Transgression: LGBT+ citizenship in a post-Soviet sphere

Photo: Maria KomarovaPhoto: Maria Komarova

One Indian summer’s evening, I found myself walking towards the metro along Moscow’s Tverskaya Street. Not far ahead of me, four adolescents – three boys and one girl – appeared wholly content in one another’s company as they engaged in good-natured banter. The group, I soon understood, was composed of two couples: one heterosexual and one homosexual.

A beam of satisfaction spread across the young lady’s face as her partner embraced her and they fell into a uniform stride; alongside them, however, their friends clumsily huddled together to conceal their joint hands.

It was late September 2013, just several months after the 30 June 2013 passing of a federal law, which, for the sake of preventing Russia’s children from espousing alternatives values or one day forming “non-traditional” families, made the proliferation of “homosexual propaganda”, i.e. any public display of non-heterosexual preferences, punishable by fines or imprisonment.

The young men glanced about apprehensively, and the one on the right, choosing to err on the side of caution, released his grip and distanced himself from his partner. The latter then stretched out his arm and let his fingers hover by his loved one’s cheek before placing his hand into his pocket.

“Pediki!” a middle-aged passerby suddenly spat. He pronounced a pluralised abbreviation of pederast (Russian: педераст), a widely used Russian word for homosexual men. An even more vulgar abbreviation of this term is the equally as common pidor (Russian: пидор). For reference, the term pederast originates from the Greek paiderastēs, which, much like the English equivalent pederast, refers specifically to paedophilic homosexual males, i.e. adult males who engage in sexual activity with boys. The term’s use in Russian, despite its linguistic inapplicability to the majority of homosexuals, is deliberate, as many Russians believe that homosexuality and paedophilia are intrinsically linked.

Unsatisfied by the crudity of his comments, the man delivered another blow: “Can they even be called humans?” he asked, pointing to the lads. “No, they cannot. They are animals.”

I was disheartened and repulsed. What justice can there be when certain individuals are shamed into repressing the most fundamental of human abilities – love? Most importantly, how can a man consider himself righteous for humiliating a child who demonstrates affection?

It was with these questions that I attended the workshop on Gender, nationalism, and citizenship in anti-authoritarian protests in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine at Robinson College, Cambridge in June 2015. The event was organised by Olesya Khromeychuk, the Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of East Anglia, and featured experts in the fields of civil action, humanitarian affairs, women’s rights and LGBT rights.

The various presentations taking place at the workshop suggested that the question of homosexuality and transgender issues in the post-Soviet space remains rife with challenges and that violations of elementary human rights, such as the right to safety and freedom from physical harm, are observable problems.

Homosexuality and transgenderism in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine

The domestic reforms of General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (Perestroika and Glasnost) in the 1980s and the ensuing dissolution of the Soviet Union (1991) effected an influx of Westernisms into a space where civil existence had, over the course of decades, been regulated by the swaying of an inflexible Iron Curtain. Linguistic, cultural, humanitarian and – as suggested by impassioned pledges of democracy and the writing of new constitutions – even political, these Westernisms sought to ameliorate living conditions and introduce individual freedoms into a society whose notion of sovereignty, whether personal or national, had been at variance with that of the West since at least the mid-19th century and was, arguably, fundamentally different to begin with.

Among the numerous reforms was the decriminalisation of same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus (1991, 1993 and 1994 respectively). The lifting of criminal stigma, however, did little to soften societal perceptions of dishonour in homosexuality, and more than two decades later, the daily lives of non-heterosexual indi­­viduals in these post-Soviet states continue to be plagued by discrimination and abuse, both verbal and physical. Similarly, though transgender individuals have officially been permitted to undergo sex reassignment surgery in Ukraine and Russia since 1996 and 1997 respectively (Belarus saw its first SRS surgery in 1992), few legal mechanisms exist to protect these individuals from prejudicial treatment.

