‘This isn’t a story about money’ A transgender woman in St. Petersburg won a landmark LGBTQ and labor rights case. Here’s her story.
In 2017, Anastasia Vasilyeva (whose name has been changed at her request) was fired from her job at a printing press after coming out as a trans woman and changing the gender marker on her government identification documents. To justify this decision, her employer referred to a list of 456 professions deemed “too dangerous” for women in Russia. In April 2019, Vasilyeva won a lawsuit for unlawful dismissal, and on June 16 a court rejected her former employer’s appeal, marking the end of the court proceedings. Meduza tells Vasilyeva’s story and explains why her victory is a landmark case for all women in Russia.
Since 2005, Anastasia Vasilyeva had worked for a company in St. Petersburg that manufactured plates for engraved printing. These are mainly used for packaging large quantities of products like candy, chewing gum, or mayonnaise. Anastasia was responsible for checking the quality of completed plates using special equipment. “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,” Vasilyeva explained in a 2017 interview with Meduza.
Vasilyeva started to transition in 2014, and a year later sent a memo out to her colleagues, in which she explained her situation. “I felt uncomfortable — everyone saw that something was happening with me, but no one could ask directly,” Vasilyeva told Meduza. In December 2014 (before she had sent out the memo), Vasilyeva decided to speak to her managers to “get some kind of support.”
According to Vasilyeva, at this time the company directors told her that she wouldn’t be fired because of her transition. However, after this conversation, the management of the printing press tried to convince Vasilyeva to leave of her own accord on multiple occasions. “They offered me money, they sent the production manager, and the director asked if I was going to leave the city or the country,” Vasilyeva recalls. “I told them that I want to continue to work [at the company], and wasn’t preparing to go anywhere.”
At one of these meetings in 2015 (during which a manager and company lawyer were present), Vasilyeva mentioned that “according to the job evaluation, a woman can work on this site.” She now believes that by saying this, she herself could have given the company’s leadership an idea of how they could actually dismiss her.
In 2016, Vasilyeva was shown an updated evaluation of working conditions at the press (the company commissioned a special organization to conduct the assessment). She was surprised to learn from this document that “women cannot work at her site,” since work with engraved printing was included on the list of 456 professions that women in Russia are banned from holding. “When I was at the [St. Petersburg printing press’s] parent company in Germany, women worked safely at this site. No one said that a woman can’t work as a printer,” Vasilyeva explains. “What’s more, my position was originally called ‘printing press operator,’ and it has no gender restrictions. But since such a profession doesn’t exist in Russia, they changed it to ‘engraving printer,’ so that bureaucratic questions won’t arise when a person retires.”
Vasilyeva decided that the company’s leadership were using this as an excuse because “they wanted to get rid of her,” since the managers may have feared that she would face aggression from other workers. They suggested that she either leave by mutual consent, or wait to be dismissed “in connection with the inability to fulfil employment relations.”
Vasilyeva explained that after her transition, almost all of the employees at the company continued to address her as a man. “There were no direct insults, it was more the wordless psychological pressure, when they ignore your name and your feelings,” Vasilyeva explains. “The company lawyer referred to me exclusively by my ‘dead name,’ she ignored how I asked her to address me.” According to Vasilyeva, the company was dismissive of her everyday needs. For example, they didn’t respond to her request to transfer her to the women’s locker room — throughout the last two years she had to change her clothes in the bathroom.
“Not all of the people at work treated me badly, many were rather neutral, I considered this a positive thing. There were probably only one or two people who were actually nice to me, out of the company’s 100 or more staff members,” Vasilyeva recalls.
In conversation with Meduza, Vasilyeva said that she didn’t think her case would go to court. “I didn’t have any illusions about how they would treat me [at work], but everyone still saw that I was a good person. Why should their attitude towards me change?” she says. “I didn’t want to continue to wear a mask to make other people comfortable, so I decided to transition. When I came out, I was enthusiastic at first — I thought maybe, everything wouldn’t be so bad. But at certain moments it got very difficult for me to go [to work], because my name and everyday needs were ignored.”
Vasilyeva decided to appeal to the courts with the help of the LGBTQ rights group “Vykhod” (Exit), which offers women legal support. “Max said that this was a unique case, and I was interested in the opportunity to influence something meaningful,” Vasilyeva says, recalling the advice of Vykhod lawyer Maxim Olenichev, who represented her in court. “He said that [winning the trial] was a big deal.”
At first, both district and city courts rejected Vasilyeva’s lawsuit, but at the end of 2018 the Presidium of the City Court sent her case for review. Vasilyeva underwent a medical examination, which demonstrated that her health met the job requirements. The defense managed to prove that the list of professions women in Russia are banned from holding only applies to the protection of maternal health; to childbearing and caring for a newborn child. On April 9, 2019, a court recognized Vasilyeva’s dismissal as unlawful and ordered her employer to pay her 1.85 million rubles in compensation for forced absenteeism (approximately $26,500), as well as 10,000 rubles in moral damages (approximately $144). On June 16, 2020, the St. Petersburg City Court denied her former employer’s appeal, effectively ending all court proceedings.
Vasilyeva has complaints about how her case has been covered in the media: the amount of money she won in court often appears in the headlines. But she says this “isn’t a story about money” for her: “The court’s decision is important for me, first and foremost in the context of women’s rights, without the prefix ‘transgender,’” she explains. According to Vasilyeva, she never encountered discrimination while in a male social role, but after her transition she immediately had this experience: “It turns out you can’t work where you want, simply because you are a woman. It seems to me that it’s important for anyone to have the possibility to work wherever they want.”
Vasilyeva is not the only woman who has fought back against the list of occupations off-limits to women in Russia. The story of Samara native Svetlana Medvedeva is well-known: she was rejected from a job working at the helm of a small boat, despite being a trained navigation officer. Her case made it all the way to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Thanks to the work of activists, Russia’s Labor Ministry revised the list in 2019: now, instead of 456 professions, it lists 100 types of jobs banned for women in Russia (the new document will come into force in January 2021).
That said, activists are demanding that the list be withdrawn in full, since its existence reflects the incontrovertible protection of maternal health, despite the fact that not all women plan to have children. “The motivation for the need to protect maternal health over a woman’s choice of profession underscores that for the state, a woman is first and foremost a reproductive system, and not a person with her own ambitions and professional interests,” Ksenia Mikhaylichenko, a lawyer who has repeatedly represented women in court for cases involving discrimination, wrote in a column for Forbes. In addition, some of the “harmful” professions can also affect the reproductive health of men, but the state doesn’t take this into account, underscored Elena Varshavskaya, a professor in the Human Resources Management Faculty at the Higher School of Economics, in an interview with Business FM.
Anastasia Vasilyeva has since transferred to a new work place, where she didn’t tell anyone her story for fear of facing transphobia. This is the same reason that Vasilyeva has made comments to the press under a pseudonym ever since her case began. However, her real name and other personal information have leaked to the media nonetheless. According to Vasilyeva, journalists from the newspaper Izvestia got a hold of her real name, some documents, and her address. “They laid siege near [my] house, knocking on the neighbors [doors],” Vasilyeva recalls. In addition, the publication Mash released materials about her, revealing Vasilyeva’s real name, and publishing photos from her personal Facebook page.
Because of these incidents, Vasilyeva is “uncomfortable and partially afraid” — she fears for the safety of her daughter. Anastasia Vasilyeva lives with her wife of 20 years and their child.
Translation by Eilish Hart