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Russia and Human Rights : The transgender woman fighting for the right to see her son

The transgender woman fighting for the right to see her son.

by Mark Gevisser




When Pasha got
home from work on the evening of 26 June last year, the flat was empty. Her wife
Mariahad left behind the climbing ropes tied to the bunk-bed of their
six-year-old son, Kostya, and a portrait she had done of him. There were also
Kostya’s crayon drawings at child height, just above the skirting boards: Angry
Birds, and the Swedish cartoon Carlsen. All other traces of Pasha’s wife and son
were gone.

“I had a premonition in the morning,” Pasha told me. “Maria just seemed too
keen to get me out of the house. When I came home and saw them gone, I knew
immediately what had happened. I became hysterical. I tried to phone Maria many
times, but she would not pick up.”

A year later, in July 2015, at her ground-floor flat in a block of flats in
Lyubertsy, an industrial suburb south-east of Moscow, Pasha was leaning against
the bunk bed in Kostya’s neat and empty room, now the sombre chapel to a lost
child. Tall and athletic, Pasha hid her striking beauty behind androgynous
reddish hair that fell in a low fringe over her face. After gender reassignment
surgery, she had changed her surname to the female form, but had kept her first
name as “Pasha”, the gender-neutral diminutive of both the male Pavel and the
female Pavla. She was low from the grief of losing her child and side effects
that still made it painful to walk six months after her surgery. She spoke in a
whisper, an attempt perhaps to feminise her voice, but she was firm in her
resolve to see her son. She had devoted herself to appealing against the Moscow
regional court’s decision to deny her custody.

Pasha tried repeatedly to contact her wife after she left. When she finally
managed to get hold of her, Maria had said: “There’s nothing to worry about.
We’re doing OK.”

“What about me?” Pasha asked.

“Now you’re free to live as you choose.”

In a cruel way, Maria was right. For years, Pasha had been deferring any
thought of changing her gender. Like so many transgender people, she feared that
she would be compelled to forfeit her family. Now, however, she realised that
she had nothing more to lose. She got involved in protesting against Russia’s
new anti-LGBT laws, and a friend she had met through this activism introduced
her to a couple who ran a gender clinic in a northern Moscow suburb, where she
began her transition. She made her submission to a board of six doctors led by a
psychiatrist, received a medical diagnosis of “gender identity disorder”,
underwent vaginoplasty surgery, and then, finally, the arduous process of
persuading the Russian authorities to change her documents (there is no standard
procedure for this, and it depends largely on the caprice of the local
functionary).

Her son Kostya has since told a state-appointed psychological observation
team that the person who used to be his beloved father was now a “crazy woman”
who would corrupt him with her “femishness” (these are both rough translations
of vulgar Russian slang).

In the months before Maria left, Russia’s federal parliament had considered a
bill that would give the state permission to remove children from parents in
“non-traditional” relationships. The bill was withdrawn, but the panic it caused
had not receded. In an increasingly nationalistic and socially conservative
Russia, where any mention of homosexuality around minors is criminalised as “gay propaganda”
and both homosexuality and transgenderism are condemned as signs of decadent
western influence, Pasha’s transition has estranged her further from her son.


Ironically, it was Kostya’s birth that rekindled Pasha's understanding that
she was destined to be a woman; a feeling she had repressed since she was about
10 years old. Like many transgender children, she did not understand why she was
referred to as a boy and expected to do typically male things. But she was
naturally athletic, and her passion was shooting: she loved the focus and the
“tranquillity” of marksmanship. “I put my femininity deep inside, in a little
box, and it was invisible to the outside,” she told me. “My life was like that
scene in The Terminator. Schwarzenegger is looking at a screen, and figuring out
what his options are. There are several options, and the most appropriate one is
highlighted. I acted in the way that would be most appropriate, to avoid
problems.”

My life was like that scene in The Terminator.
Schwarzenegger is looking at a screen, and figuring out his options


Pasha became The Terminator: “Military service: highlighted. So I went to the
army and became a sniper. Husband: highlighted. So I married Maria. Fatherhood:
highlighted. So we had Kostya.”