Abuse against members of the LGBT+ community goes beyond taunting or ostracism. As evidenced by the Britain’s Channel 4 documentary on the persecution of LGBT individuals in Russia, homosexual men are hunted by vigilantes in so-called safaris. Hunting entails luring targeted individuals into traps, where they are then humiliated, beaten and forced to identify themselves on camera. Video testimony of this abuse, intended to expose victims’ homosexuality to thousands of people at once, is readily accessible via popular social networking sites such as vk.com. Police inaction and corrupt or indifferent court systems offer little practical recourse to affected individuals, and LGBT activism is often forbidden on the premise that such “provocative” activity would endanger participants’ lives.

The Channel 4 team was able to film the safari operation of vigilante group Occupy Paedophilia. As suggested by its name, this group claims to hunt paedophiles; nevertheless, because its members believe that an overwhelming majority of paedophiles are homosexuals, most of its violence is directed against the latter. The idea that paedophilia and homosexuality are linked, said documentary presenter Liz Mackean, is reinforced by the Russian Orthodox Church, which also supports the narrative that homosexuals are spiritually and mentally ill.

Though it was officially declassified as such in the Russian Federation in 1999, homosexuality continues to be seen by many outside of the medical community as an incurable psychiatric disorder or, at the very least, a sign of psychological instability. Such perceptions are popular in Ukraine and Belarus, as well. In Belarus, LGBT+ people are legally forbidden from serving in the military precisely because mental illness is contraindicated.

In fact, the term homosexualism (Russian: гомосексуализм) – linguistically suggestive of a mental condition – continues to be appear in both religious and general Russian-language publications, with the medical field being amongst the very few to have made strides to replace this negatively-connoted Soviet term with the more neutral homosexual’nost’ (Russian: гомосексуальность), equivalent to the English homosexuality.

Linguistic self-identification is also a challenge for members of the Russian-speaking LGBT+ community. Whilst, homosexual males have been able to embrace the use of the English word gay, homosexual women have few neutral alternatives to choose from and remain highly resistant to the existing Russian term for lesbian lesbianka (Russian: лесбиянка), which is seen as carrying a negative connotation.

The church also speaks of impurity and wickedness in homosexuality, suggesting that homosexual lives are of little value and are characterised by moral depravity and sexual deviance. In the documentary, church official Father Sergey Rybko, for example, called homosexuals “servants of the devil” and equated them with murderers and perverts. Timur, head of “traditional family” organisation Parents of Russia, expressed similar convictions in regards to members of the LGBT community: “This filth should not exist on this earth. Ideally, instead of having us push them out of Russia, they would take their own wretched lives,” he said.

Hatred towards LGBT individuals is fuelled on a grass-roots level. Videos posted on social networking sites employ similar cinematographic techniques as those observed in propagandist news segments on Russia’s state controlled television channels (including ominous music and images of chaos) to simulate the tainted, vulgar world that homosexuality and transsexuality are believed to threaten to occasion. Such videos often comment on the indecency of engaging in coitus recreationally (i.e. without the intention of reproducing) and elaborate upon the risks involved therein, including that of population decline. Unsubstantiated statistics on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and suicide in the LGBT community, accompanied by background commentary on the necessity to protect children from unjust fates, contribute to exaggerated fears that “non-traditional” preferences pose an immediate and observable threat. Head of the Federal AIDS centre in Moscow Vadim Pokrovsky said in May 2009, however, that heterosexual intercourse appeared to be the most common culprit in HIV transmission in Russia.

Disseminated to promote an agenda, videos posted on social networking sites, like their political counterparts, serve to render the Russophone populace more receptive to authority amid fear of a common enemy, an enemy whose decadence and western-ness sets it in conflict with what is seen as Russia’s spiritual purity. Alongside Russia’s legislation against homosexual propaganda, such videos are part of what Tamara Martsenyuk, workshop participant and gender sociologist at Ukraine’s National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, called a mechanism of “othering”.

