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A common room in a shelter for LGBTQ+ people in Berlin. February 20, 2016.

‘A feeling of flames all around me’ Russia’s new law banning gender changes has made life unbearable for many trans people — but emigration isn’t easy

Source: Meduza
A common room in a shelter for LGBTQ+ people in Berlin. February 20, 2016.
A common room in a shelter for LGBTQ+ people in Berlin. February 20, 2016.
Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Interview by Meduza. Translation by Emma Fringuelli.

In July, the Russian government passed legislation banning gender transition (or “sex changes,“ as it appears in the law). Now, it’s illegal for transgender people in Russia to change the gender marker on their official documents, legally purchase necessary (and, during certain stages of transition, lifesaving) medications, or adopt children and be their legal guardians. Furthermore, the government can now annul the marriages of people who have changed their gender marker — even if they changed it before the law passed. With all of these new restrictions in place, it’s no surprise that many trans Russians are trying to get out of the country. To learn how this new reality has affected them, Meduza spoke with two trans people who left Russia and one who’s currently planning his escape.

Jay Alberg

27-year-old transgender man. Moved to Germany from Petrozavodsk.

I moved to Hamburg in late 2021 as a European Solidarity Corps (ESC) volunteer. I had originally planned to return to Russia, but after the start of the full-scale invasion, I decided to stay in Germany. At migration services, they invited me to apply for asylum as a transgender person from Russia, but instead I obtained the status of freelancer and planned to stay in Germany even longer to work as a project manager.

I started hormone therapy and surgical transition in 2020 [while still in Russia] and changed my documents in the summer during the pandemic. At that point, it was easier [than in other countries], because abroad, transitioning can take more than a year. In Germany, for example, it takes around two years for a psychiatrist to give you a referral for hormone therapy and changing your gender marker. 

In Russia, however, my transition went really quickly because I hadn’t been seeing a psychiatrist. The commission [in Moscow] issued me a certificate and I could proceed with my medical transition. It ended up taking me a year because of some financial difficulties.

In Russia, buying testosterone is a complicated process. Since it’s classified as a potent substance, the only way to purchase it legally is with a prescription from a pharmacy. Because of these requirements, you often see it on the black market, especially for bodybuilders. Not everyone knows how to prescribe it correctly, so I had to keep going back and forth between [the pharmacy] and the doctor to make sure they wrote my prescription properly.

Before the ban

‘They’re taking our futures away’ Transgender Russians on what Moscow’s coming ban on medical and legal transitions will mean for them

Before the ban

‘They’re taking our futures away’ Transgender Russians on what Moscow’s coming ban on medical and legal transitions will mean for them

When I moved, one of the most pressing questions was how to transport my medication; I wasn’t sure how quickly I could find a doctor who would write me a prescription for testosterone. I translated all my documents and prescriptions so that, once I was abroad, there would be no questions. In the end, no one asked about medication. 

Although doctors are not supposed to prescribe drugs long-term (prescriptions are for a maximum of 10-12 weeks), they gave me two prescriptions for six months. The doctor did it out of sympathy. However, [this amount of these drugs abroad] is still formally considered contraband and you can run into trouble for transporting illicit drugs.

People who decide to transition in Germany first need to acquire [legal] status. Only then can they start making document changes [relating to their gender]. Right now, there is a new proposed law that would make this process easier. Earlier, the process [of gender transition in Germany] went through the court system, which would then appoint a psychiatric expert. If the proposed self-ID law passes, a person won’t need to present an expert reference to the court, they’ll just have to go to there local registry office.

I am in contact with some of my [trans] friends [in Russia] who are planning to leave now, and I’m helping them find information about relocating. They either think, “what do I do, where do I run?” or start to worry that there is nothing and no one waiting for them abroad. You hear this a lot from young people who say they aren’t confident about their abilities, don’t speak another language, and don’t have any savings. It doesn’t help that the transgender community is an economically disadvantaged one; trans people often run into problems with employment and gender dysphoria can interfere with the ability to build connections with others, ruin self-esteem, and cause other social problems.

