In 2016 we were invited to speak about trans issues at an annual Pride festival called Queerfest in St. Petersburg in Russia. It is no secret that LGBT people in Russia face some of the worst treatment in the world, so we were interested to learn more about the festival and the community there.
The media often presents the atrocities LGBT people face in Russia as only affecting gay people, diminishing the complexities and nuances of the country's LGBT community, so we wanted to visit for ourselves and hear from activists there what it's actually like for trans people in Russia. Do they have any access to social support or healthcare? Is it even viable for them to live there? Those were all questions going through our heads as we replied to the invite.
As out trans activists, we were sceptical about whether we would even get a visa to travel to Russia. All they would have to do would be search online, and if they happened to put in key words like 'trans', 'activist' and our names, they would uncover a web of articles, films and conversations on trans issues. Despite our fears, we were awarded our visas and off we flew to Russia, a place we didn’t really think we’d ever visit, given the current political climate.
As we walked into the arrival hall at the airport, we were greeted by two activists carrying a sign with 'Queerfest' written on it. Initially, we were concerned about their safety, carrying such a sign out in the open, but they later explained to us that no one really knows what 'queer' means in Russia.
It is hard to explain what it felt like to be in Russia, both as trans people and as outsiders. Even though St. Petersburg is a beautiful city, it was hard to ignore a feeling of suppression and years of hardship looming in the air. It’s that creepy feeling that you’re constantly being watched, and that there really is no such thing as privacy or safety for anyone who doesn’t fit into the major normative. This feeling was strengthened by a sign above the sliding doors at our hotel’s entrance: "Warning: This hotel may be under video or audio recording surveillance."
If it hadn’t been for the abandoned mall next to our hotel that’s been upcycled into a hipster paradise of retro clothing, comic books, and veggie and vegan food stalls, we probably would’ve felt completely trapped – unable to escape the sense of impending doom that crept into every street corner. The mall became our main source of sustenance, as the only place we could buy food without any problems. Elsewhere, people didn’t want to talk to us. We speak four languages between us and had rarely faced language barriers quite this extreme.
The feeling of complete isolation was also apparent in the way people interacted with us, without the kid gloves and false niceties of western Europe. Our learned behaviour growing up was to plaster on a smile in public, but it had no place on the streets of St. Petersburg. We were told that if you smiled too much, people wouldn’t trust you. The cultural differences in communication and personal space were never as clear as when we went to hug someone we’d spent time filming with. Usually, we build up a close relationship with our contributors and connect on a deep level, as trans people. To our surprise, our new friend recoiled from our extended arms. An awkward silence followed, with them saying: "That was weird."
We were told that if you smiled too much, people wouldn’t trust you.
Despite all this, the people who invited us to Russia were lovely. Jonny and their partner Mark were very welcoming and vulnerable with us. Jonny is one of the organisers of Queerfest and invited us into their home to spend time with them, their partner and their flatmate Jay. Their apartment building was a big block that seemingly hadn’t been renovated in decades. The rundown alley behind the building where the entrance was didn’t look inviting and the stairway to the sixth floor belonged in an abandoned warehouse rather than a place where people lived. Of course, there wasn’t a lift.
Despite the dilapidation, their apartment was filled with secondhand furniture and quirky decorations that made it a cosy home. The smell of freshly brewed tea filled the air as we sat down and were offered a plate of fruity pastries. The crooked floor and gaping cracks in the ceiling and walls somehow became less threatening, but served as a reminder of just how poor the living conditions were.
The stories we heard from them and all the other trans people we met ranged from being forced into a mental hospital for a month and subjected to various tests, to being publicly outed in the media and the target of online harassment and abuse. One person – a doctor – said they were being hunted down by a previous colleague who was determined to ruin their life and career by outing them and making sure they would never be able to get a job again. They had already switched jobs three times and moved from apartment to apartment to escape them.
The stories we heard from trans people we met ranged from being forced into a mental hospital for a month and subjected to various tests, to being publicly outed in the media.
The most difficult part for many was simply getting their gender legally recognised. Hormones seemed to be relatively easy to come by as, at the time, you could access them without a prescription at a pharmacy (it’s recently become more difficult). However, no doctor was willing to take trans people as patients in order to monitor their hormone levels and make sure they were doing okay. So they were dependent on each other's experiences and had to do their best to manage their own hormone treatment, at the risk of their health. Access to any type of surgery seemed impossible; the few that could afford to do so travelled abroad. These challenges were intensified by the lack of social awareness and acceptance, and the fact that the Russian language is inherently gendered and lacks terms and concepts to adequately describe the experiences of trans people.
Their Pride festival is an important time for them to come together and find solidarity. Unlike many Pride festivals across Europe, though, theirs isn’t a march where LGBT people gather and are celebrated by their community. In their case it is more of a closed space, where LGBT people host workshops, film nights and other events where they can celebrate safely. Yet despite these precautions, they have been attacked in the past. A few years ago, a group of homophobic activists tried to break into the venue. When they couldn’t break in they proceeded to lock the doors from the outside and pour foul-smelling liquid through the cracks.
The event we attended went off without a hitch, and a sense of belonging and solidarity rushed over us. The trans community were happy to share their stories with us and let the world know that they are fighting.
Despite the imperialistic narrative of western Europe needing to save their LGBT siblings in Russia, their message isn’t about needing our help and it isn’t asking us to save them. It’s about them being a strong, vibrant community, fighting for recognition and acceptance on their own terms.
While we can certainly help elevate their voices and support their efforts, it’s important we realise that we can’t just swoop in and tell them how to do things. We aren’t part of Russian culture, and we cannot possibly know how best to fight the challenges they face.
This is why we wanted to share this film: to give the trans community in Russia a voice in the UK. We all need to listen, learn and support them in their fight for justice.