Thursday, 16 June 2011

Video: The birth of a transgender movement in Russia



By Andy Thayer

On May 28 a sprinkling of international activists and I joined with members of GayRussia to participate in the Moscow Pride demonstration which had been banned by the government.  The demonstrators were physically attacked by neofascist thugs and police, and arrested.

At least two of those arrested are members of Russia’s Transgender community. The day after we were released from jail, I sat down with one of them, Anna Komarova, to discuss the issues facing Russia’s budding Transgender community. Anna’s presentation at a press conference two days previously is believed to be the first-ever pro-Transgender public presentation the country has ever seen. A video of Anna should be ready to appear in this space tomorrow night — until then, below is the print interview.

Andy Thayer: Anna, one of the things that I’m often asked by LGBTs when they learn I’ve been to Russia, is what is the situation of Transgender people in your country? It strikes me as such a big question, I don’t have a way of answering it. How would you answer that question?
Anna Komarova: The Russian media almost absolutely do not cover this subject. There are a few articles about Transgender people, some interviews with Transsexuals, and that’s all. It seems to me that there is no real Transgender movement in Russia, but only some internet forums, some internet services for Transgenders, but in my opinion, Transgenders in Russia don’t understand their rights, they don’t fight for their rights. For example, Transsexuals, they are part of Transgender community. They don’t have in Russia any clear procedure for changing documents, surgery if they need it, hormone therapy and so on. It is not clear in Russia what to do, how to do it. All regions decide how to do it themselves.

AT: There’s no national policy.

AK: Yes, yes. And, it seems like Transgenders in Russia are afraid to fight for their rights, and nobody knows about other gender identities in the Transgender community, for example, about Genderqueers, Agenders, I am an Agender myself. There is no information about it. The first Genderqueer forum for Russian speakers was founded in November 2010. It has only a little more than 100 users now. So this is the situation.

AT: What is the attitude of the government towards Transgender people talking to each other and attempting to find out about themselves and better ways to improve their lives?

AK: The Russian government doesn’t care about that, as it doesn’t care about LGB people. What we are doing is we are fighting for freedom of assembly, and it is very difficult to get it, but there isn’t possible to fight for your rights if you do not have this basic opportunity to, for example, go to a street, to take your slogans and so on.

AT: In the United States there is a big problem with medical abuse of Intersex children. Is there a serious problem with that in Russia as well?

AK: Yes, but our Intersexuals are — I’d like to underline that I am only expressing my own point of view — Russian Intersex people think that they are sick, [almost] all of them, and the government too. The same with Transgenders. A lot of Transgenders in Russia think that they are sick, and it seems to me that it’s a problem too, because it’s easier to change your body if you don’t need permission from psychologists. [It’s better if] you only have to visit other doctors who help to change your body, and there is no necessity to pass through [psychological] tests and so on within rather a big period.

AT: Does the Russian medical system, does it assist with gender reassignment surgery for those who want it, or does it put all sorts of barriers between it, financial and otherwise?

AK: In most Russian regions, the authorities ask you to have surgery and hormone therapy before you can change your [identity] documents, and that’s not correct, because some people don’t want to do it. And they can’t do it because health problems or other reasons, many other reasons. For example, I don’t want to do anything with my body.

AT: Is there state funding for those who do want to, or do people have to pay for it out of their own pockets?

AK: No, we pay ourselves, for everything.

AT: Is that the case for most medical care in general?

AK: We have a national system of medical insurance, but it doesn’t include any surgery or other things that you need if you are Transsexual to make some changes with your body. It doesn’t include all of these things. But what about other [private] insurances? If it is possible to include by your own wish, …if you want to make surgery now, there is no way to find an insurance company which will include this surgery, and then you [will] wait for several years.

AT: Shifting more to the information flow and the organizing of Transgender people in Russia, you mentioned that some of these on-line forums just started last year. What was there before that? What information sharing was there among Transgender people to find out about issues that are important to you?

AK: I think that they used internet, first of all, and to pass information from one person to another person.

AT: Are there Russian language books and articles that people can read?

AK: There are some books, but almost all of them say that gender variant people are sick, and they explain to doctors how to make hormone therapy or surgery for Transsexuals. We have this kind of books. But all of them say that it’s mental disease. Besides that, I want to say that Transsexuals are not the only kind of Transgenders.

AT: It sounds like there is a very large absence of information for people trying to find out about themselves, trying to have positive images of themselves. The notion that most Transgender people see themselves as sick is very disturbing, and mentally debilitating. Are there any coordinated attempts to begin translating publications that are Transgender-affirming that are written in other languages?

