminine gender, and soon he wasn't Denis, but Diana. 

Diana and Ekaterina fought for the next four months. By the end of that time, Diana packed her things and tried to leave the apartment. Ekaterina stopped her with a “smack.” After the fight, the arguing stopped, and Ekaterina accepted Diana. “I realized this isn't treatable,” she says. 

Next the couple told each of their parents. Diana's mother took it harder than Ekaterina's mom. “This is a disease. You've got to get help. I know a psychiatrist,” she said. Ekaterina says her parents “also sobered up quickly” when they told them. “You two aren't the worst couple,” her mother responded. “After all, some people are drug addicts.”

Many of their friends and acquaintances stopped talking to Diana. They laughed in her face, when she told them, and they grabbed her chest, which was starting to respond to the hormones. One friend said, “You know you'll never be a real woman, right?” Ekaterina's cousin promised to bash in Diana's skull.

By November 2013, thanks to the hormone pills, Diana's face and body had noticeably changed. “I got a waist, and I got breasts,” she says. “You got fat!” Ekaterina jokes. “Before only your ribs stuck out. We thought you'd collapse if a strong wind came through.” “Yeah, and my face doesn't look so much like Death anymore,” Diana says. 

Photo: Tatiana Vinogradova / Meduza

In late 2013, Diana went to the transgender commission at the St. Petersburg State Pediatric Medical University, which sent her for extended visits with a psychiatrist named Dmitry Isaev, who examined her with questions like “You're standing in a large, dark room and you hear the soft ringing of a bell. Can you tell right away from what direction the sound is coming?” and “Tell me honestly how important and valuable to you is the sexual excitement you get from dressing in women's clothing?”

In mid-September 2015, Diana received Isaev's psychiatric report diagnosing her with F64.0, according to the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, or “ICD-10” (“Gender identity disorder in adolescence and adulthood”). As it happens, in the next version of the ICD, due out in the next year or two, “transgenderism” will likely be called “gender incongruence,” and it won't be located in the section on “mental disorders.” In 2013, “transsexualism” was removed from the list of mental disorders in the United States, where doctors replaced it with the term “gender dysphoria,” signifying the distress a person may feel when their gender identity does not match the gender they were assigned at birth.

The doctor's report prescribed amending Diana's birth certificate and passport. Next, Diana went to an endocrinologist, who wrote her a certificate that said, “Hormonal sex has been changed.”

With the certificate in hand, Diana set off for the local state records office, in order to change her documents. But she was turned away, being told that her birth certificate couldn't be amended without a surgical operation to change her sex.

Diana had not planned to have a sex change operation. “I don't feel uncomfortable with what I've got in my pants,” she says. “What matters to me is how people talk to me, and what I see in the mirror. What happens if I suddenly want children in the future?”

Without updated documents, but already in her changed body, Diana faced an array of difficulties in everyday life: she never paid for anything in stores with a credit card (the clerk might ask for ID), and she never traveled anywhere by train or plane (because transgender individuals are often removed from public transportation, and asked to show their identification documents).

“Right now, practically all the records offices will only change your documents if there's a court order. So a person has to go to their office, just so they can look over the documents and come to their decision, even though it's a forgone conclusion that the request will be rejected. Then you go to a court, and once you've got a ruling in your favor, you go back to the office,” explains Ksenia Kirichenko, who works at the LGBT rights group “Vykhod” (Exit). “Every case is different, but if you tried to say how long it takes on average, it's about a month to get the records office's rejection, another month to prepare the necessary documents for the court and then submit them, up to two months for the court to register the documents and schedule a preliminary hearing, a month for the preliminary meeting to take place and for the main hearing to be scheduled, another two months for another couple of hearings and the court's verdict, a month for the ruling to take effect legally, and finally one more month for the records office to change your documents. And this is how it breaks down only when there are zero complications.”

Together with “Vykhod,” Diana went to court to challenge the records office's refusal to grant her new documents. The court then ordered the officials to change her birth certificate, her name to Diana, and her registered sex from male to female. By the end of May 2016, she should receive her new passport. 

After receiving her new passport, Diana will change her employment records and university diploma. She says she expects some trouble here: she's heard that universities are extremely reluctant to revise their records. Diana also says she will apply for a new passport to travel abroad for the first time in several years. She wants to visit “Dracula's castle” in Romania, she says.

About a year and a half ago, Diana and Ekaterina bought a male cat. But they soon discovered that it was actually a female cat. Diana jokes, “Katya has a knack for bringing home men who turn out to be girls.”

‘Folks like that aren't welcome in our city’

Diana is one of several people who managed to get certificates from Dmitry Isaev's medical commission that addressed issues relating to sex changes. In the summer of 2015, anti-gay activists forced Isaev to resign. (Meduza wrote about this story here.)

