“Yes, Mr. Stuart, you should take a wife from Daugavpils.”
“I’m sorry, I cannot. I’m already married.”
I tried to ignore Marina’s admonition. She was valuable to me as a translator because my Russian didn’t enable me to engage people beyond basic politeness. But she knew so little about me, especially my gender issues; and I wasn’t about to divulge them to her or anyone. The 2 Russian young ladies who had approached me hopefully turned their eyes downward with embarrassment. Many girls from the North and East acted that way. But the best found ways of their own, ways filled with personal sacrifice and risk.1
When I walked about the city, not long emerging from the fall of the U.S.S.R., I still saw remnants of the Communist era. The hammer and sickle remained emblazoned everywhere. A prison stood like an infected mole on a dank and grey landscape. Copies of the Soviet constitution could still be found in any home. But my translator told me about life in the shattered region and in the restored nation of Latvia who had decided to allow only 1,000 Russians per year. The rest could go home to the Russian Federation.
That left a lot of families with nowhere to turn in a city like Daugavpils, a city of 120,000 and 80% Russian, most of whom had no contacts in the Russian Federation. A few could drive a truck with a Russian license. Many others found themselves blocked from being able to work.
Marina told me about the acuteness of their hardship. “A teacher doing well might make 40 Lats per month (1 Lat = $2 at the time). 32 Lats go into the flat and taxes and utilities are paid from this. She must survive on the rest. So they can think nothing about going to the bazaar with its goods predominately coming from the European Union. So many people have given up and they spend their days at the train station begging for a few centims.”
I had also seen fruit vendors from Azerbaijan selling apricots and a little citrus. The local people typically hated Azerbaijanis. They hated Muslims.
A few years later I spoke with a roommate at the Queen Mary in Studio City CA. That show lounge was the place to go if you were transgender in the 1990’s. If you go there you also found your support group. Everyone who visited Los Angeles from anywhere in the world with any interest in transpeople came to the Queen Mary. A picture depicting Mae West hung on the south wall in remembrance of when she had owned the whole black on Ventura Avenue, later directing that the Queen Mary would remain a place for transgender people to go. So it remained till its demise in 2002.
My roommate pointed to a very pretty transwoman who walked in. “She’s from Poland,” she said. “She has brain damage.”
“She was attacked by a mob who beater her nearly to death. They hate us in that part of the world.”
I couldn’t deny it. I later approached to speak to her. Her glassy eyes told me she was in a place far away.
From time to time I converse with Russians online, finding many lovable people. Then I came across a Russian transwoman I’ll call Katya to shield her identity. She had been kept by a Russian pimp for sex and was often beaten. She escaped into Western Europe. “They hate us,” she said. “They want to pretend we don’t exist. But that won’t stop them from exploiting us.”
Another friend from Zimbabwe, living in the United States with political asylum, whose name I agreed to withhold had worked for President Robert Mugabe and served as an emissary in Moscow while teaching at the university during the Soviet era. He told me the extent of anti-LGBT hate mixed with racism. More than once an exchange student from Africa might speak flirtatiously toward a Russian woman. That person would be hunted down, then brought to the top of a tall building. He would be given a choice. He could either jump to his death or he can be expelled from the U.S.S.R. with charges of homosexuality. My friends said that 90% of the time that person would jump because being exposed as a homosexual would be a fate worse than death in Africa, especially Zimbabwe. They would face expulsion from their families, imprisonment, and torture to the end of their stigmatized days, irrespective of the truth.
His words brought to my mind a question raised by a Russian teacher when I had spoken to the Pedogological Institute in Daugavpils. He asked, “How do you Americans deal with racism? I know I wouldn’t want to live next door to a Latvian!” The question astonished us because Russian and Latvian looked the same to us. To these people, Teuton and Slav were indeed different races. Worse yet, one of our speaking team had been denied admission to Latvia because he was of Indian descent and had distinctly Dravidian features. Our appeal on his behalf when we arrived in Riga went nowhere. Communism never approached equality among races and ethnicities. Neither did it ever equalize other factors of humanity like sexual orientation or gender identity.
LGBT groups flourished for a time in the Russian Federation till an anti-gay propaganda law passed first in St. Petersburg, then all of Russia in 2015. The LGBT community including transpeople was forced underground.
