Gender is becoming an increasingly fluid concept in Western society. But in Belarus, any identity not approved by the authoritarian regime can have dangerous consequences – especially if you are transgender.
MINSK – Alina is walking home along the grand streets of Minsk. Shop windows full of glamorous Western brands reflect her strong yet somewhat shy figure, dressed in simple black clothes. Her big wavy hair and colourful stripy socks are in sharp contrast with the grey surroundings.
Ten years ago, she came to Minsk from a small provincial town in search of a job – and more importantly, her identity. Having studied at a technical school near her village, she now makes a living renovating apartments and doing minor construction work with a private company.
It seems her whole being is also under construction.
Alina lives in a cold and dusty apartment she’s currently renovating for money. She sleeps on an old mattress on a bare floor, keeps all her belongings in a ramshackle wardrobe and does all her washing in a bin. Having a job is a huge achievement for her: without it she would be forced to pay an unemployment tax, the so-called “parasite tax”, recently introduced by the state. With a nervous smile she asks us not to talk to her in English in front of her building. “The neighbours are already suspicious of me – I don’t want to attract any more attention.”
Thirty-three years ago, Alina was born a man. In a country like Belarus, the decision to live according to her own sense of self and sexual identity is an act of extreme defiance, a challenge to both the state and society as a whole.
“I don’t want to attract any more attention and become a complete outsider.”
During more than two decades of rule, President Alexander Lukashenko – often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator” – has managed to take Belarus to the bottom of most rankings of human rights. A series of mysterious disappearances of prominent political opponents in the early 2000s, violent crackdowns on peaceful protests, a harsh grip on the media and the continuation of the death penalty are all part of the Belarusian reality.
After the presidential elections of 2010, seven out of Lukashenko’s nine opponents faced criminal charges for organising mass demonstrations. His official approval ratings have never dipped below 80%, and independent sociology does not function in the country. The last peaceful protests, following an acute economic crisis in 2011, drew tens of thousands into the streets, but hundreds of arrests quickly followed.
“In Belarus, every institution has a say in how I am supposed to live.”
“Here every institution has a say in how I am supposed to live,” says Alina. “And all I want is to change my passport and take care of myself.” In order to officially change their gender, a transgender person needs to register with a psychiatric centre. Only after a thorough medical examination by a commission consisting of the Ministries of Defence, Education, Justice, Interior and Health, is a green light given. After a year and a half, if they follow all the rules, they will undergo a sex change operation free of charge – a strange paradox in a country with such a retrograde attitude towards LGBT people.
The first such operation in Belarus was performed in 1992; by contrast, gay sex remained a criminal offence until 1994. According to statistics, between 70 and 150 people have undergone gender reassignment surgery since then.
Alina though has decided not to follow the state’s plan. This decision means more personal freedom for her, but no official recognition of her choice and a reliance on the black market for hormone treatments.
It’s a tough decision faced by many trans people in Belarus – if she lets the state take care of her, and control her, then at a very basic level she’ll get along. If she decides to stand alone, she will be seen as a troublemaker: someone for whom arbitrary imprisonment, intense media scrutiny, and the fear of violence or even death are the grim reality of life in Belarus. Like human rights defender and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Ales Bialiatski, who was jailed for three years on spurious grounds of tax evasion while running a human rights centre which has helped thousands stand against the regime. Or Mikalai Statkevich, one of the independent presidential candidates in 2010, who has spent five-and-a-half years in prison.
In 2013, 69 out of 72 founding members of GayBelarus – the principal civic organisation fighting for LGBT rights in Belarusia – were called in for questioning by the KGB (yes, secret services are still called that in Belarus). Some have since fled the country; others have gone underground. Between its establishment in 2009 and 2013, GayBelarus has tried to be officially registered, and both times it has been rejected. Acting in the name of an unregistered organisation is a criminal offence, punishable by up to two years in prison.
Recently a new initiative to help LGBTQ teens and their families has emerged, and is trying to get officially registered. In a country where LGBTQ people risk being beaten to death, their presence is greatly needed.
This sad reality seems unreal in the centre of Minsk, full of cafes and casinos. Encouraged by the government, and the rest of the world, young people have turned to consumerism in their search for self-identity. Belarusians boast one of the highest numbers of Schengen visas per capita, so naturally many people are clued up on what cool European life looks like. Without a truly liberal atmosphere, however, Minsk’s trendy hotspots are doomed to remain a pale imitation of western social life.
In August, police raided the most fashionable and expensive restaurant street in Minsk, and arrested dozens who had stepped outside for a smoke after having a beer. Being drunk in public is not allowed in Belarus. But Belarusians are world leaders in alcohol consumption. So anywhere you go you will meet drunk people. But of all the tired workers in the suburbs the authorities chose to punish the hipsters who want to forget about the state of the world by hiding in posh bars. It is not surprising that Alina doesn’t like going out. “There are one or two places where I feel at least fairly comfortable. They might look nice, but only to foreign visitors. I know it’s just a facade.”
“My own mother hates me for wanting to be me. I am always reminded that I was born a man, and that no one respects my choice. Not at home, not at work. This is better.” The last time Alina saw her family was four years ago. She speaks to her sister over the phone regularly, but these conversations often end up in arguments. She is not in touch with any of her old friends. In her hometown, her sister works as a milkmaid at a local kolhoz (a collective farm), and earns $80 – around 75 euros – per month. Yet it is Minsk where Alina wants to live.
Photographer Artur Klinau said Minsk was to serve as the gates to the Soviet Empire – it had to impress with its wide, clean streets, but remain provincial and small so as not to overshadow Moscow. For many it feels like a dead city with its empty squares and palaces. Any humans are merely decorative.
For Alina, the biggest advantage of Minsk is that people do not know her previous self.
Alina has already realised she was born in the “wrong body” – and maybe also in the wrong country.
For Alina, the biggest advantage of Minsk is that people do not know her previous self. In the capital, she is able to work to earn around $250 a month. She needs at least $40 to sustain her hormone treatments.
When asked whether this is what she thought her life would look like, Alina says it’s better than what she’d imagined in the 90s when she was still a child. By then, she had already realised she was born in the “wrong body”, and maybe also in the wrong country.She would never admit it publicly, though.
“Have you heard of punitive psychiatric treatment? This is all that was there for me in a small town. I was too afraid to speak up. It was enough that my step-father beat me for no reason. The first time I realised I was not the only one in the world like this was in the 2000s, when I read an advertisement for a sex change service in a teen newspaper.”
It is hard to find an “LGBTQ community spirit” in Belarus. There are two organisations currently active – media collective makeout.by, and Identity and Law, which is comprised of some former members of Gay Belarus. But Alina speaks negatively of both, offended that (in her view) they don’t know how to help her. This is a frequent complaint about many human rights associations in Belarus. Caught up in individual fights and personal demands for so long, people are unwilling to unite to fight for a common good.
In Belarus, it doesn’t matter whether you are transgender, Protestant, or play in an alternative band. In a regime where individuality is stamped on, any way of being true to oneself is a defiant act. If you play by Lukashenko’s rules, there is a chance that the state will leave you alone. Alina has made a courageous choice: to live her life true to herself. In doing so, she has achieved a different and deeper freedom than that enjoyed by those who choose to conform.
Still, her courage doesn’t take away the fear. “I am afraid to start a relationship,” she confesses. “If I manage to convince anyone I am truly a woman and they accidentally find out the truth, they won’t beat me. They will kill me.”