For 12 years, Isaev worked as the director of the department of clinical psychology at St. Petersburg State Pediatric Medical University, where he lectured on the psychology of gender and sexuality. Isaev is the author of over 120 academic publications, the majority of which are dedicated to the subject of homosexuality (such as “Suicidal tendencies among boys of a homosexual orientation,” “Characteristics of gender identity among persons of a homosexual inclination,” and “Characteristics of the sexuality of adolescent males suffering from schizophrenia”). He also led a medical commission that consulted on requests for sex changes (which, after a series of tests and examinations, issued permits to patients permitting surgery and hormone-replacement therapy).

Dmitry Isaev, the author of scientific research on homosexuality, and the former head of the Commission on Transgender People.

The “LGBT Hunters” group—a subsection of the “People's Cathedral” movement—started coming after Isaev after he gave a speech at a conference organized by the LGBT youth project “Children-404,” where he answered questions about his work for the transgender commission. The anti-gay activists distributed a statement on social media, reading, “While Russia chooses a course of traditional family values, set out by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Isaev actively spreads throughout our country the destructive ideas of genderism [sic] and pedophilia... He multiplies evil and uses his commission to hand out certificates en mass to these perverts, which they use to get operations on themselves to cut off their natural genitals and attach artificial parts, which for some reason they call a ‘sex change.’ It's impossible to change your sex, but you can certainly mutilate yourself. And these poor souls haven't just mutilated themselves, but they've also lost nearly every chance at saving themselves.”

The “People's Cathedral” called on concerned citizens to write letters to the St. Petersburg State Pediatric Medical University, and soon local prosecutors paid the university a visit, telling administrators to “sort this out sooner rather than later.” In early July 2015, the school's chancellor asked Isaev to resign. “Or we'll find other grounds to fire you,” the chancellor added, according to Isaev. “There are always ways to defame someone and dig up dirt.” The commission closed down, after Isaev left. The “People's Cathedral” told Meduza that it will continue its work to “make sure folks like that aren't welcome in our city.”

When he still had his position, people from all across Russia came to see Isaev. His commission charged 3-7 times less than others (about 10,000 rubles, or $150, instead of 30,000-70,000 rubles). People who came to Isaev's commission say it was understanding and considerate. No one laughed or tried to make applicants feel uncomfortable. Isaev also granted people permission to seek sex changes far more often than other commissions, issuing certificates to about 30 people a year (while others averaged only ten).

In Moscow, these examinations take place at psychoneurologic facilities (where people show up fearing horror stories about transgender individuals being diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized). Other people go to the Medical Center of Reconstructive Surgery and Sexology at the Moscow Research Institute of Psychiatry. 

One of Isaev's colleagues tells Meduza that he's planning to revive his commission sometime soon in the private sector. This time, Isaev refused to speak to Meduza about the rumor.

The state does not approve

Sixty-six percent of Russians say they have a negative attitude about people whose gender identity differs from their sex, according to a sociological survey in the Levada Center's report, “Invisible Minority: The Problem of Homophobia in Russia.”

In its own 2015 report on discrimination and violence in St. Petersburg against individuals based on sexual and gender identity, “Vykhod” found that the procedure for changing one's sex in Russia is “poorly regulated by the law.” The human rights activists argue that the opportunity to change one's identity papers is established in Article 70 of the federal law on “civil status acts,” which cites “a document issued by a health institution in the form and procedure instituted by federal executive authorities.” Except no such procedures exist. According to the activists, the Ministry of Health tried to develop the necessary bylaws in 2005, but two years later the working group tasked with this job was shut down without any results. The absence of medical forms on transsexualism means that state records offices, which are obligated to update citizens' documents, refuse to work without these forms. And so people are forced to turn to the courts.

According to “Vykhod,” many transgender people simply change their names, leaving their registered sex as it is, in order to avoid going to court. And often there are problems even with this. The activists cite an example from February 2015, when a transgender woman named Anna was denied a name change on the grounds that it is forbidden to have a woman's name, if the individual's registered sex is male.

In addition to these problems with updating identity documents, “Vykhod” has also recorded instances of transgender people facing discrimination in hiring practices and at educational institutions.

