‘My leaving doesn’t mean they won’ A transgender woman in St. Petersburg describes how she was fired after coming out because women are barred from her profession
In July 2017, a transgender woman living in St. Petersburg named Anastasia Vasilyeva (whose name has been changed in this story at her request) came out as a trans woman. After changing her government identification documents, she was promptly fired from her job at a printing press on the grounds that women in Russia are barred from this profession. Vasilyeva had worked at the company for more than a decade, but her employers cited a federal provision introduced in 2000 that makes it illegal for women to hold 456 different jobs, claiming that the occupations are simply too strenuous, dangerous, or harmful. Print press work is included on this list. Vasilyeva is challenging her dismissal in court, arguing that the prohibition of hundreds of professions for women isn’t about protecting them, but discriminating against them. Meduza spoke to Vasilyeva about the unforeseen difficulties she’s faced as a transgender woman in Russia.
I first started to understand that something was different about me back in grade school, but I wasn’t able to formulate what it was exactly. Back then, I only knew that there are gays, meaning people of non-traditional sexual orientation, and there are straight people. And I tried to fit myself into this concept. Thinking that I was gay, I tried finding myself with men, but this still wasn’t quite right. It was closer, but it wasn’t quite me.
It wasn’t until college that I learned about the existence of transsexuals. This was probably sometime in 1993. I got a hold of some magazine (I don’t remember what it was called, but it wasn’t any tabloid) and it had fairly detailed articles with photographs. It shocked me how much what I read resonated with me, and I started thinking about how I wanted to correct my sex.
I faced two obstacles: first, I didn’t understand how I would be able to feel any [sexual] pleasure [as a woman], and second I still wanted to be with women! This held me back for many years. I kept meeting new women, but things never clicked, until I finally hit it off with someone. From the very beginning, she knew that I dress in women’s clothing and that things aren’t so simple with me. This didn’t bother her, and I thought at last I’d found my own family. That was 17 years ago. Almost right away, we had a daughter, and for three or four years everything was more or less ideal.
But then the feeling returned that something wasn’t right. Yes, I had a family and a child, but the sensation that “something was off” started gnawing at me from the inside. I talked to my wife (I call her that, even though we were never formally married), and I learned that she accepts me as I am. I’m lucky because it’s hard to find someone who accepts you regardless of your sex. But my wife also wanted to protect our child, and she slowed me from taking the next step and changing my sex. So another many years passed.
Eventually, there came a moment when I realized I couldn’t stand it any longer. I knew I’d end up doing something to myself, if I didn’t take action, because I simply couldn’t keep living in that situation. I started taking hormonal drugs, and before long it became difficult to hide. My wife pretended that she didn’t understand what was happening, but she knew of course. Later, I left my family because, I thought, I’d met the love of my life. I started implementing my transition plan, going to an endocrinologist, passing all the necessary tests, and undergoing electrolysis. Before, this had been hard to imagine, because we were thinking about the child, and not about the fact that time was running out.
In addition to my family complications, another obstacle in my way was the need to accept my homosexuality, as paradoxical as that sounds. But once I understood that I could love a woman [as a woman] — that I do love her — it didn’t bother me. And it was only later that I read that a significant percentage of transgender women are homosexual. That kind of information is vital, and lacking such knowledge can distort people’s perceptions of reality and stop them from making the decision [to transition]. It can become the reason for suicide. People should know, and they should understand.
In the end, love turned to suffering, and I returned to my wife. Our relationship has changed, and for the better. She spent many years playing the role of this nasty woman, deliberately making herself meaner and stronger than me, so that I balanced her by feeling more dependent and showing my femininity. But when there was no longer any need to act so brutally, my wife said she didn’t want to wear brown jackets and pants, and that she now wanted to wear dresses. Four years later, she dresses completely differently. We don’t hold back anymore. If something is bothering us, we try to address it immediately. My relationship with my daughter is good, too. She accepted me, and not as a mother, because she already has a mother. We came up with a one-syllable contraction, to distinguish, so I became “Ma.”
Losing her job
At work, things turned out to be more complicated. Being a printer isn’t the most common profession, but I liked my job and I liked the salary. The company that fired me manufactures plates for engraved printing, which are used mainly in packaging: wrappers on candy, chewing gum, mayonnaise, tobacco products — you name it — all in very big orders.
The other printers and I checked the quality of completed plates. Using special equipment (not manually), we produced impressions from the plates on the necessary materials, and then we removed the impression and the quality control team checked it for defects. Calling us “printers” is actually a stretch. Really we were just performing quality control on a finished product. The work poses no danger to staff.
Nevertheless, a year or two ago, a labor commission decided that a woman can’t perform this work. An interesting nuance here is that, a year earlier, when performance appraisals were carried out, there were no obstacles in place against women in this position. It’s not at all clear what changed in a year.
I was removed from my job and given a choice: resign or be fired “due to the impossibility of performing my work duties.” It was unexpected and insulting. I’d worked at this company from the very beginning, taking part in its formation, and rising to shift foreman. But then we got new management, and I was transferred back to the printing team, to free up space for someone else more loyal to the new director and his policies. I felt I didn’t deserve that, but I couldn’t prove it.
