- Bills seeks to ban legal gender change, medical transition
- Trans Russians hurry to change gender on ID documents
- LGBTQ+ campaigners warn ban could increase suicide rate
By Lucy Middleton
June 27 (Openly) - When Dimitri, a transgender 17-year-old from Russia, found out about a proposed law that would ban people from transitioning gender, he considered taking his own life.
"If it wasn't for my beloved boyfriend and my best friend I would probably be in the next world," Dimitri told Openly by phone from his home near Moscow, asking not to use his real name to protect his identity.
The draft legislation, which would outlaw both changing gender on official documents and gender-affirming medical care including surgery, received initial backing on June 14 from the lower house of parliament.
It is in line with President Vladimir Putin's drive to crack down on what he calls "non-traditional" lifestyles, and won strong support from his allies in the State Duma.
"We preserve Russia for posterity, with its cultural and family values, traditional foundations, putting up a barrier to the penetration of Western anti-family ideology," Pyotr Tolstoy, deputy chairman of the Duma, said during the first reading.
Tolstoy and the Russian government's press department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
As the bill heads for a second reading this week, it has plunged tens of thousands of trans Russians into despair and uncertainty, upending their plans to change legal gender or undergo transition medical care, LGBTQ+ rights advocates said.
At present, trans Russians need to receive a diagnosis of gender dysphoria from a psychiatrist to begin the process of changing their gender, LGBTQ+ rights groups said.
In common with other countries, the number of people seeking to legally transition in Russia has risen sharply in recent years, according to independent media outlet MediaZona, which analysed Interior Ministry data.
In 2022, there were 936 official identity documents issued with gender changes, compared with 428 in 2020, the organisation found.
But the increase has also been accompanied by a growing campaign against LGBTQ+ rights, which Putin has repeatedly lambasted as a Western value since he launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.
In December 2022, he extended the nation's ban on so-called LGBTQ+ propaganda, which outlaws the "promotion" of homosexuality, and he has said that teaching children about trans issues is "on the verge of a crime against humanity".
WHO SUPPORTS THE BILL?
LGBTQ+ groups said they were facing a surge in requests for support from panicked trans Russians, many of whom are already struggling with poverty, discrimination and poor access to medical care.
"We're getting 10 times more messages than usual. It used to be 10 a day, but right now it can be up to 100 messages a day," Ambrose Orman, an activist with Russian trans organisation Centre-T, said by phone from the Netherlands.
"The messages are mostly people in panic," Orman said. "Some say they are ready to give up."
Transitioning has been legally possibly in Russia since 1997. Although a medical diagnosis is required, there has been no legal requirement for a person to undergo surgery or hormone therapy since 2018.
This means a trans person can change their gender marker in their passport, for example, without having to undergo any medical transition.
As they track the bill's progress, LGBTQ+ groups hope people who have already changed their legal documents may be able to continue accessing affirming medical care under the new law.
"Now that the situation is so pressing, human rights defenders are recommending people to at least change their birth certificate as soon as possible, as this is the first step," said Vanya Solovey, Eastern Europe and Central Asia programme officer at TGEU, a network of rights organisations across the continent.
Trans Russians already face barriers to transitioning, such as cost, the risk of discrimination, or finding a suitable doctor.
Some of those rushing to change their paperwork have found the proposed ban is already increasing hesitancy among healthcare professionals.
One nineteen-year-old trans woman from the south of the country said she could not afford to start transitioning, but she scrambled to try to change her documents when she heard about the bill – only to see her request refused by a psychiatrist.
"I felt like my life crashed into two parts – before and after the visit," she said, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that she was now considering accessing hormone therapy drugs on the black market.
Not being able to change their gender marker on official documents could also put trans women at risk of military conscription, after Russia rushed through legislation in April seen aimed at making draft-dodging more difficult, campaigners said.
"I guess I'll try to transition without any documents," the 19-year-old said. "The future is really dark."
In its current format, the bill only allows gender-affirming surgery to be carried out on intersex children - a practice that other countries are increasingly banning.
The Russian government has discussed possible amendments that would leave a door open to transition in some circumstances, although parliamentarians including Tolstoy have voiced concern that exceptions could be used as a loophole, according to local media reports.
The bill must undergo two further readings and gain approval from the upper house before it is sent to Putin for his signature.
A Health Ministry statement that was submitted to the Duma warned that the law could lead to an increase in suicides among trans people, Russia's Kommersant newspaper reported.
"The number of suicides among trans Russians is already high," said Nef Cellarius from the Russian Coming Out LGBTQ+ Group, adding that polls had shown that about 40% of trans people have had suicidal thoughts.
Trans rights campaigners, who have urged people to write to the Health Ministry in protest at the bill, said they had been buoyed by support from celebrities, including popular actors Sergey Gubanov and Elena Muravyova.
"It has been very frightening for the last few days, but the support of other people really helps (me) handle things better," a 26-year-old trans woman living near Moscow said.
"Uncertainty is always painful ... especially when it's about something very important."
(Reporting by Lucy Middleton in London; Editing by Helen Popper and Hugo Greenhalgh. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit https://www.context.news/)
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