When Russian authorities took away Yan Dvorkin’s 10-year-old adopted son last spring, there was nothing he could do but shout in frustration. His crime? He was a transgender, nonbinary person, married to a man.
“It was so mean and low and hypocritical,” said Dvorkin, who uses masculine pronouns. “I was so angry. I said, ‘Do you understand that because of you, my child cannot live in his own family?’ It was like talking to a wall.”
The family had fallen afoul of one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most vehement obsessions, his rejection of what he sees as Western “degradation and degeneration,” in particular transgender people, leading to a raft of repressive laws and, according to LGBTQ+ activists, rising street violence against transgender people.
Putin has framed the Ukraine invasion as a war against “Satanists,” liberal Western values, and “parent number one and parent number two.” His venom is echoed by everyone from state television propagandists to politicians and, as the war has ground on, Russia has witnessed increasingly harsh measures against these groups.
In July, Putin signed an astonishingly repressive law dissolving transgender people’s marriages, barring them from adopting children and preventing them from changing their gender in state documents. Hormone treatments and surgical interventions are also forbidden, as is the concept of having a nonbinary identity.
Dvorkin’s son is now living with a new guardian — a family friend — and he can still see him.
Dvorkin was a particularly high-profile target for the state. The psychologist launched Center T, a support group and website for transgender people. The organization, which relies on donations to operate, has been declared a “foreign agent,” like so many other NGOs disliked by the government.
In August, its website — which offers advice, practical support and a social network for transgender people — was shut down by a Russian court. Dvorkin fears he may be prosecuted and jailed for continuing to help desperate young transgender people, because it is a crime to post information about queer identity.
“About a year and a half ago, the president and other officials started talking very often about transgender people in the context of their fight against Western values,” Dvorkin said. “They’re promoting xenophobia and directing people’s hatred at us.”
“This is a typical practice of a totalitarian regime. You take a group, vulnerable people in society, and you turn them into outcasts, and you direct all the disappointment and dissatisfaction about the lack of development or lack of success in the war and all of society’s hatred and negative feelings against that group.”
Pyotr Tolstoy, a lawmaker from Putin’s United Russia party and one of the anti-transgender law’s sponsors, said in a State Duma debate, without evidence, that men are pretending to be transgender women to avoid fighting in Ukraine, and talked about a huge conspiracy involving a “Western transgender industry trying to penetrate our nation” for their “multibillion-dollar business.”
The law’s impact is harshest for those who have not yet changed their gender in legal documents or still need medical interventions. Myriad daily actions — renting an apartment or getting a job — are nightmarish when a person’s passport or identity document differs from their gender identity and appearance.
Nikita, a transgender Moscow man, had to register with the military recruitment office in 2021 to get a passport for foreign travel, but it rejected documents from a Russian medical panel attesting to his transgender status.
“There’s going to be a war soon,” a military psychiatrist told him, warning that he could be treated as a draft dodger and jailed. The only way to get a military exemption was via a two-week compulsory psychiatric confinement and assessment with no smartphone or outside contact, during which the veracity of his identity would be evaluated.
“I’m terrified because of the possibility that I could be drafted, even if it’s a small one. In the worst-case scenario, they could send me to the front, for sure. If they draft me in the army, that would mean death for me.”
Nikita became aware of his sexual orientation at 14, and of his transgender identity about a year later.
“I grew up in a very conservative, homophobic family. There were always jokes about these people. You would hear derogatory slang words and a constant reminder that marriage was only possible between a man and a woman.” He felt suicidal as a teenager, but his connection with transgender organizations saved him. At 16, he came out to his parents.
Two years later he fled his home after his mother, in one of their many quarrels, hit him with a wooden chair.
“It was very traumatic. I was homeless, without any money, and I lived in an LGBT shelter for three or four months,” he recalled.
Center T conducted a recent 24-hour online survey on violence and discrimination suffered by transgender people and got more than 300 responses.
“Reading through these 300 responses I felt as if I was living in the medieval ages or even prehistoric times, not in a civilized country,” Dvorkin said. “There were trans guys raped by their fathers, to make a real girl out of them. There were parents who would beat them, if they found the wrong clothes, from their point of view, and parents who would take them to psychiatric units and have them locked up.”
Al, a Center T activist who spoke on the condition that their last name not be used to protect their safety, runs an underground support center in St. Petersburg for trans people, with tea and coffee in the neat, sunny kitchen. It features two affectionate cats, lounges to relax, and accommodation. Al is always careful to keep the street entrance to the apartment block locked.
Activists at the center take dozens of calls daily and arrange transport for homeless transgender people arriving in the city, many evicted from their families, as well as guides for those who do not know their way around. Sometimes they even provide emergency funds.
In another part of the city, an underground art group for transgender people organized by Center T met on a warm afternoon last month, in an atmosphere so exuberant that the outside world of politicians whipping up anti-transgender sentiment seemed far away for a few hours.
Some made bright, colorful drawings, while others opted for monochrome shades depicting dark images. In the corner, a group carefully braided one another’s hair.
A tall woman, Zhenya, swept into the room to torrents of congratulations, waving the new passport she had just received marked with her female gender.
Others told stories of family rejection, suicidal feelings, isolation and confusion. They expressed fears about buying illegal hormones or accessing surgical interventions and dreamed of leaving Russia.
For many, the weekly art meetings are their most important social connection and support, and for some, help overcome suicidal feelings amid the demonization of transgender people.
Outside their tranquil underground space, politicians are closing their support organizations and passing stringent new laws attacking their very identity.
“The majority of people are very conservative and they don’t understand anything about transgender people and are against them. So the party of power adopted this law to gain popularity and to hang on to power as long as possible,” Yulia Alyoshina, a transgender politician who planned to run for office until the new law forced her to drop out. “This will create more hatred in society.”
She said transgender people who could afford it would emigrate or go overseas for medical treatment. But most would not be able to and would be at risk of substance abuse, self-harm or suicide. “The law normalizes an insulting attitude to transgender people, as if they are inferior. What can be more cruel than banning your right to medical help?”
Vladimir Komov, a lawyer with Russian LGBTQ+ legal rights group, DELO LGBT, which handles 300 legal consultations per month, said new homophobic and transphobic groups have been springing up online, with cases of violence against transgender people rising.
Nearly a third of the cases the group takes to court involve violent assaults against clients, yet courts rarely classify these as hate crimes, he said.
DELO LGBT lawyers representing Center T at hearings in July over its closure, were attacked with pepper spray outside the court.
“We were getting into the taxi, and a young guy with pepper spray and his face covered with a mask jumped out like a bolt from the blue and sprayed one of our expert witnesses directly in the face,” said DELO LGBT lawyer Robert Lebedev, a transgender man. “I heard the people he attacked screaming with pain, and then he ran off. I was angry because the police took ages to arrive — around three or four hours — and then they didn’t want to investigate.” Seven people were affected by the attack.
Initially, the persecution of LGBTQ+ people was framed as a matter of protecting children, said Komov, one of the lawyers, but that has changed in recent times.
“Now it is framed at state level — to protect the security of the state, to fight against extremism,” Komov said. “Since the new law, people believe they have a right to harass LGBT people, that they’re doing what Putin told them to do, and they’re following government policy. Now it’s because they’re queer people and the government hates them.”
Dvorkin started Center T three years ago, because discrimination against transgender people at the time was “terrible.”
“But at the time we did not even know what terrible is,” he said.