The secret history of 395. How activists helped hundreds of people to beat Russia’s transgender ban
Оля Ромашова
The secret history of 395. How activists helped hundreds of people to beat Russia’s transgender ban
7 November 2023, 19:20

Art by Sonya Vladimirova / Mediazona

In July, Vladimir Putin approved a law that completely banned any gender-affirming surgeries, as well as legal name and sex changes. The Russian regime has decided that the ban will strengthen so-called ‘traditional’ values and will protect the society from ‘infiltration of western, anti-family ideologies.’ The transphobic law came into force at the end of July, but right before it was passed, activists surreptitiously helped nearly four hundred transgender people to get the necessary documents for a change of their legal sex marker. They told Mediazona how it was made possible.

“Time to prepare my will.” On the brink of passing the law

“I was very panicked. I was working multiple jobs in order to leave Russia as soon as possible. But my boss tricked me and refused to pay. That was the time I was kicked out of my home for a second time. So I thought, well, it was time to prepare my will,” tells us Vasily, a 21 year old trans man from Perm. In Spring he found out that Russia might ban gender-affirming medical care and legal rights.

At the end of April the authorities started the conversation around banning the right to change one’s legal gender marker in official documents. In order to change the ‘sex’ column in one’s passport, one was obliged to undergo a medical examination: to answer any questions a sexologist, medical psychologist, as well as psychiatrist might have. The latter is the person that has the power to diagnose a patient with ‘transsexualism.’ That diagnosis allows a person to get the ‘evidence of gender reassignment.’ That, in turn, grants the person the right to officially alter their legal documents (first it’s the birth certificate, then the internal passport, and the rest), with a new gender marker.

However, on May 30, a bill was submitted to the State Duma, which suggested the ban on ‘medical interventions’ that are required during transition, as well as any legal changes concerning one’s sex. On July 14th the bill was passed, and on the 24th of July it came into force. That day commemorates the ban on hormonal therapy, gender affirming surgeries, and change of legal sex markers for transgender people.

Deputy Speaker of the State Duma, Pyotr Tolstoy, referred to this law as ‘protection of national interests’ against the ‘Western transgender industry’ that is ‘trying to create a window for its multi-billion dollar business’. Experts have said that the amendments will significantly worsen the situation for transgender people and lead to an increase in the number of suicides.

Two and a half months before the law was passed, an organisation aimed at helping queer and POC people, Queer Svit, non-binary help initiative SNeG, an independent group of activists, and the founder of Helpdesk, Ilya Krasilshchik, all came together to raise money to help 395 transgender people urgently pass the medical commission and get the necessary evidence for a legal sex marker change.

«Готов был слушать и хотел включиться». Сбор пожертвований

“The project started with my tweet, which was deemed transphobic, although was not intended to be. A scandal broke out, many people, as is customary for Twitter, were angry with me. Then Anna-Maria [the founder of Queer Svit] came, and asked to speak to me,” remembers Ilya Krasilshchik.

In Berlin, Krasilshchik met with Anna-Maria Tesfaye and another activist, Anna Yeroshenko. “I was a blank slate. I knew that there was a problem, but I never really gave it much thought,” recalls Ilya. The activists explained that before the end of the Spring term The State Duma will ban the right to make changes to one’s legal sex, and transgender people won’t have the tools to deal with gender dysphoria. Tesfaye and Yeroshenko estimated that hundreds of people needed help, but there was not enough money for that: one medical examination costs 20-30 thousand roubles, and there are only two trans-friendly clinics willing to do it, both of them being in Moscow.

Krasilshchik notes that even then he understood it to be ‘a very well thought out project,’ with clear goals, time constrictions, and budget, and agreed to help. Fundraising began with Ilya gathering his friends and acquaintances. The mediamanager notes that he was scared of being met with rejection and misunderstanding from donors, but the result was ‘absolutely fantastic.’

Art by Sonya Vladimirova / Mediazona

“A few minutes after I asked the first couple of people, I got two replies. The first one was ‘I can give no more than three million Roubles.’ The second was ‘I can give two million Roubles now, but if more is needed, let me know,’” recalls Ilya.

In a few weeks Krasilshchik was able to raise 12 million roubles. “It’s very important to me that amidst all of this pain and horror, this light story was able to come out. And it was incredibly valuable for me to participate. Yes, I wanted to listen, I wanted to join in and help. I cannot tell you how much of it was propelled by my guilt because of the tweet that started it all, I don’t know whether it was that or my genuine desire to help.” 

Krasilshchik notes that, in the end, his job was the easiest: “I thought the hardest part would be to raise the money, but my job was the easiest.” The activists were the ones that had a lot of work ahead of them, organising discreet and confidential ways of helping hundreds of people in very little time.

“Doctors that want to help, not just play politics.” Support from medical professionals and activists

“In two to three weeks, thanks to the determination of all participants in the process, we were able to organise the provision of this assistance,” says co-coordinator of the non-binary initiative SNeG, Yeva-Lilit Tsvetkova.

They had to act discreetly: the information was disseminated in private chats of non-binary and transgender people, LGBTQ+ organisation chats, as well as in community centres that still exist in Russia.

