Warning: The following article contains graphic descriptions of self-harm and sexual violence which some readers may wish to avoid.
Maya Demidova is a 28-year-old trans woman from Moscow who works as a co-ordinator for Phoenix Plus, the only HIV organisation in Russia to focus specifically on the needs of the LGBT+ community, predominantly men who have sex with men.
Attitude caught up with her on a recent trip to Moscow. You can read our full special investigation into life for LGBT+ people in Russia in our new January issue – available to download and in shops now.
When did you begin your transition?
I transitioned ten years ago, I take HRT I buy from the pharmacy with no prescription. There’s no chance of surgery here in Russia, no one does it or even knows how to do it, apart from the breasts and nose. There are a few specialized clinics and a Transgender Foundation that offers vaginoplasties at a low price to help trans people but in my personal opinion the level of surgery offered is quite low. I know a few trans women who’ve had vaginoplasties in Moscow but they can’t lead full sex lives because the quality of surgery is so poor. The depth of the vagina is so small that there’s almost nothing there.
How did your family react to your transition?
It’s better not to be transgender in Russia. When I came out my mother and father and grandmother were already dead and I lived only with my grandfather. His reaction was terrible. He would humiliate me, he would abuse and insult me at any time. He started drinking alcohol hard. He hit me and bit me a few times. He forced me to leave my home and kicked me out onto the street. Our relationship was really really bad for about four years. I tried to commit suicide a few times, as you can see from the scars on my arms. Over the last six years my relationship with my grandfather has got a little better. Now he perceives me as a woman and calls me a female name. But he probably does not understand what it is to be transgender.
What has been the reaction from society at large to your identity as a trans woman?
All my friends deserted me. But I’m a strong person. My neighbours saw my transition, they saw me starting to wear a woman’s clothes. If anyone said anything to me or tried to challenge me or asked me why I was wearing women’s clothes I’d say, ‘Address me as a woman please.’ They didn’t expect such a reaction from me. They thought I’d be scared and stop doing it. I told them, ‘Fuck you all, I do what I want and wear what I want.’ So all my neighbours now address me as a woman and they let me through doors first and things.
Have you ever been subjected to any violence because of your gender identity?
I’ve been beaten up a few times. The first time was on the street, three big guys came over and hit me on the head and knocked me to the floor, where they kicked me to the head. The second time was in a subway in rush hour; the carriage was full of people, and I was in high heels and had really nice hair. There was a quite nice-looking boy who leaned over and said, ‘Are you a woman or a man?’ I said, ‘If you’d like me to be a boy, I’ll be a boy.’ Then he kicked me in the face. As I’d done Tai Kwando before I used my legs and my high heels to kick him and he ended up worse off than me. The people around us were on my side. Everything fell out of my bag and people helped me pick it all up. They separated us and I became emotional and started crying. Three women started to calm me down.
So do you think the general public here is as prejudiced against LGBT+ people as the laws suggest?
I don’t know about gay people but for me, I feel I’m perceived well. Some of that is down to my individual personality; people like me. I still have male genitals and a male name so in some clinics staff say, ‘I see a male name so where is he?’ I tell them that’s me and they say, ‘OK’.
Have you ever been subjected to sexual violence as a trans woman?
Yes. I was raped two months ago. I met a man in a club and we had a drink together and then I started to feel I was losing control of my mind. He must have spiked my drink. I woke up in my house, I was all beaten and my nose was almost broken, I had a deep wound on my chin. I had bruises everywhere. And I knew I’d been raped because I could feel it. I had to go to see the doctor because I could tell the man had ejaculated inside me.
How did this make you feel?
As I’ve experienced a lot of bad things over the last ten years it was OK for me. I’ve experienced a lot worse than this. I didn’t tell the doctor details of what had happened.
And did you report the incident to the police?
Are you kidding? If I went to the police station to report the rape they’d laugh in my face and they wouldn’t do anything. Once I was arrested and spent a few hours in a police station and I heard so many insulting things about transgender people while I was sitting there. The police hate people like me. They think if I’ve been raped it’s my fault.
Were you offered PEP? Is there any access to PEP here?
I didn’t really know about PEP; I thought the pills needed to be taken within five hours so I was too late. I’m now waiting to get tested to see if I have HIV. I’m worried about it, of course. But as I work in this sphere I’ve learnt a lot about how to live with HIV, how it works, I have great people around me who support me, and I understand that if I am HIV+ that’s not the end of my life, it’s a long-term health condition I’ll have to manage.
Does what you’ve been through make you angry or emotional?
No, I’ve lived in Russia all my life so I’ve got used to this. In some senses it’s a cruel country. If you want to survive you have to be really tough.
Is there any hope that things will get better in the future?
I hope things are getting better in terms of understanding of HIV in Russia but for LGBT+ people it’s getting worse. I can’t say for sure about gay people but for trans people I’m sure every year it’s getting worse and worse. This is the reason I started to change my documents – I get the female name in my passport in two weeks. For ten years I lived with male documents and that was OK for me. But now things in Russia are changing so I’ve decided it’s time to change my documents because maybe next year it’ll be too late. Maybe next year we won’t be able to.
Why are things getting worse for LGBT+ people?
Putin! The legislation gets worse for trans people each year. In a few years it will be awful. In 2018 there’ll be no laws about how to change your sex and the procedure will become much more complicated. Lots of people won’t get permission. It used to be down to the opinion of private doctors and psychiatrists to decide whether the sex should be changed and transition started but now the state is taking that role. I have a good relationship with the chair of the Transgender Foundation here in Moscow and we’ve discussed this issue. She was saying that the train of opportunity to change sex is leaving our country and you are getting into the last carriage on the train. As of next year there’ll be no more new trans people in Russia.
How does this make you feel about the future?
My hope is not to be killed in the next four years, while Putin is still in power. I assume you know what’s happening in Chechnya with gay people. This is only the beginning and if Putin stays in the Kremlin I think it’ll spread all around the country. This is the reason I changed documents. I don’t want a drunk Kazak from the South coming to my house and trying to kill me.
Why don’t you leave the country?
I want to fight to the very end with everything I have in me. I want to help all those who stay here.