But when the child was born, “all my female feelings rose up again. I just
felt a big love for this little creature, and I wanted to protect him.” Given
her training as a sniper, Pasha was employed, at first, by the Russian National
Guard, protecting sensitive sites, but she quit this work after seven years. At
the time of Kostya’s birth, she worked largely from home, as an IT consultant.
She led a reclusive life, while Maria was a party-girl with a senior management
job. And so Pasha became Kostya’s primary parent: “But people thought that men
should not act this way. I was rebuked for being too soft, too caring, not manly
enough as a father. This shocked and confused me, and over time I came to the
conclusion that the suppression of these feelings was being imposed on me. Once
I understood this, I realised that I had the power to reject it. Society did not
have the right to manage how I felt … If I wanted to cry, I would cry. If I
wanted to be happy, I’d have fun. I freed my consciousness from everything
imposed on me. That’s when I accepted myself as a woman.”

* * *

After Kostya was born, Pasha spent a lot of time reading
about her rights and her medical options on the internet. This was a time when,
globally, awareness about transgenderism was expanding dramatically. A new LGBT
rights
movement was flexing its muscles in Russia too, and Pasha watched, at
first from a distance, as LGBT Pride marches were attempted, but dispersed. She
told her wife how she felt, and what she wanted to do. Maria was supportive at
first. But once the anti-gay propaganda law was enacted in Russia, everything
changed.

Pasha was deeply troubled by the new state-sanctioned homophobia of President
Vladimir Putin’s followers, and their calls for the recriminalisation of
homosexuality and the denial of transgender rights. The “gay propaganda” law had
been on the books of the province of Ryazan since 2006; during 2012 it was
piloted in several other places, including St Petersburg, and by the end of that
year, the federal parliament announced its intention to make it national law.
Anyone promoting “non-traditional relationships” in front of minors would be
subject to a fine of up to 100,000 roubles (£1,000). The law was passed in June
2013: it has seldom been applied, but it has provoked extreme homophobia,
including entrapments using online dating services, violent disruptions of
public gatherings and, in one instance in St Petersburg, a shooting at a gay
community centre that left one young man blind.

When parliament started debating the bill in late 2012, LGBT activists and
their supporters demonstrated in Moscow. Pasha began to attend. This outraged
Maria, who was determined to keep Pasha’s new identity secret. “Imagine if
someone Maria knew saw Pasha on television at one of these demonstrations!” a
family friend said to me. “She could never have lived with the shame. She was
also, correctly, worried that the child might be teased.” (Maria did not respond
to my requests for an interview.)

At the same time, Pasha told me, “on TV they started showing all these
horrible programmes that said homosexuality is harmful, it’s an illness coming
from the west aimed at the destruction of Russia from within.” In one prime-time
programme, aired in late 2012, a group of seemingly deranged cross-dressers were
alleged to be in the service of a Ukrainian plot to undermine Russia.
Maria had been quite progressive and democratic before, but her views began to
change.

Pasha had begun to take oestrogen (without supervision: prescription
compliance is very lax in Russia) and to use a breast-enhancing cream. On a
holiday in the countryside, during the spring of 2014, Maria’s aunt – a doctor –
figured out what was happening, and revealed it to the extended family. Her
belief was that Pasha was mentally ill. Pasha’s mother-in-law was upset and
angry.

A few weeks later, Maria left with Kostya, and filed for divorce. The divorce
was granted quickly, and although Maria was given custody of the boy, as
biological mothers almost always are, Pasha’s rights to access were confirmed.
In the summer of 2014, Pasha saw her son about a dozen times, but always in a
public park, and always with a phalanx of Maria’s relatives in attendance. When
Kostya and his relations did not show up for the next meeting, Pasha called and
was told the boy was ill: she went over to the flat where Maria’s parents live
with gifts for her son, but was denied entry.

