Russia Pushes for Unprecedented Rollback of Trans Rights
3 August, 2020
LGBT+ Faction activists staged single pickets against a bill that proposes a major rollback of trans rights. PYATNITSA Telegram channel via LGBT+ Faction (@civsoc_lgbt)

Last month the Kremlin pushed through an illegitimate constitutional vote to allow Putin to rule for life. To manipulate and polarize the public, the constitutional changes were enveloped in several social initiatives — including a ban on marriage equality. But even Russia’s long-suffering LGBT+ community didn’t expect the extent of a crackdown that followed next. 

Less than two weeks after the vote, conservative lawmakers introduced a new bill that, if adopted, would significantly roll back queer rights around the country. But trans people would be especially struck — the lawmakers plan to strip them of their right to legal identity, marriage, and adoption. 


In the early 2010s, the assault on LGBT+ rights in Russia became an essential mark of Putin’s rule over Russia. In 2013, the country passed an anti "gay propaganda" law, which banned exposing minors to LGBT+ materials. Human rights groups say the law has exacerbated hostility towards LGBT+ people and has had a detrimental effect on queer children. Rights groups say it has also prompted the rise of anti-LGBT+ violence. Last year, prominent LGBT+ activist Yelena Grigoriyeva was killed after her name appeared on a Saw movie-inspired website that promised rewards for attacking people believed to be queer. The law has also been used to prosecute activists and artists. Additionally, the Kremlin integrated the tactic in the foreign policy doctrine as a part of the global quest for ‘preserving conservative values.’

Officials have been turning a blind eye to the brutal torture and killings of LGBT+ people in the country, including the anti-gay purges in Chechnya

But the rift between Kremlin's homophobia and societal attitudes is growing too - many have become exasperated with state gaslighting on the back of queer issues. In recent months, Russians have demonstrated an unprecedented level of queer political activism with mass protests in defense of LGBTQ activist and artist Yulia Tsvetkova and trans rights as well as rainbow flags flying at the anti-referendum protests. This year’s pride events, which were shifted online due to Covid-19, also attracted thousands across the country, signalling the renaissance of queer culture among Russia’s youth. 

At the same time, attacks on trans rights haven’t been unique to Russia. Covid-19 had already hit trans communities hard across the globe. Many have lost their jobs and homes, with nowhere left to turn to. In Georgia, a trans woman set herself on fire earlier this year to draw attention to the dire situation many trans people have found themselves in and the lack of government aid made available to them. While some governments have neglected the plight of trans communities, others, including the US and Hungary, have launched further attacks on their rights in recent months. Hungary, for example, has taken a similar route to Russia, ending legal recognition for trans people. 


The Rollback, Explained

The queer community has never had it easy in Russia. Even before introducing the “gay propaganda” law, the LGBT+ community often faced harassment and discrimination. But in 2018, it seemed Russia was inching forward on trans rights. The Health Ministry scrapped gender confirmation surgery as a prerequisite to legal gender recognition, among other measures to simplify the procedure.  

READ MORE: How LGBT People Are Treated in Russia-Occupied Territories

Now, Russia is backsliding on trans rights. On July 14, lawmakers introduced a draft bill to parliament, which aims to "strengthen the family institution.” It’s authored by a group of lawmakers, including ultra-conservative Yelena Mizulina from President Vladimir Putin's ruling party. Mizulina was also behind Russia's "gay propaganda" law. 

The initiative comes as a pushback against same-sex couples getting married abroad and having their union recognized domestically. Prominent LGBT+ rights activist Igor Kochetkov and his partner Kirill Fedorov wed in New York - their foreign marriage certificate recognized by Russia’s tax service this year. Earlier, Pavel Stotsko and Yevgeny Voitsekhovsky similarly had their foreign marriage certificate recognized by Russia, although the pair has been forced to flee the country since. Now it would violate Russia's international obligation to recognize foreign marriage certificates.