Senior Lecturer in Political Sociology at UCL’s SSEES Richard Mole maintained at the workshop that top-down attacks on LGBT+ rights successfully distract citizens from pressing social and economic issues, with the latter being of particularly relevance in light of Western sanctions and an ever-worsening standard of living in the region.

“Russia’s birth rate fell after [the dissolution of] the Soviet Union. [In order to survive], Russia needs to cleanse itself of non-reproducing gay populations,” said Mole in an attempt to comprehend the ideological basis for attacks on the LGBT+ community. “Anti-gay rhetoric is also supposed to ‘reinforce’ Russian identity.”

In conflict with tradition

“The media does not allot space in the discussion to those with different identities,” said Anna Shadrina, a research associate at European Humanities University’s Centre for Gender Studies in Vilnius, Lithuania. Just like feminists, members of the LGBT community are believed to threaten traditional family values and gender roles. Misunderstood and marginalised, both groups are depicted by opponent groups as “problematic” and incompatible with society in its ideal incarnation. Instead of elaborating upon the breadth of gender diversity among local populations and clarifying any misconceptions the public may have, the mainstream media, in particular that which is regulated by the state, at best neglects LGBT issues and at worst supports prejudiced narratives and conspiracy theories.

Despite popular homophobia, the LGBT communities of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia have increased in size and diversified their activity in the years since dissolution, claimed Matsenyuk, though many challenges, including internal stratification, ghettoisation and limited street activism remain. Even in times of revolutionary activism, the LGBT community cannot always be fully represented. Martsenyuk gave the example of the paradoxical and ‘contradictory’ nature of the EuroMaidan, a wave of demonstrations and civil unrest in Ukraine that started in late 2013.

“On the one hand, people were standing up for human rights, but communities were not waving rainbow flags; the rise of regular citizens was a priority. [Sometimes], events were homophobic. As protests became more violent, it was more dangerous to be open,” said Martsenyuk.

The Maidan was highly masculine and militaristic in its discourse. “[A gay man] could be recognised only if [he] died in the barricades for [his] nation,” she said.

Nevertheless, the Maidan also exposed some positive attitudes towards LGBT issues from members of the political elite. Ukrainian politician and former Minister of Internal Affairs Yuriy Lutsenko, for instance, is known to have declared: “It is better to allow gay parades once a year than to wait for Russian tanks every day.” For some activists, the question of whether or not to support LGBT rights soon became synonymous with a choice between Europe and Russia.

Despite its limitations, the LGBT movement remains far more developed than the feminist movement in all three countries, where assertive masculinity and machoism are valued and any signs of femininity in men, even amongst so-called metrosexuals, are frowned upon and ridiculed.

The Russian-language Internet community (dubbed “runet”) erupted in an uproar, for instance, when members of the motorcycle club The Night Wolves, having been denied access to Europe at the Belorussian border on their way to Berlin (their journey was intended to replicate the path taken by Soviet troops at the end of the Second World War), had their “makeup bags” (Russian: косметичка; transliteration: kosmetichka) foraged through by Polish personnel. The use of the term “makeup bag” to describe what were essentially toilet bags was uncomplimentary precisely because of the perceived incompatibility between the traditional masculinity evoked by these nationalist, Orthodox and Putin-friendly motorcyclists and the possession of “feminine objects”, explained Anna Shadrina.

Camouflage, Adaptation and Resistance

For transgender individuals, gender transitions come with considerable difficulty, both social and physiological. In Ukraine, Article 51 of the law titled “Fundamental Principles of Ukraine’s Health Legislation” and Health Ministry Order No. 60 (on the improvement of medical assistance to persons in need of changing [correcting] their sex) dictate the precise conditions under which sex reassignment surgery should be carried out. According to Nadzeya Husakouskaya of the University of Bergen’s Centre for Women’s and Gender Research, these laws and their counterparts in neighbouring countries tend to divide citizens into two categories: those who are “normal” and those with “pathological conditions”, with transgender individuals inevitably considered the latter.