I had other concerns at the time, as well. I was running between courts to get my identity documents in a woman’s name. According to the procedure, someone changing their sex has to get a confirmation certificate, which is issued by a medical commission. But there’s no template for this certificate — the Health Ministry forgot to draft one. As a result, the state registry office can’t accept any applications. And so every person faced with this situation has to go to court, which usually grants the petition, but it rejected mine. I ended up needing to file an appeal, and the whole thing dragged on for another year.
In order to find some kind of compromise, in 2014, when I was just starting to transition, I tried to change my name to a woman’s first name and surname, without doing a sex reassignment operation. It should have been easier, because my appearance already didn’t correspond to my ID. It wasn’t going to be a panacea, and I never intended to live with those documents forever. But all our courts — at the district, city, and supreme levels — ruled against me. According to the law, I can change my name and surname to whatever I want, but not in reality. In the court’s opinion, this is called “logic”: a woman’s name can only be changed for a woman’s name, and a man’s name can only be changed for a man’s name. My case even reached the European Court of Human Rights.
This July, when I finally got a new ID in a woman’s name, I brought it to work and filed the paperwork to change my employee records. As soon as I legally informed my employer, however, I was called into a meeting with the director, the CFO, the deputy chief accountant, and the director of operations, who told me that they’d have to let me go. I think they used the situation as an easy legal excuse to get rid of me. The company could have offered me another position in a different profession, or it could have simply renamed the position, but the management didn’t want to. [The company’s director explained this was because of a lack of other vacancies and claims that he asked Vasilyeva to think of what other position she might take, but this was already after she was informed of her dismissal.]
I’d been told before that they might fire me, but I stubbornly didn’t want to believe it, out of naivety or maybe because I thought I was a valued enough employee. And there was also the fact that I’d previously discussed my situation with the director and the company lawyer. I didn’t want to lose my job, and I didn’t know how long it would take to change my documents. Working during your transition is very important, because it takes money. The director and the lawyer assured me that I shouldn’t worry. But before I ever filed the paperwork to change my records, they called me in and offered me a large compensation package to resign amicably — just so long as they didn’t have to deal with me. I refused.
I was never treated all that well at work. My coworkers were professional but they weren’t friendly. It’s 99 percent men on the factory floor. I think they all suspected something about me, but they never said anything aloud, until I sent out a memo. This was in August 2015. After that, the people who didn’t like me simply stopped hiding it. Coworkers started laughing at me openly and mistreating me.
I should have known then that something was wrong. The director and the lawyer said that staff would be respected regardless of their differences, but the management made no statement after I sent out the memo. Our shop was always buzzing, but my announcement was still news for everyone. The deputy chief accountant expressed her own negative feelings about me, and the director remarked to her that she was wrong. That was all he did.
This, in my mind, isn’t how you demonstrate respect. The director didn’t announce, “Please address her and act in accordance with her sex.” The whole time until my dismissal, the entire staff (with rare exceptions) kept addressing me as a man, and they didn’t make any space for me in the women’s locker room. By the end, I’d lost the strength to endure it any further. The last few months were extremely tough on me, as I waited for my new ID. When I finally got it, I was also handed my freedom from this company.
Of the hundred people working at the company, there were only two colleagues who really supported me: a man who worked on my team and a woman from quality control. She’s 10 years my senior, and it was hard for her to fit all this into her head, but she was kind to me from the start. And there were those who paid lip service to supporting me, but then a day would go by and they’d start addressing me as a man again. There was one coworker who’d never spoken to me, and after my memo she contacted me on social media. But I got the feeling that this was motivated by curiosity more than anything.
None of this is unique to my company — it’s a feature of our whole society. Most of the population doesn’t know anything about people like me. For them, it’s something dark, unknown, and dangerous. Few people have their own opinions that can’t be influenced by the state or the media. I hardly ever read the printed press — it’s just gloom and doom. The government doesn’t want people to make progress. It’s easier this way. And that’s partly why I wanted to give this interview — so people could first make up their own minds, and maybe it will change something.
I don’t want to go back to my old job. I’ve already found a new one (also in printing), but now I’m working as a technician. I’m not on the machine floor, but I’m working on printing technology, the debugging process, minimizing labor costs, and increasing efficiency. The people there don’t know anything about my history, and I’d like to keep it that way. I didn’t show them my employment records where my old name is crossed out. I said I’d lost them, and they gave me a clean slate. Maybe they’ll find out about me eventually. I try not to think about this. But perhaps they’d see my story differently this time, because they knew me from the start as a woman. But there’s a good chance that it wouldn’t end well for me.
I want to show my former colleagues that they were wrong from the start, and they’re still wrong. My leaving doesn’t mean they won. And what’s more, I want to fight against discrimination. Many women face the fact that they’re not allowed to do certain things simply because others have decided for them. Others have decided that, since they’re women, they should just give birth, make soup, raise the kids, and that’s it. These are gender stereotypes. I look at my story as a lever with which it might be possible to try to reduce the number of professions where women are banned, or maybe to get rid of the list altogether. Using my dismissal, I want to achieve for women the right to choose who they’ll be and where they’ll work.
Meduza thanks the LGBT rights group “Vykhod” for help conducting this interview