This year a special gate of hell opened in the Muslim oblast of Chechya which never succeeded in breaking away from the Russian Federation. Its capital is appropriately called Grozny, meaning “terrible”, conjuring images of a land like that of Mordor, though an actual visit would show no literal Mt. Doom and no Barad-Dûr rising up as a tower with a fearsome eye of Sauron. Checnya isn’t desert. It’s on one side of the Caucuses. Figuratively, though, one might make that kind of comparison. It’s president, Ramzan Kadyrov decided that all gays must be eliminated from Chechnya by the holy month of Ramadan, resulting in more than a hundred gay men detained and tortured.2 Then once the fact was reported to the media, Kadyrov stamped his imprimatur upon the practice of erasure, declaring, “Gay Chechens don’t exist.”3
But some did escape, telling harrowing tales of beatings, shocks, and being forced to reveal the names of others LGBT. Family members were also subject to similar treatment. Some have left the Russian Federation entirely.4 The Huffington Post reported last May that the Russian LGBT Network claimed to have saved 42 and has sought to negotiate with other countries who might take in refugees. German Chancellor Angela Merkel appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to intervene. Donald Trump has maintained silence, though Secretary of State Tillerson did issue a letter of concern that was summarily dismissed.5
Of course, those 42 were “gay men” and in that part of the world, few allow any difference between a gay man and a transwoman. This week the story of a Chechen transwoman appeared in the American press. The Washington Post told of this person they called “Leyla” (other publications have used other alternate names) who illegally crossed the Mexican border into the United States and requested asylum. She had been harassed and suffered doxxing. She had also been stabbed in a 2015 murder attempt in Moscow.6
Why does her story appear now? The answer’s very simple. She had been detained in the transgender unit of a Santa Ana CA immigration detention facility before being paroled. Only recently had she been granted asylum in Chicago. Nobody in her position would go to the press before that has been decided. Today she works as a waitress for a pittance, but has returned to her activities as an activist as far as her status permits her.7
I personally feel sorrow at her detention in Santa Ana, virtually my own back yard. This has been how asylum seekers have been generally treated. The process of immigration has become a broken American institution. But none who have succeeded in obtaining asylum have offered anything but thanks and, as in her case, a burning desire to help others who face similar threats. She may have escaped those who tried to kill her in the Russian Federation, but a fear always lingers that those who tried to kill her would hunt her down in the United States. It is so with other transwomen of the region including Dagestan, Stavropol, Kalmykiya, and other oblasts in that part of the Federation. We shouldn’t pretend they don’t exist. They do, even if underground.
It’s a hatred also evident in the United States. Russian hatreds on the basis of race and ethnicity also manifests here, evident in our recent blowups in Ferguson, Charlottesville, and elsewhere. Russian hatreds that brought their law against “gay propaganda” are the same hatreds manifest in Evangelical organizations who foster legislation against transpeople in various states today, with the aim of federalizing the same objectives. Americans should not be smug about its “virtues” of “liberty” and American “exceptionalism”. Any American who has ventured abroad realizes sooner or later that there are places in the world freer than the United States and that there are good people to be found everywhere.
I wish I could have personally welcomed that Chechen transwoman. She’s a hero to me. She survived against overwhelming odds as have other girls from the North and East. She continues to work for human rights, knowing the sacrifices required. That is very good. I deeply admire people like that. They’re a shining example of what people can be, and footsteps I would be happy to trace in my own meager efforts as well.
- Unless otherwise noted the events described in this article are the actual experience of the author who spoke in the former U.S.S.R. in 1994 and lived among Russians during that time.
- Marusic, Kristina. Chechnya’s President Vows To Eliminate Gays By The Start Of Ramadan (April 21, 2017) Web: New Now Next: http://www.newnownext.com/chechnya-gay-purge-kadyrov/04/2017/ . Retrieved September 3, 2017.
- Gessen, Masha. The Gay Men Who Fled Chechnya’s Purge (July 3, 2017) Web: The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/07/03/the-gay-men-who-fled-chechnyas-purge . Retrieved September 3, 2017.
- Nichols, James Michael. Russian LGBT Network Claims To Have Saved 42 Chechen Gay Men (May 22, 2017) Web: Huffington Post Queer Voices: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/russian-lgbt-network-chechnya_us_591496ace4b00b643ebc5324 . Retrieved September 3, 2017.
- Taylor, Adam. How a transgender Chechen escaped Russia and found asylum in the United States (September 1, 2017) Web: Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/a-transgender-chechen-woman-and-her-plea-for-asylum-in-america/2017/09/01/0edc5bd6-8916-11e7-96a7-d178cf3524eb_story.html?utm_term=.46e4224e7ca0 . Retrieved September 3, 2017.