The above regulations specify the “medical, biological and socio-psychological indications” that make a gender transition legitimate; individuals who do not meet these indications are ineligible for surgery. “Having children is just one counter-indication. How do you change a parent’s status on a child’s birth certificate?” asked Husakouskaya.

Sex reassignment surgery is obligatory for legal recognition of a new gender, and legal recognition is the only condition under which transgender individuals are able to regain what American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler has called “livable lives”. “Many transgender people begin to take hormones before consulting doctors and acquire physical traits that are closer to those of their desired gender. But then they cease to look like their passport pictures and encounter difficulties in securing jobs and housing, which introduces new problems, as unemployment is just another counter-indication [for surgery],” she said.

Furthermore, Russia and Ukraine are among the 21 European countries where transgender individuals are forcibly sterilised through the surgical removal of all reproductive organs as a prerequisite for legal recognition of their new gender. Sterilisation is not obligatory in Belarus.

Even having acquired legal recognition, transgender individuals continue to be face limitations in their everyday lives. “[They] are forbidden from performing certain jobs, such as being teachers or doctors. They are sterile in society in all aspects,” said Husakouskaya.

Some Ukrainian doctors are unfamiliar with the above decrees and, therefore, the counter-indications, which means that the existing system is “navigable” to a certain extent. Additionally, “navigation of the corrupted system can occur through bribes, gifts or personal networks. Sometimes gender is changed in documents without people undergoing procedures. Some people are able to buy new documents,” said Husakouskaya.

Some couples have found more creative ways in which to work around the system. Husakouskaya gave the example of a transgender, homosexual man (who was assigned female at birth and had not undergone sex reassignment surgery) who married his partner and giving birth to their child. “Physically, they looked like a ‘normal’ heterosexual couple, but, in reality, they are resisting the system by using the resources that they have.” In both Russia and Ukraine, all single people, regardless of sexual orientation, are permitted to adopt children. But same sex couples are forbidden from doing so. All members of the LGBT+ community, whether single or not, are barred from adopting children in Belarus. Sexual orientation, however, does not restrict individuals from benefitting from assisted reproductive technology, such as in vitro fertilisation procedures; making use of a sperm banks, or employing a surrogate.

Members of the homosexual community have too had to adapt to the restrictions that have been put in place against them. As previously mentioned by Martsenyuk, for instance, homosexual Ukrainian protestors at the Maidan, though appearing as representatives of their community, wore nationalist clothing in an attempt to reconcile nationalism and homosexuality.

According to Mole, Russian LGBT migrants/émigrés living in diasporas “risk becoming doubly marginalised and are forced to either pretend to not be gay amongst their own or assimilate to [local] society.” He referred specifically to the Russian-language LBGT+ community in Berlin, Germany, which formed in April 2011 an LGBT organisation called Quarteera in order to give homosexual immigrants the opportunity to both embrace their previously dismissed identities and to maintain their ethnic and cultural heritage.

“Here, solidarity is derived from shared ethnic and sexual identities,” said Mole. “[But] there is a broad understanding of Russianness, as Quarteera also includes Russian-speaking Ukrainians and Jews, [amongst other ethnic groups].”

Prospects for the future

As some nations, such as the United States, gradually move towards greater tolerance, as evidenced by the country-wide legalisation of same-sex marriage on June 26, 2015, Russia may be on the verge of moving backwards. On October 29,  Russia’s lower house of parliament registered a bill that, if ratified into law, would make “coming out” punishable by fines and/or imprisonment. In recriminalising homosexuality, such a law would be a major setback in the plight to end discrimination against members of the LGBT+ community.

Whilst there are no concrete statistics on the number of asylum applications to the United States specifically from members of the LGBT+ community, the Department of Homeland Security have noted a 34% increase in overall asylum applications from Russian between 2012 and 2014, a period that coincides with the introduction of the law on anti-homosexual propaganda.