On the 11th of June, 2013, the ‘gay propaganda law’ was passed in Russia, thereby making it a criminal offense to distribute ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships among minors.’ At this time, Soldado Kowalisidi was living in Siberia, having recently moved there from Kazakhstan.
It was in Siberia, where Soldado first came to terms with his true gender identity and began to transition from his birth-assigned gender to his true gender identity as a transgender man. He cut his hair short and began to wear men’s clothing, and these changes were accompanied by violence, discrimination and stigmatisation.
In Russia I understood that I am a transgender man.
A student of International Relations at a university in Siberia, Soldado had always placed at the top of his class until he began his transition. He noticed a marked drop in his grades when he began to change his appearance, and he was told by his professors that he could either revert to wearing women’s clothing or expect to fail his exams. It was therefore made clear to him that his academic ability would be overridden by his professors’ transphobia.
‘Only in these clothes can you pass the exam.’
But Soldado refused to give in to their threats. He attended his exams in men’s clothing, and managed to pass his exams, although his final grades were low, a fact which he attributes to the transphobia of his professors.
During his time at university, Soldado also became involved with an LGBT organisation in Siberia. However, it quickly became clear that this organisation was more LGB than LGBT, and so he decided to set up his own trans-feminist initiative, which held public events to give more visibility to the trans community and trans rights in Russia. This organisation was named Laverna, after Laverne C*x, the American actress and LGBT activist most recognised as Sophia Burset from the Netflix’ TV series, Orange is the New Black.
However, taking a stand for LGBT rights in Russia has its price. Soldado was one of the first openly trans people in Siberia and this meant that he was a target.
‘I was the first openly transgender (person) in Siberia… The far-right radical groups knew me, and they hunted me.’
He was beaten on the streets, more often than not in broad daylight, in the early morning or afternoon – and once while a policeman was watching. After one such attack, he went to the police station to file a complaint and seek protection, however, the only response offered by the police was their advice that he be ‘a real woman’ and find himself a man. Only then, they informed him, would the problems in his life end.
‘Everywhere, especially on the streets, I experienced violence.’
Indeed, violence and intimidation against LGBTQI+ people in Russia receives tacit approval from the state, which compounds the problem. People who violate the human rights of LGBTQI+ people are not prosecuted and are generally left to terrorize the LGBTQI+ community with impunity.
Of the most gruelling stories that Soldado recounted, was his experience with a medical professional after he had broken two toes in an accident.
The medical procedure required following this accident involved the removal of two of his toenails, a procedure that is usually performed under local anaesthetic. However, in this case, the doctor treating Soldado refused to provide him with anaesthetic, telling him that, since he was so determined to be a man, he should learn to withstand the pain, ‘as men do.’
According to Soldado, at that point, he saw no other option, and so, he went ahead with the procedure, with no anaesthetic.
When describing this story Soldado spoke with the tone of a person who has worked hard to leave this kind of experience behind. He sounded removed from the incident, adding matter-of-factly that the procedure to which he had been subject had also been used as a torture technique by the N***s. When I asked him how he had managed to overcome such brutality he said simply – ‘It was a long time ago.’
But Soldado’s story is not the exception, it is the rule. Throughout our interview, he emphasised that these experiences were not his alone but that they reflected the realities faced by trans individuals across Russia.
‘But it is not only my story, I know many trans people who have gone through the same.’
While the law in Russia ostensibly provides for the protection of all citizens, the gay propaganda law and the impunity with which homophobic and transphobic individuals are allowed to act, demonstrate the fallacy of this law when it relates to LGBTQI+ people.
The negative consequences of the Gay Propaganda Law were, according to Soldado, striking and immediate. State-controlled TV, which makes up the majority of TV stations in Russia, aired programmes which attempted to show viewers how to identify LGBTQI+ people by providing examples of how LGBTQI+ dressed or presented themselves. These programmes reduced the identities of LGBQTI+ people to mere physical attributes and in doing so, provided viewers with a rudimentary guide for the ensuing witch hunt. Alongside these programmes were news reports presenting falsified information which blamed LGBTQI+ people for any and all of the country’s woes. The LGBQTI+ community were thereby used as a scapegoat for any shortcomings in the socioeconomic progress of Russia.
Soldado remembers receiving a call from his mother at the time the gay propaganda law was passed (by consensus) at the Duma.*
His mother, who was living in Germany at the time, asked him if he had any LGBTQI+ friends, and he responded: ‘no.’
‘Good,’ was her response, still unaware of the true gender identity of her son.
Years on, they are no longer in contact. This is in part due to the fact that he has since revealed his gender identity to her, but is also related the fact that their opinions fall on different sides of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict; she being pro-Russian, he being pro-Ukrainian.
The divide between Russia and Ukraine has impacted upon Soldado’s life in more ways than one, however. The Euromaidan protests that took place in Kiev in 2014 represented Ukraine’s bid to distance itself from Russia and to move towards the values of democracy and freedom often associated with Western Europe. It was a geopolitical repositioning within Eastern Europe, and it was, of course, to affect the status of LGBTQI+ people in this region.