A one-person picket from “Vykhod” in St. Petersburg. Sign reads, “Stop transphobia! Stop the violence!” March 31, 2013.
Photo: PhotoXPress

In 2015, “Vykhod” activists say, a transgender man named Egor enrolled in the psychology department at a university in St. Petersburg. At that moment, he had been taking hormones for nearly ten months, and his body had taken on visibly masculine traits. Egor joined the university with a woman's passport and promised to change it within six months. He asked the school to register him on all his university documents as “Egor,” but the administration refused. During lectures, the university's instructors drew attention to the discrepancy between Egor's appearance and his documented identity, addressing him only by his female name. By March 2015, the vice chancellor started threatening Egor with expulsion—he had not yet managed to change his identity documents. As a result, he was never allowed to take his final exams, on the grounds that he'd “failed to pay his tuition,” despite the fact that the school's accounting office confirms that he paid for his education. The dean told Egor that he was barred access to his exam on personal orders from the vice chancellor. When Egor took the matter to the university's chancellor, the chancellor said, “The state does not approve of transgenderism.” The chancellor then summoned the vice chancellor, who demanded that Egor sign a statement unenrolling from the university. 

Still, transgender people living in St. Petersburg and Moscow say they're lucky. “In small towns, all the people [in the transgender community] are terrified and basically never leave their homes,” one transgender person told Meduza

In the fall of 2014, traffic police officers in Ufa stopped a car driven by one Angela Likina, whose identity documents listed her as Oleg Vorobyev. While they verified her documents and wrote her up for driving without fastening her seatbelt, the officers sat Angela in their patrol car. After she exited and returned to her car, the police officer started laughing hysterically. Dashcam footage of the incident leaked onto the Internet, where it's been viewed more than 84,000 times. 

In February 2016, Angela was murdered. Five stab wounds were discovered on her body. According to reports, the conflict may have been linked to the money Angela needed for a surgical operation. (Supposedly she persuaded her ex-wife to take out a loan to pay for the procedure.) One of the ex-wife's friends was arrested for the murder. He's said to have visited Angela the day she was killed.

Despite the difficulties, some transgender people in Russia manage to “cheat the system.” In March 2016, the transgender couple Reid Lynn and Sophia Grozovsky came with friends to a local records office in Moscow. They succeeded in registering their marriage, thanks to the fact that Rein Lynn is formally registered as a woman, and Sophia Grozovsky is a man, in her official documents. The day before the marriage, the office's staff insisted that Sophia come to the registration dressed in clothes appropriate for a hetrosexual man. On the day of the marriage, several dozen police officers were stationed nearby the records office, and a police van was on hand, ready to accommodate mass arrests. Police told the wedding party that the marriage registration could be construed as “propaganda for nontraditional sexual relations in the presence of minors.” In the end, the marriage was registered behind closed doors.

Transgenderism is often accompanied by depression, due to isolation, hatred of one's own body, and general social interactions. “I absolutely do not want to accept my own body. I absolutely don't like my own chest (which is very noticeable), my waist, hips, and face... It all bothers me, and I'd gladly slim down and wear men's clothes... doing everything possible to look like a guy...,” wrote a 14-year-old anonymous transgender Internet user in the comments section on the online support group “Children-404,” where LGBT teenagers share their stories and give each other advice. 

“I'm starting feel like I'm burning inside my own body. As time goes by, boys get taller, their voices drop, and I get jealous, watching them. I also want a low voice. I want a rough face. I want bristles from end to end,” says another community member, a 16 year old who goes by “M.”

“When my parents found out that I cut my hair and started wearing men's things, they went nuts and threatened to throw everything in the trash. They started repeating, ‘But you're a girl,’ ‘Let's buy you a pretty dress, and you'll be like a princess.’ I just couldn't listen to it. They were always dragging me into stores, but I still said no to everything, and it led to scandals. I'm so uncomfortable in ‘this’ body. I feel completely out of place. And because of this, I'm always having these misunderstandings and these fights with my parents,” writes a 17-year-old teenager with the nickname “Wroi.”


Alexandra Petrova smiles, even when she's talking about suicide. This is the product of many years of stress, she explains. “With everything I went through, I realized that I couldn't take it anymore. Now I'm trying to understand why I should go on living,” she says.

Alexandra has been taking antidepressants for several years. She lives alone with a few cats. Every night before she goes to bed, she thinks about how she hopes she never wakes up. She dreams of finding a “soulmate—a transsexual.” “I want there to be at least one person to whom I don't need to explain myself,” she says. “Someone who's made a similar transition. Someone who won't say, ‘You're a pervert, and I should have found someone without these problems.’”

Alexandra Petrova.
Photo: Tatiana Vinogradova / Meduza

Alexandra blames her state on “the system”—a word she uses often: “the system is a steamroller that crushes people like us,” “people in the system don't stop to help us, even when we're being killed,” and “the system convinces everyone that we're enemies.”