Trans Russians and the war

‘They would prefer that she die’ The first openly trans woman in the Russian army, her Ukrainian boyfriend, and their fight to keep her out of the war

Trans Russians and the war

‘They would prefer that she die’ The first openly trans woman in the Russian army, her Ukrainian boyfriend, and their fight to keep her out of the war


32-year-old transgender woman. Moved to Kyrgyzstan from Moscow.

My queer identity was just one of the reasons I decided to leave, but it was by far the most significant. The others were related to my political actions and protest, which I, [as an artist], have been involved with since 2011.

In a sense, I’m one of the lucky ones. I was never arrested [at protests] and never faced major repercussions. But not long before the war started, when there was “Bloody January” in Almaty, Kazakhstan, I got the sense that I had to go out and do another single-person picket protest against the deployment of Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) forces in Kazakhstan. I understood that it was dangerous, but I went anyway.

I parked myself in front of the Kazakh embassy [in Moscow] for just 30 seconds and someone grabbed me, searched me, and immediately made up some story that I “participated in a large-scale protest.” They made up a case that included my incident and those of other people who were also protesting [that day] at different times and places.

In the end, I was charged with a misdemeanor and fined. Then the cops started coming by my parents’ house. They tried to figure out where I was and what I was doing, and to carry out some kind of instructional conversation with my family. Since they came with incorrect documentation (it had my name listed as “Oleg Fyodorovich” instead of “Fyodor Olegovich”), my parents said, “Nobody by that name lives here.”

While all of this was going down, the war started. Some artists I know started a petition vowing to not work with institutions that didn’t condemn the invasion of Ukraine, and I signed on. This made some of the signatories “prey” for FSB officers. They came for my friend and her parents, asking questions like whether they knew these people, what type of work their daughter does, where is she, etc. I don’t know exactly what kind of pressure the FSB put on the petition’s authors — they didn’t discuss it for their own safety — but some left immediately while others hid in other people’s apartments.

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On 24 February [2022], my friend and I painted [antiwar] slogans on our clothes — if you don’t have the strength to speak, at least you can show how you feel about what’s going on. We went out into public wearing these clothes and people started asking us, “How are you not afraid?” And the worst part is, [after that], I became seriously afraid.

Then came the problems with work. Out of all the institutions I worked with, the only ones that came out against the war were Moscow’s Meyerhold Center and [the independent theater] Teatr.doc. But while the authorities found it too difficult to do anything to Teatr.doc — they already forced it to move multiple times, froze its accounts, and broke in to one of its plays, but it’s nevertheless still around — the Meyerhold Center was shut down.

In addition to that, there was another issue: I am a reserve lieutenant and I was worried I would get called up for service. Not long before the war [started], my foreign passport expired and I didn’t want to renew it because of bureaucratic difficulties. [In March 2022], I moved to Kyrgyzstan. It was important for me to be with close friends, and in Kyrgyzstan, mainly thanks to the efforts of [artist] Chingiz Aidarov and my friends from [the Bishkek-based experimental art collective] Theater 705, I quickly found “my” people.

The irony is that I lived for many years in a country that had a relatively liberal legal framework regarding gender transition, but I didn’t start undergoing transition until I was in [Kyrgyzstan], where changing one’s gender marker became illegal in 2020. Transition procedures themselves, though, are allowed here.

It took about six months to resolve the issues related to my medical transition. I had to find a specialist and undergo screenings. I’m only in my third month of hormone therapy right now. In Kyrgyzstan, there are no good hormone treatments with “pure” dosages, so transfeminine people here mainly transition with the help of contraceptives. You can mitigate the process with the help of an endocrinologist, but at the end of the day, it’s all makeshift. 

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The more successful your transition and the less you look like the person in your documents, the more questions the authorities have for you. Changes in my appearance started occurring after two and a half years, and that’s when the problems started [with the mismatch between my appearance and my personal information]. There’s not much to do about it.