Soldado is currently seeking asylum in Ukraine, forced, in the end, to leave Siberia for economic reasons rather than ones of persecution. The 2012 Foreign Agent Law had made it nearly impossible to work on LGBT rights in Siberia, and, as the founder of a trans-rights organisation, he faced regular questioning from the security services. Furthermore, he found it increasingly difficult to find a job once he came out as a transgender man.
One day, he was called in for questioning by the security services, where he was subject to invasive interrogations and was questioned about every aspect of his life from his work aspirations to the most intimate details of his past. Throughout these interrogations, the security services refused to recognize him as a trans man and spoke to him as a woman.
When I asked Soldado if the security service had been aggressive while questioning him, his response was to pause before saying that he would describe their behaviour as ‘politely aggressive.’ This was accompanied by a wry laugh. In other words, the security services refrained from using force against him but they made it understood that there would be consequences should he continue to work on trans rights in Siberia.
‘Here I feel much more secure. I know that I can go to a police station and they will try to protect me.’
Now living in Ukraine, Soldado’s recognises that his perception of LGBTQI+ rights there are likely c******d by his horrific experiences in Siberia.
Ukrainian LGBTQI+ activists are often harsh in their criticisms of the government, accusing politicians of paying lip service to the LGBTQI+ movement in order to strengthen ties with the EU. According to them, progressive discourse on LGBTQI+ rights goes largely unaccompanied by real on-the-ground change, and violations of LGBTQI+ rights have continued in the wake of the Euormaidan protests, which was fought in the name of equality, progress and democracy.
For Soldado, however, Ukraine is a safe-haven. He feels safer, and believes people to be more open to LGBTQI+ rights than in Siberia. Medical specialists who have little expertise on the treatments needed by trans people are eager to learn; and the cis people that he works with are accepting if surprised when he reveals himself as trans, as they had never met a trans person before, (or at least did not know that they had).
In other words, he find that people are open to learning about what it means to be transgender and less prone to a priori discrimination.
‘They don’t know what being trans is, but they want to know.’
Certainly, when you consider what is currently happening in Chechnya, which is, in Soldado’s words, “a genocide against gays,’ it is easy to see how Ukraine may feel like a place of refuge.
At the same time, however, Soldado recognises that he is part of a unique community within Ukraine, as an employee within the NGO and human rights sector. He acknowledged the likelihood of an existing echo chamber effect, recognising that he might be misled into thinking that society is more tolerant that it is in reality, surrounded as he is by liberal and like-minded people. Furthermore, he lives in Kiev, where metropolitan areas tend to display greater levels of tolerance towards LGBTQI+ rights than more rural areas. Soldado was also insistent in pointing out the disparities in LGBTQI+ rights between the areas of Ukraine at peace and those that are currently engaged in conflict with Russia. In Crimea, for example, citizens are subject to Russian laws and it is extremely difficult for trans people to get hormone therapy. As for HIV-positive individuals, the provision of anti-retroviral therapy is practically non-existent.
The reality in Russia and Russian-occupied territories is that while some medical professionals provide the medical treatments and medications needed by trans people, this comes at a high price. In other words, operations, hormone therapy, and legislative procedures for gender recognition are limited to those that have money and so, numerous trans people (especially trans women) take on jobs as sex workers so that they can fund their medical bills.
‘Even in Siberia we have medical specialists who are specialized on trans issues – it’s a question of money.’
However, in spite of these chilling realities, Soldado’s bravery and resilience is demonstrated by his ability to end on a positive note, almost in defiance of the countless experiences that have conspired to quash his spirit. He ended our conversation with the story of a recent training on LGBTQI+ rights that he had done in his new capacity as an employee of Amnesty International in Kiev. The training, which was targeted at teachers, professors and medical professionals and went on for 6 months, elicited a noticeably higher degree of tolerance among at least 80% of participants, he estimated. Months after, he ran into one of the participants, who told him that a few weeks after the training, her child had gotten the confidence to tell her that he too was a transgender man. Her son told her that how he had noticed that she had become more LGBTQI+-friendly and aware and so he had finally felt that he could reveal his true gender identity to her. It is stories like these that provide motivation for those working on LGBTQI+ rights in Eastern Europe. These experiences reinforce the fact that visibility is everything for LGBTQI+ individuals living in intolerant countries, where many people are unaware that they have ever even met an LGBTQI+ person, as was the case of the woman from the training.
Soldado pictured at the pride parade in Ukraine
It is for this reason that pride parades and social media activity in support of LGBQTI+ rights is essential. Soldado talked about the growing attendance of allies at pride parades in Ukraine and how increasing numbers served to counteract the isolation felt by many young LGBQTI+ people. Actions like these and the trainings held by Soldado help young people to avoid suicide, which is a path that is unfortunately taken by many.
Indeed, speaking to some young LGBQTI+ people after the Kiev Pride a few years ago, Soldado said that they echoed each other’s responses when they said:
‘Wow, now I know that I am not alone.’
Indeed, it is only through the bravery of LGBTQI+ activists, such as Soldado, and the support of allies, that the isolation and silencing of LGBQTI+ people will be prevented, and gay and trans rights will be recognised as human rights by all.