When Pasha wrote about these incidents in a Facebook post, Maria’s family
accused her of airing dirty laundry in public and shut down access to Kostya
altogether. The last time Pasha saw her son was on 12 August last year, at his
birthday party in a public park: she was allowed to give him his gifts, but the
boy was whisked away – crying for his father, Pasha claims – before she could
talk to him. Pasha was not invited to his birthday party this year, and she
heard, via her stepmother – who received occasional calls from Maria’s
grandmother – that the gifts she sent were distributed to other children.

* * *

Pasha’s stepmother, Valentina Kuziminichinska, is a short,
thick-set woman in her 70s, a retired hairdresser and factory worker, with
cropped hair and that singular combination of heartiness and sentimentality that
defines the Russian babushka. She arrived at Pasha’s flat one humid
afternoon last July, bearing fresh fruit from the market, to hear the
latest news: Pasha had not only lost her appeal against the custody decision,
but had received a call from Maria’s lawyer, telling her that she could no
longer see Kostya at all, since the psychologist’s report had said that this
would be “destabilising” for the child.

Valentina was outraged: “I am so pained by this. I am furious!” She threw her
arms around “my Pasha” and pinched Pasha’s cheeks: “She has always been my
child. I loved her when she was my son, and now I love her as my daughter.” She
volunteered: “Of course this is not traditional for our country, this is not
conventional. We have our own traditions and conventions here in Russia, not
like you in the west. But you have to be human in every situation.”

I loved her when she was my son, and now I love
her as my daughter. This is not conventional. But you have to be human
Valentina
Valentina had struggled with Pasha’s identity at first, but had become her
staunchest defender: “How could I possibly turn my back on my own child, when
mothers of murderers still visit their children in jail? My Pasha is not a
criminal! She is my child and I must support her now that the whole world is
against her.” As at several points in her visit, emotion overwhelmed her: “The
police can’t stop me! I’m going to go over there [to Maria’s parents’ flat] and
punch them in the face!”

The neighbours in Pasha’s building were shocked by her transition, but not
hostile. We went to visit an elderly woman named Natalya Efseyeva, who embraced
Pasha and told me: “I could see him changing, but I didn’t want to pry. But then
you get snatches of things on the TV, and you discover that such things happen,
and that – heavens! – your neighbour, the little Pasha you have known since he
was a little boy, is one of those!” Some people in the building did gossip about
Pasha, she said, but “it’s not malicious. We don’t know the reasons, so we let
it go. If he was immoral, or loose, we’d be much more judgmental. But Pasha’s
such a good person. Sometimes a guy just becomes a girl, I guess. It happens.
That’s life. Who are we to judge God’s will? You must remember we have all known
him since he was a little boy.”


Pasha (right) and her stepmother Valentina. Photograph: Maria Pleshkova/Demotix/Corbis



Pasha had, in fact, lived in the flat since she was four years old and her own father had taken custody of her, removing her from an alcoholic mother.
Pasha’s only memory of her biological mother was sitting on the floor with a toy and watching her back at the kitchen table where she was getting drunk, a consequence of what Pasha now understands as a severe and untreated post-natal depression. When her father came home from a business trip and found Pasha in hospital owing to the mother’s neglect, he took his child to live with his own
parents, in the Lyubertsy flat (which Pasha now owns). Soon thereafter, Pasha’s father met Valentina, a widow with a 10-year-old son: they moved in together. Pasha idolised her father, an engineer at the nearby MIL helicopter plant, who died in 1995. He was a gentle man, she said, who encouraged her to think for herself.

Pasha followed a similar approach to parenting and, in fact, the conflictwith Maria and her family had started over this, some time before Pasha’s comingout: “Maria’s parents are very old-school, and they often criticised Pasha for being too soft,” the family friend told me. “But Pasha actually communicated with the child, while Maria, more often, scolded him. Pasha was the one who
could calm Kostya down.”

Pasha framed her determination to gain custody of Kostya as a way of savingthe child: “He is being treated like clay, to be shaped into anything they want.If I raise him, he will be free to make his own choices about what he wants tobe, what he thinks of others.”