I knew I was transgender from the time I was a child, but as a teenager, I wanted to look like the most “normal” and “masculine” guy possible. Over the past 10 years, I started considering transitioning, but I didn’t do anything. I had this absurd idea that if I started to transition, I’d become a happier person, but at the cost of my social and professional life. For a long time, it seemed to me that I could never be a trans translator, journalist, news anchor, actor, or artist. The truth is that transition has its complications, of course. But I think I just needed time to accept [how significant transition is] for me.

I finally accepted my decision with the help of long-term therapy, already after moving [to Kyrgyzstan]. After the [Russian] government passed these homophobic and transphobic laws, I started to talk [on social media] about nontraditional gender identities. It seemed to me that if you stay silent, then you may as well not exist and you are playing into the hand of those who hate you. I think that, right now, it is crucially important to openly assert my identity, especially in the context of the growing right-wing sentiment in the world and Russia. But I cannot demand that of others.

Once they heard about the proposed laws, my [trans] friends in Russia decided that they needed to speed up their transitions. I have a friend, a trans man, who has gone through every necessary procedure in order to successfully change his documents. It’s possible that under different circumstances, a person might draw things out, but right now you have to do everything right away.

In a lot of ways, I’m in a unique position: my family and social circle are incredibly supportive. Unfortunately, that’s an exception. I’m also privileged to work as a producer and translator in European productions. Here, no one cares how I identify. Usually the job search for transgender people is full of uncertainty, so I hold on tightly to my work now.

In January 2023, the Russian authorities outlawed Meduza, designating our media outlet as an “undesirable organization.” In other words, our newsroom’s work is now completely banned in the country our founders call home. And Russian nationals who support Meduza can face criminal prosecution. Today, Meduza’s need for support from people across the globe — from readers like you — has never been more important. Please, support our work.


21-year-old transgender man. Living in Russia, but planning to leave. Name changed at his request.

I was in no rush [to transition]. In the beginning, I thought of meeting with a psychotherapist in order to work through my emotions and save up for my medical fees and then hormone replacement therapy (HRT). I had been hoping to stay in the country until the very end, but since it started (Editor’s note: the law banning gender transition going into effect), now I'm in a rush to change my documents. I’ve already gone through the commission, and in a few days I’ll go for the certificate.

I hoped that first I’d undergo HRT and then change the gender marker on my documents. But then it turned out that I, [with a female appearance], didn’t match up with my passport [which has a male gender marker]. I am already preparing to deal with doctors [because of my new gender marker] and the “fun” that will start at the enlistment office.

You have to understand that it’s not clear how to live [in Russia] anymore. I’ve already managed to get together 9,000 rubles (about $95). It’s not enough for relocation, but my fiancé and I are going to get foreign passports [anyways]. I never thought that I would have to start crowdfunding, but here I am.

I haven’t turned to my relatives [as I have not talked to them about my identity]. The only ones who know are my future wife and my psychotherapist. I haven’t told them about the move either. I did tell some of my most trusted coworkers. My boss explained that I will either have to quit or start working remotely [she approved the second option]. Fortunately, I’m an artist, so it’s not a big deal to work remotely.

I understand that it’s going to be a while until we can actually move – a year for sure. At the present moment, we’ve settled down in a remote village with my parents so we can save more money. And we’ll need a lot of it because my [future] spouse has a disability and we need to have medication for the future. Aside from that, we have a bunch of pets that we need to chip, neuter, and vaccinate. All of that is already in the works. I made a list of things we need to do: get the transnational passports, close out our loans. I’m also trying to put together a decent portfolio — ideally I would find work as a specialist abroad.

We hope to apply [for asylum] when we are abroad. We are thinking about Spain — as far as we know, it is the easiest there. We’ll reach out to some organizations that help LGBTQ+ refugees, but that’s getting into the minutiae.

I can only imagine how much work volunteers have right now with how many people are suffering. There’s a feeling of flames all around me. You have no time to decide: change or move away. I barely sleep. It’s awful, what my life has become. I already had suicidal thoughts — but I have my family, so I will try to do whatever I can.

Translation by Emma Fringuelli

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