When grandma started saying ‘him’ Three years in the life and transition of a Russian trans man
Yan is a video producer from Berezniki, a mid-sized city in Russia’s Perm Krai (he asked that his surname be omitted from this piece). Although he was assigned female at birth and given the name Yana, Yan knew from the time he was a young child that he identified as male. As early as his high school years, Yan also realized that he wanted to pursue sex reassignment surgery. He began preparing for that process in 2015. That same year, the journalist Stanislav Dolzhnitsky began working with him: Dolzhnitsky wanted to depict the experience of sex transition in Russia along with the many obstacles and physical changes that can accompany that journey. Dolzhnitsky asked Yan to tell his story in this Meduza exclusive.
My name is Yan, and I’m 31 years old. I’m from the mining city of Berezniki in Perm Krai. I work as a producer—I make advertisements and video clips, and I live in the suburbs of Moscow now. I have dedicated the past four years of my life to my transition.
For as long as I can remember, I never responded or understood when people addressed me as a girl and not as a boy. I never understood why I had to wear all kinds of bows and pink pants. When I was three, I had to go to the hospital for jaundice. We had a shared ward that housed both girls and boys. I had a friend there — a little boy the same age as me. We played with toy cars together. And I got a crush there for the first time in my life on a girl who was a little older. I thought, “Just wait till I grow up — maybe I’ll marry her if she isn’t too old by then.” I think that’s the moment that got everything rolling.
I didn’t have problems with self-acceptance like a lot of people do. I didn’t feel the urge to break myself down. Everything went along pretty smoothly thanks to the fact that I recognized who I was when I was still a kid. When you’re a preteen, until you’re 12 or 13 years old, you run around with the guys, and the guys think of you as one of their own. You don’t pay attention to the gender people use to address you because you perceive the same kind of attitude toward you regardless, so you don’t bust your brain thinking about it. When puberty starts and everyone’s appearance starts changing, that’s when the real problems start. There were times when someone would, say, call me a lesbian, and it would really get to me—I never identified that way. Some trans boys do start out living as lesbians and then figure things out as they go along. I was never like that — I’d get into fights with people if they insisted otherwise.
I spoke out about all this consciously for the first time when I was 13, at a summer camp where I only hung out with boys and I was a kind of ringleader in my group. I told my counselor I wanted people to address me in the masculine. She said I was going through an adolescent phase and I would grow out of it. And then, on parents’ day, my grandma came to visit, and I told her the same thing. She said, “What are you going on about?” and went to talk to that counselor, who started telling her about how “this is all an adolescent phase, don’t pay any attention to it, I had something like this when I was a kid.” And back then, that was that.
Now, when I talk about this with my grandma, I joke around and say, “Now what? My adolescence ended a long time ago, but somehow, nothing’s changed!” I think a lot of people have the same problem when they’re young. Adults aren’t listening to you; they’re listening to some person they don’t understand even on a surface level, let alone internally.
I figured out that what was happening to me was called transsexuality, that I could call myself transgender, when I was in high school. I read in a magazine about a movie that was about to come out, and it was about a girl who feels like she’s a boy. The movie was Boys Don’t Cry. I asked my brother to get me tickets for my birthday and then went with three of my friends to see it. They all laughed their heads off, but I understood what was going on. And I realized then that you can have surgery and that I might eventually become normal.
In college, I didn’t have the money or the information I needed. I didn’t know I would have to go through a commission. I didn’t know where to get it done, who to ask about it, whether it was true that I wouldn’t have to go to a psych ward — I didn’t want to do that at all. Gradually, I figured everything out and saved up a bit of money.
Then, I had to confront the problem of how my family would react. I was raised by my grandmother. My mom died when I was nine. I knew my grandma wouldn’t approve — I had already tried to talk to her several times about myself and about the operation. I was afraid she’d have a heart attack, that I’d be the cause of her death — she had already been through the premature death of her husband, then her daughter, and then there was me. But now, the rest is history.
I got to the commission stage in 2015. Back then, in Petersburg, at the Clinical Psychology Department of the Pediatric Medical University, Dmitry Isaev was the one in charge of the testing process. In Russia, he’s one of just a few experts on transgender heath who really have the ability to help. I passed the tests, but after Isaev was harassed, after he was fired, I couldn’t get approval from the commission, and that’s the only possible way to start hormone therapy and get surgical intervention.
I received approval from a new commission only after another year and a new set of tests. My girlfriend, Dasha, played a major role in that process. She insisted that I give it another try. In May 2016, I finally got the references I needed and started getting ready for the operation.
The most common operation among trans men is a mastectomy — breast removal. Few go beyond that because, first of all, phalloplasty is expensive, and second of all, it’s not all that necessary: masculinizing mammoplasty and well-planned hormone therapy leaves no doubt of one’s gender identity. The purpose of transitioning lies in internal harmony with yourself and socialization in the gender roles that correspond to you, not in the imitation of physical sexual attributes. While I was in a woman’s body, I physically couldn’t get a haircut in a good barbershop. They just refused to serve me. They’d say it wasn’t in line with the shop’s politics.
I managed to save up the sum I needed in 2017. It wasn’t easy because I had to leave behind my job in Perm to move to Moscow and have the surgery. It was hard to find a new job because I had to change all my documents, and then there were all the physical changes that were still to come… Dasha supported me so much that whole time. In turn, I tried to take on the housework. I did everything around the apartment that I was able to do myself.
In the fall of 2017, I had a mastectomy in one of Moscow’s private clinics. It’s not considered a very complex operation, but it still wasn’t easy to get through — it’s basically an amputation, after all. But in just a couple of weeks, I was back on my feet, and I just had to wear a postoperative bandage all the time.
Nowadays, the boundaries are shifting: the terms “transgender,” “transsexual,” and “queer” are expanding so much that each individual has their own kind of transition too. Some people just want to change their documents, and they just don’t need any other changes. But my transition only really took place when I had passed the commission, had my operation, changed my documents, and started HRT — that is, hormone replacement therapy. Without those elements, my transition wouldn’t have been complete, as I understand that transition for myself. If anyone thinks otherwise, that’s their opinion. I would never treat anybody worse or address them any way other than how they identify themselves just because they see things differently.
I’ve read in a few places that after you start HRT, your muscles start to grow. I don’t quite feel like an athlete yet. I mean, yeah, you might start to exercise more, but it just doesn’t happen that fast.
My grandma still stubbornly refers to me as “Yanochka” [a term of endearment for Yana]. Not too long ago, I visited her, and I showed her my passport. When she finally saw some ID, she started addressing me in the masculine all of a sudden. For Soviet people, a passport is still a pretty persuasive argument. But that didn’t last long: when I got back to Moscow, grandma went right back to “Yanochka” in our phone calls.
Dasha and I got hitched in the spring of 2018.
Translation by Hilah Kohen