AK: Transgender forums and activists in those forums translate foreign articles and they publish those articles on their forums. Forums are the main source of information about Transgenderness and Transsexuality, but in Russia, almost all people think that Transgender people are all Transsexuals. And besides that, most Transsexuals think that Transgenders are simply Transsexuals. And I’ve already told you that our GenderQueer forums are too small and too young. But anyway, our forum includes a lot of scientific articles which were written in English and we translate them ourselves.

AT: As long as we’re on the subject, what would be the best way for people in other countries to support Transgender people in Russia?

AK: I think we need more contacts, more connections. We need maybe more information about other gender identities and about the ways of expression of gender identities in other countries. I mean, in the Canadian army, for example, almost nobody knows that it is possible to put on the uniform which you like, which you [decide your] gender identity. In Russia, nobody knows about it. And I’ve talked about this for the Russian media during press conference the day before Moscow Gay Pride. Especially to attract the attention to this subject, to Transgender questions.

AT: Going back to the press conference this past Friday, just two days ago, it strikes me — and correct me if I am wrong — could that have been the first publicly announced meeting where pro-Transgender issues were discussed before the general public, not just among LGBT people, in private meetings, but for the non-gay media? Was that perhaps the first time, your speech at that press conference?

AK: It seems to me that you are right. Maybe I don’t know about other initiatives, but it seems to me that it was the first time.

AT: In Chicago and other large cities in the United States, there are meetings of Transgender people where people can not only deal with political issues, but also discuss the impediments that they face as they carry on with their daily lives. People have opportunities to have in-person discussions with other Transgender people, and gain support from other’s knowledge. The internet is great, but in a city like Moscow, which is 15 million people, are there any such organizations which at least provide an opportunity for socializing and non-political discussions?

AK: There is one organization in Moscow which is called the Transgender Foundation. And it helps Transsexuals and some other gender variant people to socialize and to discuss their problems. They have meetings, and I had a meeting before Pride with their organizers, and we set up a meeting after Pride. I will meet with them again. We decided to discuss our possible future work together.

AT: I gather that right now that this organization, Transgender, is an information-sharing organization rather than an advocacy organization of “Well, we need this change in the national healthcare system,” or “We need this change in the educational system,” is that correct? Has it not taken up policy issues yet?

AK: No, we do not have this kind of [advocacy] organization yet, but we do have some organizations which help to realize transitions from one sex to another, and to socialize and to get new documents, and they help. But they don’t discuss how to change the system, and a lot of Russian Transsexuals don’t want to change the system. It seems to me that they are afraid of it, because we have, for example, several doctors, psychologists in Moscow and in St. Petersburg, who help them to get the permission to go through their transition. And they are afraid to break this system. But this system , in my opinion, is not comfortable. In my opinion, there is not any necessity to get permission from psychologists, because we don’t get any permissions when we get any plastic surgeries.

AT: In the United States, in the political LGBT movement, there has often been a problem where Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual activists have not been supportive of the demands of Transgender peoples.

AK: We have the same problem in Russia.

AT: That’s very sad, given how under siege everyone is that is gender variant or of different sexual orientations, that there would not be that solidarity with Transgender people.

AK: Yes, I think that the Russian LGB community is rather Transphobic.

AT: How does this manifest itself, this Transphobia?

AK: When I say that I am Transgender in a Lesbian company, they say, “Oh no, no, that’s not Transgender.” So this way, they just say that they don’t.

AT: In a country that is as large as Russia is, population-wise, 150 million people compared to the 300 million in the United States, there have got to a number of women’s rights organizations. What sort of support, or lack of support, do those organizations give to Transgender people?

AK: I’ve never heard about any connections with these kinds of organizations. Maybe there is, but this is not my experience. I’ve never heard of it.

AT: Do you know if there have been any attempts by Transgender individuals or organizations to influence these women’s organizations, to ask that they take up Transgender issues as part of a broader feminist agenda?

AK: I think that I’ve heard something about it, but these questions have not come out to a wider public discussion.

AT: You covered a lot of ground in your speech at the press conference. It was very ground-breaking in that this was, perhaps for the first time in Russia, a place where Transgender issues were discussed in a positive, open public forum, in person. The more I think about it, that was a very ground-breaking event for GayRussia to do that. That’s got to make you very proud.

AK: I hope that my speech changed some things for our Transgender situation in Russia. I think that it’s too early to be proud.

AT: Anna, you have been a stalwart of GayRussia for years now. You participated in the first Moscow Pride in 2006, and you have been beaten by the fascists, you have been roughly treated by the police, including arrested…

AK: I wasn’t arrested that year, only beaten…

AT: …”only” beaten [laughing], but you have paid your dues, as we say in the West, as an LGBT activist, and yet you were telling me earlier that you began coming out as a Transgender person about a year ago. Describe to me how your consciousness changed and what prompted your consciousness to change.