The state-appointed psychological panel’s assessment of Kostya, commissioned as a consequence of Pasha’s custody appeal, reported that the six-year-oldexpressed “a wish to beat his father, using his new martial skills”. The boy described his friends as “real men”, with “balls”, “learning to fight … in a battle”. His grandfather, also one of these “real men”, had told him that “Dad is now wearing braids and earrings and hairclips … and needs to be taught what’s what.” Kostya also reported that “Mum will not let me see Dad, because he could infect me with his illness.”

The psychologists declined to give an official assessment of the relationship between Pasha and Kostya, because they had not observed them together. But they refused to put the two of them together for the purposes of such assessment, as it might upset the child. “Unfortunately, Pasha’s attempts to gain custody have made things worse for her,” said her legal adviser, Tatyana Glushkova, a celebrated human rights lawyer who has fought several cases for the Russian LGBT 
Network. “There is now expert evidence that the child is troubled by the father becoming a woman, so now, if Pasha tries to exercise her rights, the mother can use this evidence to limit access.” This is exactly what Maria has done.

Pasha’s only recourse at this point, is to fight for access: she obtained aletter from the State Custodial Service stating that Maria was being uncooperative. If Maria continued to deny Pasha access to her child, said Glushkova, a case could be taken to the European court of human rights in
Strasbourg. At the time of writing, all Pasha’s attempts to gain access to Kostya had come to nothing.

* * *

Although gender has nothing to do with sexuality,
transgender people in Russia are often seen as the most visible manifestation of
what is now widely regarded as the “perversion” of homosexuality, and are thus
particularly vulnerable. There are very few places they can feel safe. The
gender clinic Pasha attended is one of them. It is owned and run by a married
couple, Andrei and Yael Demedov, who are both transgender themselves. The
Demedovs have also set up a community centre for transgender people in a stately
corner of Old Moscow, in the basement of a large Stalin-era apartment block. I
went to visit them there one weekday evening.

At the bottom of a stairwell accessed through an unmarked locked door, there
was a shop, which seemed at first glance to be filled with the standard
cross-dressing apparel: sexy underwear, sequinned frocks, incredibly high heels,
walls of wigs. But it had, on closer inspection, everything a transgender man or
woman might need: accoutrements sober as well as wild, makeup, falsies,
breast-binders, peckers. There was also a large meeting room and a suite of
treatment rooms staffed by depilation therapists. In the few hours I was there,
someone who looked like a middle-aged man rang the buzzer, came downstairs,
disappeared into the back, reappeared made up and dressed as a woman, hung
around the seating area for a while, offered us tea, disappeared again,
reappeared in men’s clothing, and said goodbye. They clearly did not want to
leave. They were wearing a wedding ring.

Yael, in her late 40s, was several years older than Andrei. She too had lost
access to her son when she began transitioning, she told me, and had not seen
him in over a decade: “Pasha’s story is a common one in our community,” she said
to me. “But what makes her unique is that she is trying to fight.”

Yael had been a successful financial analyst before her transition in 2009,
and had launched a transgender website a few years previously, which she
subsidised by selling accessories and clothing, an enterprise that formalised
into the shop, and then the dermatological clinic. Then, two years ago, the
Demedovs set up the full-spectrum surgery, where Pasha had her surgery. They
found a psychiatrist and convened an assessment panel, which was granted a
licence by the state to give gender identity disorder diagnoses. They also
enlisted the services of medical consultants to do the procedures, and persuaded
them to perform them at a significantly lower cost than other private
facilities. Pasha’s surgery cost 200,000 roubles (£2,000), about two-thirds of
the price she would have paid anywhere else. The Demedov clinic does between 300
and 400 gender reassignment surgeries a year: about two-thirds of these are male
to female, and one third female to male. Most of the former are orchidectomies
(testicle removal), rather than full vaginoplasties, as these are much cheaper,
and will be enough proof of the “irrevocable change” for recipients to change
their documents officially.