The proposed new law will strip trans Russians of the right to change gender markers on their birth certificates legally. In practice, it will create a legal conflict with gender markers in their passports and seriously overburden the legal representation of a transgender identity. Activists say that those who have already changed their gender markers will be obligated to change them back.

Russian Anti-Discrimination Centre Memorial warns that these discriminatory rules could also affect intersex people, “who sometimes must correct their gender because it was mistakenly defined at birth”.

READ MORE: "Let Him Live Free." How Parents Accept Their LGBT Children in Eastern Europe

Mismatched gender markers in birth certificates will effectively ban transgender Russians from marrying. "When registering a marriage, both a passport and a birth certificate will be required. Since they will have different gender markers, any marriage of a transgender person will be considered same-sex," says Anton Macintosh, of the country's largest transgender advocacy organization T-Action. "And under the new law, marriage is a "union between a man and a woman."

The Consequences, Explained

Macintosh says these laws would make transgender people second-class citizens in Russia. But he also stresses that the legislation would have wide-reaching consequences for all Russians.  

“Hiding behind "traditional values" and the fight against LGBT people, the authors of the bill give the go-ahead for much stronger state intervention in the private life of citizens. They also put children in an even more vulnerable position, in a situation where their life and health are at higher risk,” Macintosh thinks. “These bills are called 'family preservation,' but in essence, they are about the destruction of the family.” 

According to Anti-Discrimination Centre Memorial, transgender people will also be banned from adopting or become guardians despite there being no evidence to suggest that trans people are problematic as foster parents. 

Another co-author of the bill, Aleksandr Bashkinin, told BBC’s Russian service that they needed to ban changing gender markers on birth certificates because it could lead to difficulties in identifying any previous legal actions concerning that person. Although in the interview he emphasized that the main purpose of the bill was to prevent adopted children growing up with same-sex and transgender parents because they had a right to be raised in a “traditional format”. 

The Fallout

The draft law provoked an unprecedented wave of solidarity protests in the country’s two largest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg. Police arrested dozens of human rights and feminist activists at them.

Photo credit: PYATNITSA Telegram channel via LGBT + Faction (@civsoc_lgbt)

Among the detained was a transgender activist Polina Symonenko. A Moscow court sentenced her to 14 days of administrative arrest, which she will be forced to spend in a men’s detention center. Activists fear Symonenko will be humiliated and bullied by both prison staff and inmates there. Eyewitness Maria Milicevic, who was present at the court hearing, said police beat the activist during a break. 

The proposed legislation also prompted backlash from independent journalists and human rights groups. 

Al Kovalski, a journalist and non-binary transgender Russian, said trans people in Russia only had few rights to begin with, now this legislation strips away even the basic ones. 

“Although the bill is not directed against LGBT people (three pages out of 177 are devoted to them), it clearly divides society into friends and foes,” they said. “This is a search for an enemy, the presence of which distracts from existing problems. Today it’s transgender people, and tomorrow ... Who will it be tomorrow?” 

Larisa Zhukova, a journalist and author of the petition against the bill, said the proposed legislation outs trans people and their medical history. 

“Your colleagues will know, every Tom, Dick and Harry will know because we will deprive you of a birth certificate you’ve already changed and we will force you to get another one,” she said. 

Russia’s attack on equal rights for transgender people infuriated international human rights watchdogs, too.

Transgender Europe (TGEU) condemned the bill, stating that the measures it proposes are discriminatory and violate human rights standards. 

“The Council of Europe has established member states’ positive obligation to provide access to legal gender recognition and has called upon member states to make such procedures 'quick, transparent, accessible and based on self-determination',” the organization stated.

 “A ban on gender recognition constitutes discrimination on the basis of gender identity, which has been established as a protected ground under international human rights treaties like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.”

READ MORE: Chechnya’s LGBTQ Purges Continue Amid International Backlash Against Russian Authorities

/Courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange.