‘So-Called Gender Freedoms’: What are the Origins of Russian Transphobia?
July 21, 2023
  • Talia Kollek

    PhD researcher at the University of Oxford
  • Yaroslav Rasputin

    Russian gay-activist, columnist for Parni PLUS

Kollek and Rasputin respond to new transphobic legislation about to come into effect in Russia. Transgender people are the latest target of the Kremlin’s campaign to protect “traditional Russian values” from the “immoral West”, which began over a decade ago as a way of shoring up the regime’s political legitimacy. However, there are clear ties between the “traditional values” agenda and Western conservative ideology.

On June 13, 2023, the Duma held the first reading of a bill that would revoke the rights of trans people in Russia to legally and medically transition between genders. Duma Deputy Nikolai Nikolaev spoke of great concern for the safety of Russian children: “A criminal network… is currently anticipating our passing this law. ‘Trans-friendly’ psychologists are actively trying to rush underage and young people who are only just involved in the process of changing their genders to do so before [it] passes.” Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin was also concerned. He cited the improbable figure that 1.4% of adolescents had undergone “sex reassignment” surgery. The remaining members of the Duma agreed that something must be done, with the bill passing its first, second and third readings unanimously. There was one catch: children already cannot legally or medically undergo a gender transition in Russia. The Ministry of Health currently requires that you have to be at least 18 years of age to do so.

Nikolaev and Volodin, along with all the other Duma members, emphasized that the threat to Russian children was coming from the West. They voted to protect Russian “traditional values” from “Western gender ideology.” What were the origins of Nikolaev’s “criminal network” of groomers? Where did Volodin find his statistics?
Ironically, this transphobic legislation has its roots in the very place the Duma sought to reject: the West, while there’s even a Soviet legacy, if limited, of transgender healthcare.
The Soviet legacy of transgender healthcare

While Duma deputies have framed gender transition as something dangerous, newfangled and absurd, transgender healthcare has a long — if understudied — history in Russia. Russian transgender and intersex people have been legally able to change their gender since 1926, with the earliest evidence of gender transition in the USSR dating back to 1929 in Kazan. In 1972, a Latvian surgeon named Viktors Kalnbērzs carried out the first successful female-to-male sex-change operation.

Despite a hushing-up of the procedure and professional censures for Kalnbērzs, other medical professionals continued to study trans healthcare in the USSR. In 1975, a Soviet psychiatrist named Aron Belkin published an article on his observations of 30 people who had undergone sex-change operations and legally changed their genders. In 1983, the medical diagnosis of “transsexualism” came into use in the Soviet Union, and clinical recommendations for treatment appeared in 1991.
A protest near the Duma against the government’s plan to pass a bill banning "propaganda of homosexuality." Moscow, December 19, 2012. Source: Wiki Commons
In Russia, the process to legally and medically transition is currently – although likely not for long – the remit of the Ministry of Health. Those hoping to transition must first undergo a process involving a specialized medical commission. The commission involves a series of invasive and expensive steps, including a physical exam and sessions with psychiatrists to prove one’s “trans-ness.” The commission is only available in major cities, which makes it difficult to access for people in the provinces. If given the green light, the applicant is able to legally change the gender marker in their documents and receive gender-affirming medical care, such as hormone replacement therapy or surgery.

The existence of trans people in Russia has remained largely out of the public view; until recently, gays and lesbians have been the focus of the Kremlin’s ire instead. Following mass protests and accusations of electoral fraud in 2011, Putin began to shore up his political legitimacy with a campaign to protect “traditional Russian values.” The resulting 2013 “gay propaganda law” banned the spreading of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors. Public opinion toward LGBTQ+ people has been significantly affected by the legislated homophobia: since the gay propaganda law took effect, hate crimes against queer Russians rose sharply.
In the years between Putin’s first and fourth terms in office, the number of Russians who strongly opposed equal rights for gays and lesbians has more than doubled, from 16% in 2005 to 42% in 2021.
Starting in 2013, Putin has repeatedly returned to the “defense of traditional values,” notably in times of political turbulence. It is no surprise that attacks on gays and lesbians have been heavily incorporated into the rhetoric surrounding the conflict in Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, claimed that Russia invaded Ukraine to liberate Ukrainians from gay pride parades.

At the annexation ceremony for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions on September 30, 2022, Putin claimed to be protecting children from “perversions that lead to degradation and extinction.” State TV Channel One claimed to have discovered an American “gay and lesbian headquarters” attacking children in Mariupol. As a part of this broader homophobic campaign, the above-mentioned 2013 gay propaganda law was expanded at the end of 2022 – it was at this point that transgender people became an explicit target for the first time.

The “propaganda of sex change”

The 2013 homophobic legislation focused on same-sex relationships, with trans identities largely ignored. In 2020, the first attempt to legislate against gender transition even failed, with the infamously homophobic Duma Deputy Yelena Mizulina unsuccessfully attempting to ban transgender people from transitioning, marrying or adopting children. Following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin enacted a patchwork of legislation designed to crack down on civil liberties in Russia. In a bid to demonize LGBTQ+ people and further suppress freedom of speech, the “gay propaganda” law has been dramatically expanded, essentially outlawing all forms of public queer life in Russia (and some forms of private life as well).