All the transgender people I spoke to in Moscow told of how dramatically
transphobia had increased since the passage of the gay propaganda bill. There is
bizarre new legislation that prevents transgender people from obtaining driving
licences. Earlier this year, Russia’s most illustrious psychiatrist dealing with
gender reassignment, Dmitri Isaev, was forced to resign from his state-run
medical institution in St Petersburg and to disband his gender assessment board,
because of complaints from conservative activists. There are now only four
assessment boards in operation across Russia. Dr Nadezhda Solov’yova, who runs
the board connected to the Demedov clinic, told me: “We are worried. This is a
witch hunt. We realise that at some point this might reach us.”

While the Demedovs’ basement community centre was unmarked, their surgery in
northern Moscow advertised itself, on windows facing a typical Moscow suburban
courtyard, with the outline of a woman’s face and the vague words “Medical
Clinic”. Inside was a reception room, a consulting room, a theatre, and a small
ward. In this last room, with two beds overlooking a garden, Pasha had
recuperated for a week, before she was transferred to a general hospital, for
another three painful weeks, because of complications arising from of her
surgery.

When I met with Solov’yova at the clinic, she remembered Pasha’s assessment,
one of about 200 she had done since 2012: “We deemed her to be adaptable,
communicative, capable of new skills of socialisation. She was not depressive.
The thing we concentrate most on is excluding any underlying psychopathology,
such as schizophrenia, for example, which might manifest as transgenderism.”


A small number of applicants to Solov’yova’s board have been turned down:
“It’s a responsibility we have to take seriously,” Yael told me, recounting the
case of a woman who seemed determined to transition because she had fallen in
love with a gay man: “What if we had proceeded? What, then, if she had fallen
out of love with this man and then regretted it?”

To change your gender, you have to be so
balanced, level-headed, stress-resistant. It's not for the fainthearted
Pasha
Solov’yova, a brisk and affable woman in her 40s, is a specialist in treating
dementia, and had not dealt with transgenderism before being recruited by the
Demedovs. She told me that what has struck her most about her new cohort of
patients was that “to go through these trials, these tests, to change your
gender, you actually have to be healthier than most ordinary people. They have
to be so balanced, level headed, stress-resistant. It’s not for the
fainthearted.”

* * *

Pasha has the makings of a new family. In her June 2015
submission to the court to counter Pasha’s suit to regain custody of Kostya,
Maria wrote that one of the reasons that the child should not be returned to his
biological father was because “Pavel is residing together in a flat with a woman
who accepts a homosexual lesbian relationship.”

Pasha met Anya in November 2014, two weeks before she went for her surgery,
at a conference on LGBT families in Moscow. Anya, who is married with a teenage
son, comes from a Russian city in the Volga region, an eight-hour train ride
away. She told me that she too had been mobilised by the gay propaganda
legislation. As a devout Christian, she had been horrified by the way that hate
speech had found its way into church sermons: “Russia had begun to resemble
fascist Germany, the singling out of a vulnerable group. I asked myself: ‘Who
will be next?’”

Anya is a psychologist who specialises in adolescence. Her response was to go
online and volunteer her professional services to a remarkable initiative
founded by a young journalist named Elena Klimova:
an organisation named Deti-404, that had set up pages on Facebook and VKontakte,
its Russian equivalent, for LGBT youth to tell their stories and chat with each
other. In July, Klimova was fined 50,000 roubles for contravening the propaganda
law herself, and ordered to shut down her pages. She did not comply.

Anya provides online counselling to the young people who contact Deti-404,
and it was in this capacity that she had come to Moscow to attend the conference
last November. She and Pasha had connected instantly. When the conference was
over, Anya returned to her job and her family, but when Pasha was discharged
from hospital in early January and was unable to care for herself, Anya dropped
everything and came to Moscow. She planned to be in town for a few days, but she
stayed for six weeks. Ever since, she had been dividing her time between Moscow
and the Volga. When she was back home, she and Pasha would hang out on Skype for
hours every day; when she was in Moscow, she and Pasha did the same with her
16-year-old son Vovaanya and her husband, too, if he was around.