AK: I began to think about gender questions in my childhood. I thought, if I want to be a man, and I discussed it with my friends when I was maybe 6 – 7 years old, and I decided, it’s a little bit difficult for me to describe my situations, which changed my mind. But there were some situations when I decided not to be a man too. I am not a woman., I felt it, I knew that I’m not like other women, other girls, and I thought maybe I’d like to be a man, but I decided in my childhood that I’m not a man too. And I found, that there was an interesting situation when, I found an audio tape that my father did. I was three years old, and I was crying and I told to my father, “No I am not crying because of something,” and he spoke to me to be quiet and something, and I cried to him, ‘I’m not a girl, I’m not a girl.’” He told me, “Why not a girl, you’re a girl.” I was only three years old. And so it’s interesting, I didn’t expect to find it out on those tapes. And then, later, when maybe I was 13, 14, I tried to be like other girls and all Transgenders try to pass through this period, it seems to me, but it was difficult for me. Then I thought maybe being a man was more comfortable. Then I decided that if I feel neither like a man or a woman, I decided that I tell people I am Agender, because I feel like that.

AT: How did your consciousness change?

AK: About one year and a half [ago], I decided to express my gender identity, and I told people that I Agender, but I found out that they agree. It seemed to me that they didn’t realize that I really don’t identify myself as either a man or a woman. So, I decided to do something else, and I began to use masculine gender in my speech. I know that speech expresses our consciousness, speech changes our consciousness at the same time, so now I insist that everybody to use my female name and masculine gender when they speak about me and to me. But I am not the first in this kind of experience because, for example, Vladimir Luxuria, ex-deputy of Italian parliament uses male name and feminine grammar gender and there is no problem with it. She’s an actress and by the way, she took part in Moscow Gay Pride in 2007. So that’s my experience.

AT: Looking at the broader issues facing Transgender people in Russia, what do you think is the most important issue for Transgender people in this country?

AK: I think freedom of expression of gender identity. And I think one more thing I think is very important from my point of view is to delete gender variant behavior from World Health Organization ICD. That’s very important.

AT: What do you think is the biggest thing stopping Transgender people from gaining more freedom in Russia?

AK: I think that it’s very important to stop discrimination at the job and to stop physical violence against Transgender people.

AT: What more can you tell me about those two issues?

AK: It’s almost impossible to express gender identity at the job in Russia. You’ll be kicked out from your job. It’s the most likely thing that could happen to you after you come out.

AT: How do you survive in your own employment?

AK: It’s very difficult to [catch] your employer when they kick you out and the real reason is your Transgenderness. But they hide, usually. They don’t show that this is the real reason, so it’s to go to court, because they don’t say the real reasons [why they fire you].

AT: What about the issue of anti-Transgender violence?

AK: My [personal] experience was only at Gay Pride events, but with me I was surprised when I found out [this] one theme at one of the biggest F to M Transgender forums in Russia. I was surprised by the quantity of people who faced violence in their lives. I didn’t expect [it].

AT: I would like to record that you are one of the unsung heroes of Moscow Pride. In 2011, there has been a great deal of news coverage of internationals such as myself — frankly out of all proportion to the risks that we faced – and the injuries received were fortunately minor. But you, this year, were forced to the ground and kicked three or four times in the head. You tried to get yourself checked into a hospital for possible concussion or other hidden serious injury, but were not able to pay the bribes to make it happen.

I should also note that you have been in Moscow Pride from the beginning. At the first Moscow Pride in 2006 and 2007, you were severely beaten, and it’s lesser known people such as yourself who have made the greatest sacrifices, far greater than us internationals. I think that you deserve far greater recognition, and so at least for my reporting here and those who read it, I want to make sure your sacrifice is recognized. Also, the sacrifice of Elena Kostyuchenko, the Lesbian journalist from Novoya Gazetta, should be recognized. She came out with a Pride flag yesterday, and was severely beaten and hospitalized as a result. One of the most important things of this year’s Moscow Pride, is that because it was publicly announced, it allowed new people to join in.

AK: The truth is that I knew that Moscow Pride wouldn’t be permitted by Moscow authorities. I would prefer to go there [to Pride] openly each year, because it would let us collect more people. [We had] expected the Moscow authorities would follow the European Court of Human Rights decision, but we’ve seen now that they refused to do it. But I’m glad that we did it openly this year [despite that]. We saw a lot of heroic people with us.

AT: And you being one of them. Thank you very much.

AK: I don’t feel it, by the way.

AT: You’re too humble, and that is why I wanted that you get the recognition that you deserve on this. I think that Transgender people in the United States will be glad to know that our movement is truly international, and that you’re fighting for Transgender rights here in Russia, and for that we all owe a deep debt to you and the other people of GayRussia. Thank you very much.

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