Russian lawmakers then turned their attention toward transgender people. At breakneck speed, legislation banning gender transitions passed three readings in the Duma between June 13 and July 14 and was sent to the Federation Council for approval on July 19. It will next be signed by President Putin and come into effect no later than August 7.

The law would prohibit transgender people in Russia from changing the gender marker in their documents (with an exception for intersex people). It would also ban doctors from providing gender-affirmative healthcare, such as hormone replacement therapy or surgery. The law will not revert the gender of those who have already legally transitioned, but it will deny them the ability to adopt children or become legal guardians for minors.
For those who were married during their transition, their marriages will be dissolved following the same automatic legal protocols used in the case of the death of a spouse.
Yulia Aleshina, a transgender politician, was forced to withdraw from the governor election in Altai Krai. Source: VK
This does not mean that conditions for trans people in Russia have been easy until now. A 2019 survey of transgender Russians found that the majority of respondents faced discrimination leading to psychological distress. Still, the opportunity to transition was out there. The new legislation would outlaw it entirely.

The law may also have a broader impact on societal transphobia. As mentioned above, the implementation of the “gay propaganda” law saw a rise in violence and hate crimes against gays and lesbians. It may be expected that the new law will also coincide with a rise in hate crimes against trans people.

In fact, it is already happening: in June, transgender Russian blogger Olysia Kat was held by the police for 24 hours, denied legal counsel and repeatedly called a man. A transgender woman in Khimki was misgendered by the police and threatened with incarceration in a male prison. Another trans woman in Moscow was arrested for yelling “glory to Ukraine” in a nightclub, forced to undress in front of the police and tell them her birth name. In Altai Krai, a transgender candidate for governor withdrew her nomination after political support waned in response to the new bill. In Penza, a transgender university student is under pressure to drop out due to their change in documentation. In Krasnodar, a gender nonconforming student was expelled for "propaganda of sex change."

From a health standpoint, the legislation will be detrimental to transgender Russians. In a collective response to the bill drawn up by representatives of almost 30 human rights, HIV-service and medical organizations, as well as lawyer associations and trans-community initiatives, it states that the bill “is aimed at discriminating against and depriving of access to medical care people with the medical diagnosis of ‘transsexualism,’ and is based on information that is not supported by sufficient evidence and does not contribute to achieving the stated goals”. Russian healthcare researchers are concerned that the law could lead to a rise in self-harm, either by increasing the risk of suicide for trans people or bringing back the type of secret medical treatment and self-castration seen in Russia in the 1990s and 2000s.

A “criminal network”

Ironically, while Nikolaev and Volodin blame the West for “exporting gender ideology” to Russia, countries in Europe and North America are grappling with a transphobic movement of their own. The “anti-gender” movement is comprised of religious bodies, academics, right-wing politicians, “gender-critical” feminists and NGOs that broadly stand against rights relating to gender. It aims to roll back marriage equality and curtail access to reproductive rights (with notable success in the US). In recent years, “anti-gender” activists have become increasingly focused on trans rights, pushing a return to “traditional family values” and “natural law,” purportedly for the protection of children. Particularly in America, transphobic legislation has quickly gained momentum, with laws regulating everything from bathroom use to school curriculums and drag performances. Book bans have come into effect, along with bans on gender-affirming care and even the discussion of LGBTQ+ topics in schools.

Russian legislators have borrowed heavily from their Western counterparts.
Volodin’s aforementioned statistics were based on a misquoted UCLA study of American youth. Nikolaev’s comments on “trans-friendly” therapists pressuring Russian children to transition were apparently based on anti-gender debates currently raging in the UK. Even Putin has co-opted anti-gender messaging in his wartime speeches. “Do we want to have here, in our country… ‘parent number one, parent number two, and parent number three’… instead of mother and father?... Do we want to… offer them gender reassignment surgery? Is that what we want for our country and our children? This is all unacceptable to us.”

This co-optation of transphobic rhetoric by Russian politicians has a precedent. In their 2022 book on the globalization of Christian social conservatism, Kristina Stoeckl and Dimitry Uzlaner outlined the role of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian state in global culture wars over gender, reproductive rights and religious freedom. “The irony is transparent,” they write, “the Russian Orthodox faction [accuses] its opponents of being backed by transnational foreign organizations, while it [relies] in the same way on its own set of transnational organizations.”

The book describes the ways in which the Russian “traditional values” agenda has been shaped by the rhetoric, strategies and agendas of far-right Christian groups in the US and Europe. Anti-gender actors have also historically cooperated to fund homophobic and transphobic campaigns internationally. These groups share tactics, such as using vitriolic media campaigns to generate moral panic, targeting and doxxing individual transgender activists, and spreading misinformation about trans people (including equating transgender identities with pedophilia).

With the claims that the West is imposing “gender ideology” on Russian children, legislators such as Nikolaev and Volodin are looking for new narratives of national victimization. A lack of knowledge of LGBTQ+ history in Russia means that transgender identities can be framed as a Western import and function as a “safe” target for conservative attack. While President Putin and Duma deputies claim to be protecting “traditional Russian values” from the West’s “so-called gender freedoms,” their legislative transphobia has strong international roots. “They have completely lost it!” mused Putin, during his aforementioned speech on September 30, 2022. His remarks framed Russia as the last remaining bastion of conservative values in the world – yet as the international influences shaping Russian transphobia show, this is not the case.
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