With her cascade of blonde hair, her full figure and her sparkling blue eyes,
Anya looks as if she has stepped out of a Soviet-era poster. When I met her with
Pasha last summer, they seemed like two women in the first flush of love. Out
and about, they were always hand-in-hand or arm-in-arm, oblivious to the looks
they sometimes attracted. Being with Pasha, Anya told me, freed her from the
gender stereotypes imposed on her: “For most of my life I tried to force myself
to believe I could live as a normal female, you know, making meatballs and
raising a family, but that would only last for a week or two and I’d find myself
back doing some sort of social project – something a man is supposed to do. With
Pasha, I don’t have those internal stereotypes. I can just be myself.” She and
her husband lived separate lives, she said, although they still lived in the
same home and raised their son together.

Vova studied English and read it fluently, and so Anya often asked him to do
translations for her. One of these was the much-circulated Human Rights
Campaign award speech of the American transgender film director Lana
Warshowski earlier this year. When Anya wanted to explain to Vova who Pasha was,
she referred back to this video. He shrugged in a noncommittal adolescent way.


Now, a few months later, she had brought him to Moscow to be with her and
Pasha during his summer holidays, and she was deeply anxious about how everyone
would get along. “But really,” Anya laughed, “I can see that this my concern and
nobody else’s. They’re both introverts, but you’d never guess it when you see
them together. They talk about computers, and games, and weapons, and Vova’s
work as a Wiki moderator. I don’t understand a word of it, but Pasha offers a
lot of insight, and it thrills Vova. It’s only been a couple of days, and
already they are old friends.”

When I met them in the Lyubertsy flat, Vova was staying in Kostya’s old room,
and Pasha seemed pleased with this: “I look at him and I see my own child in
many ways. I think they even look similar. And they communicate in the same sort
of way: quite shy at first, but then when they warm to you, they really come to
life.”

Vova was indeed a shy kid, handsome and studious, with a dry sense of humour
and an ironic gallantry around his mother and her new girlfriend. He did not
remember the Warshowski video, and could not even remember a “moment” when he
became aware of trans people, or homosexual people: “She told me once that she
works with people like that. She spoke about it in such a natural way that I did
not exactly register when it happened.”

Vova clearly adores his mother, and admitted that he found her long absences
difficult to deal with. What would happen were Anya to bring Pasha home, I
asked? “No,” he responded. “That would be very difficult.”

A couple of days later, we all wandered around Gorky Park together, and ate
pizza at a riverside cafe. Anya and Pasha had exchanged rings, and liked to
fantasise about a wedding ceremony – perhaps in Denmark, a favourite destination
for same-sex Russian couples. I told them that I came from South Africa, where
same-sex marriage was legal, and that I was married to my male partner. Why not
come to Cape Town to do it?

“That is a very good idea,” said Vova, deadpan. “Get one-way tickets,please.”

Everybody laughed.
* * *
In August, Anya took Vova back to the Volga, for him to
start the school year at his new senior high school, where he would specialise
in maths.

Back in the Moscow region, Kostya, just seven years old, started primary
school. On 2 September, Pasha posted the following on her Facebook wall:

My Dear, Dear Child,
All I want now is to be with you on this
very important day, your first day at school. To be able to hug you and give you
the support you need. I wish you success in everything.
I love you infinitely
and beyond measure.
I am watching smartly-dressed children on the streets
walking to school, accompanied by their parents, and I envy them. I have been
denied this important day in my life, and nothing will ever make up for
that!
My dear, dear child,

All I want now is to be with you on this very important day, your first
day at school. To be able to hug you and give you the support you need. I wish
you success in everything.


I love you infinitely and beyond measure.

I am watching smartly dressed children on the streets walking to school,
accompanied by their parents, and I envy them. I have been denied this important
day in my life, and nothing will ever make up for that!


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Some names have been changed to protect identities.

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