She says she's been attacked in the street at least ten times because of how she looks. The most serious incident was in 2011, when a group jumped her and a friend in a crowded area near Prospekt Bolshevikov in St. Petersburg. Alexandra's friend ran off, but she stayed behind to “talk it out.” The men called her a pervert, beat her up, broke her arm, and punched her in the face. In 2012, after the attack, she tried to file a police report, but the officers refused to accept the complaint, saying, “They did the right thing. We'll throw you in the ‘tank’ right now, and they'll ride you hard in there.”

After another beating in the street, this time in 2013, paramedics brought Alexandra to one of the hospitals in St. Petersburg. In a conversation with his colleagues, one of the emergency-room doctors said, “Where are we taking this ‘thing’?” The other doctor then said to Alexandra, “We're not going to treat you, and if we do treat you, then you're going to the men's ward.” The hospital's security guard tried to throw her out by force, screaming, “He needs to be ****** out into the street!” In the end, Alexandra was admitted, and she left the hospital the next morning. At the post office, where she went to collect her disability pension with her passport listing her as a man, she was told, “Why do you look like that? You're at a post office. We're not giving you anything.”

Like many transgender people, Alexandra began feeling uncomfortable with the inconsistency between her self identity and her actual sex back when she was in school. Like with Diana, Alexandra's peers tormented her. She had great difficulty coming out to her mother. When she finally told her, she took to the streets and didn't return home for a long time. In the end, her mother accepted her. 

At the age of 25, Alexandra appealed to Isaev's commission. She was terrified about going—it seemed possible that she might be called a “nutcase” and locked up in a padded cell. 

After all the standard examination questions (the same ones Diana answered), and speaking to Isaev, she received a certificate reading, “transsexualism, nuclear type” (meaning that she has a particularly strong manifestation of transsexualism), with observations paving the way for a surgical operation.

With this certificate, she went to a records office in St. Petersburg. At first, they refused to change her identity documents. “Go die first, and then you'll be welcome here,” she was told. Then she had the surgery. “I'm all sutured up. They removed everything, but I need some cosmetics, too. It costs about 150,000 rubles [$2,300],” she says.

Alexandra changed the sex listed on her documents at the age of 27.

Alexandra Petrova
Photo: Tatiana Vinogradova / Meduza

Alexandra was advised to withdraw from Russia's selective service registry. For a long time, however, the secretary at the draft office refused to believe that it wasn't a prank. Several other military staff came to examine Alexandra. She heard the military surgeon say, “We got ourselves a fag here who says he's a girl.” They sent her for a medical examination. In every office, she was addressed before other recruits by her male name, despite her feminine appearance. After the medical examination, she was issued a certificate releasing her from conscription. The draft office's eye doctor advised Alexandra to wait in his office for two hours, until all the recruits had cleared out.

Having changed her passport, Alexandra spent two years trying to find a job. In this time, she says she was turned down about 100 times. At first, she tried to find work in her speciality—as an electrician. (She graduated from the St. Petersburg State Electrotechnical University). After that, she looked for work as a sales clerk, a courier, a laborer, and finally “just anything.”

Employers agreed to hire her, until they saw her documents (she had not been able to change her university diploma, employment records, or personal tax number). In other interviews, where they didn't ask for those documents, the whole thing was derailed when it came time for a medical examination, when they'd find her scars.

Once, when interviewing for a job at a company that sells alloy wheels, she said that she has a man's employment record. The manager, calm up until this point, suddenly took a deep breath and yelled, “Faggot! What the hell??”

At another interview, she was rejected, and later called to find out if she'd touched the office's doorknob. 

Alexandra tried to get work as an electrician at one organization that works in urban development. Thirty minutes after her interview, she got a phone call from a number at the company, and a voice said, “I hope you die.” Another time, she got a call from the same number. The voice said, “Listen, faggot, why don't you just kill yourself?” Alexandra changed her SIM card.

In the end, she found a job in her speciality at a factory, where only one employee in the personnel department knew about her sex change. She worked there for more than a year, but one of her bosses found out about her sex change after a recent medical examination. He told her, “We should be throwing grenades at people like you.” Alexandra says she's certain that she'll be forced to quit, soon. She does not believe that she'll be able to find another job.

“I wish I had a million rubles,” she dreams, standing in her building's stairwell and lighting her fourth cigarette of the hour. “I'd be able to forget all these years of humiliation. I'd get the reconstructive surgery for 200,000 rubles. Then I'd make for the sea and that's where I'd stay. I'm tired of having to prove every day that I'm a human being. We're a nuisance to most people in Russia. But there have always been people like us, and unfortunately there always will be. I saw ‘unfortunately’ because I feel sorry for the people who have to live through this.”

This text was translated from Russian by Kevin Rothrock.

Daniil Turovsky

St. Petersburg and Moscow

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