Tsvetkova explains that the most challenging part was striking a balance between safety and the desire to help as many people as possible. When ‘everything in their power had already been done through these channels,’ activists cautiously announced the possibility of receiving assistance publicly: “If you want to undergo the assessment now but lack the funds, reach out to the people here; perhaps they can help you.”

“We were only able to arrange a working collaboration with two licensed commissions in Moscow,” says Tsvetkova. “These are doctors who want to help their patients, not play politics.” Some transgender-friendly clinics refused to help, even though the work of such commissions was not yet prohibited at that time.

In May, the state Russian TV programme Vesti aired a report on why transgender transition should be banned. It claimed that people change their gender markers in documents to evade military service or alimony payments. The correspondent of the channel visited one of the two clinics that were assisting the activists.

“It was a very amusing news story, but it was also terrifying because we thought the clinic would terminate this project and back out of the initiative. Thankfully, it worked out,” says Anna-Maria Tesfaye, the founder of Queer Svit. She believes that this visit was ‘most likely because of’ their project.

Tsvetkova also believes that the clinic received good publicity and thus occupied the ‘top search results’ on search engines. “We reacted fairly quickly. We redirected some people to another clinic, supported the doctors and the clinic’s management as much as we could, and negotiated additional security measures,” she adds.

Agreements with these private medical institutions were crucial, as, according to activists, it was nearly impossible to go through the commission and obtain a certificate in a state hospital. Tesfaye says that, according to estimates by transgender organisations, 98 out of 100 people were denied any help there.

“There is a woman, she’s over the age of 50 now, she publicly shared that when she went through the commission at a state institution, they forced her to undress and yelled at her, ‘Well, you're a man, admit that you're a man!’ They pushed her to a mental breakdown, and only then they gave her the certificate. They said, ‘Well, yes, it really makes you sad when they tell you that you're a man.’ This was about 20 years ago. I’ve heard that something similar is still happening there,’ she notes.

“Everyone was happy, hugging each other, and everything was done in time.” The commission before the ban

“When I told my mom that I was flying out to Moscow to change my legal documents, she initially thought I was out of my mind. But I insisted on it. Both she and my grandmother didn't believe that someone could just help me like that,” says 21-year-old Emily from the Transbaikal region. “Closer to the departure, my grandmother got paranoid and started saying that no one would pay for anything, I wouldn't be able to fly anywhere, or worse, I might get kidnapped.” 

Despite her relatives’ concerns, everything went well, and she got the required evidence. Activists covered her flight, the commission fees, and accommodation in a hostel. “They were with me throughout the entire process of changing documents, making sure everything was in order,” she adds.

Art by Sonya Vladimirova / Mediazona

Emily managed to change her passport before the law came into effect: “I am now working under a female name and gradually socialising, like other girls.”

Vasily from Perm tried to undergo the commission three years ago, just when he turned 18. He went to the commission with his friend, but a private clinic in Samara rejected them ‘due to lack of sexual experience.’ “They used this wording verbally, but in the documents, they wrote: ‘Underdeveloped gender identity,’” he recalls.

After the doctors’ refusal, the young man fell into a clinical depression and, as decided by his mother, ended up in a psychoneurological treatment centre. “They promised her there that they would cure me of transsexuality,” Vasily says. “Well, yes, it sounds stupid, but there you go. The chief physician of this psych dispensary told her this, but the person who admitted me said it was complete nonsense and treated me quite leniently, addressing me with my preferred pronouns.”

Three months later, Vasily was discharged from the medical facility and started saving money for a new commission, but the transphobic law disrupted all plans. However, with the help of activists, he obtained a certificate allowing him to change his gender marker. He received his new passport on the day the law came into effect. “There were so many people there who were also getting certificates, everyone was happy, hugging each other, and everyone made it in time,” he recalls of his visit to the clinic.

Vasily has complicated relationships with his family. He came out a long time ago. Although his mother tries to use male pronouns for him, his father has not yet accepted or supported his child's choice. “Regarding my father, it’s a disaster. He says things like ‘people like this should be shot,’ and so on,” says Vasily. He is currently studying to become a targeting specialist and a developer and plans to immigrate to Argentina.

Eighteen-year-old Maxim from the Sverdlovsk Oblast, like many others, panicked when he learned about the law. “I don’t usually follow the news. I found out about this law from chats. I was in a panic, feeling like it was already the end,” he recalls. He quickly received help: he was given links to the necessary organisations, and they responded promptly. “It was something so incredible and magical for me that I couldn’t believe it,” the young man admits. “I understand that without this help, I wouldn’t have been able to do it on my own because it was quite unexpected.”

Maxim’s mother supported him and agreed to the commission: he had just turned 18 at that time, and there were age-related restrictions. In the future, Maxim plans to start taking hormone therapy and undergo surgical procedures.

“It’s a very difficult path, and there are many people who didn’t manage to do all this and weren’t helped like this. It’s all very difficult; it shouldn’t be like this. This is an inhumane law. People should be able to choose who they are and how their bodies should look,” the young man adds.

Editor: Maria Klimova

Translator: Suzy NotSontag

Support Mediazona now!

Your donations directly help us continue our work

Load more