Everyone who is considered to be “normal” takes the best seats in Russian heteronormative society. Being intersex in Russia means making a departure from the cultural standards and fighting for the right to be recognised
“When I was at school, my body looked visibly different from other teenagers. I had no muscles as the body with zero male hormones was incapable to produce them. No hair on the face. I was skinny and tall. With narrow shoulders and wide hips. Breast glands were enlarged. Sometimes people took me for a girl. I have been bullied and humiliated,” says Alexander Berezkin, 32-year-old independent researcher on intersex and a founder of Association of the Russian Speaking Intersex (ARSI).
He was born and raised in Novokuznetsk. In his childhood, Alexander was diagnosed with “male pseudohermaphroditism” (variation of Klinefelter syndrome 47, XXY). It means that he was born with one additional X chromosome. Usually males have a combination XY: extra X chromosomes lead to the appearance of physical traits that are not typical for males.
When Alexander turned 17, he received intersex status after taking a special genetic karyotype test. Since then, he started hormonal therapy which has lasted for 7 years.
In 2009, he started working as an assistant to a professor at Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok where he became an LGBT rights activist. Later, in 2013, Alexander created a closed information group on Facebook called Association of the Russian Speaking Intersex — one of the first online attempts of intersex activism for Russian speakers. After a homophobic campaign against him (refused to talk about it), Alexander left the country and moved to the US in 2014. He currently lives and works for ARSI in New York.
What is intersex
Alexander’s specific diagnosis is rare, but being born with a blend of female and male characteristics is surprisingly common. Worldwide, up to 1.7 per cent of people are intersex, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates. It is equal to the number of ginger people on the planet.
When I was at school, my body looked visibly different from other teenagers.
The term intersex means a person born with sex traits (including genitals, chromosome patterns and gonads) that are different from binary notions of male or female bodies. An intersex person can be defined as a man or a woman or as intersex. In terms of sexual orientation, intersex people may be straight or LGBTQ.
As specified by the Council of Europe in the explanatory note to resolution 1952 Children’s Right to Physical Integrity, intersex “is a naturally occurring variation in humans and not a medical condition. And it is to be distinguished from transsexuality.”
Some countries, like Germany, Malta, Australia and New Zealand, added the third box corresponded to gender on the birth certificates. It gives parents of intersex infants the right to choose the third option: marking the sex category “X” or “other”. By doing so, parents and doctors are not forced to put intersex babies through surgeries that would turn them into male or female. Thus, as intersex children grow up, they have the right to realise their identity by themselves.
However, Russia’s attitude towards intersex is different.
Russian law “describes us as disabled”
The first obstacle intersex people face begins already from linguistic. The English term “intersex” implies only to biological sex or sexual activity with no correlation to sexual preferences.
In the Russian context, the term is sometimes translated as “intersexuality” (интерсексуальность), which blurs the definition, referring to sexual orientation. As a result, the proper understanding and correct interpretation of the word is missing.
“The country’s laws describe us as ‘disabled people’ due to ‘disorders of sex development’, as doctors call it,” Alexander explains.
So far in Russia, there is no statistics on how many newborn babies are born with intersex traits. There are five federal standards on the medical procedures and health care services provided for intersex children in Russia –– none of which include psychological support, according to Alexander. Instead, intersex people are offered to be involved in medical or psychosexual procedures to shape identities and sexual orientation. For instance, an intersex person that was turned into a boy is often offered to attend consultations with an andrologist who informs him “how to behave himself as a man”. There is no regard given that the person could be homo- or bisexual.
For now, Association of Russian Speaking Intersex is the only one organisation providing Russian intersex people with legal services as well as psychological help and information.
Legal regulations towards surgeries on infants is internationally an ethical problem. A lot of countries, including Russia, put the responsibility to make decisions about children’s bodies on individual hospitals or practitioners. However, as stated by the UN Human Rights Commission, these often irreversible procedures can lead to infertility, pain, incontinence, loss of sexual sensation, and lifelong mental suffering, including depression.
“Such procedures may sometimes also be justified on the basis of alleged health benefits, but these are often proposed on the basis of weak evidence and without discussing alternative solutions that protect physical integrity and respect autonomy,” the UN report on intersex concludes.
According to Russian Federal law on the Fundamentals of Protection of the Public Health, doctors recommend parents of intersexual newborns a specific medical scenario with a surgery based on the diagnose. Scalpel and pills are supposed to make intersex babies become either male or female.
I personally know four Russian intersex people whose gender, chosen by a doctor in childhood, doesn’t fit their personalities.
“Usually this scheme is more or less balanced, but intersex newborns are an exception. In this case, a very fundamental interests of a human being are involved,” explains Ilya Saveliev, ARSI’s lawyer. Delegation of decision-making power to others by conventional standards leads to a violation of the rights of intersex people, Ilya continues.
Such cases have not yet been considered in Russia. A legal vacuum around the issue makes this kind of surgical intervention formally acceptable. However, points out the lawyer, these surgeries are not legitimate as they violate both – domestic and international human rights laws.
“I personally know four Russian intersex people whose gender, chosen by a doctor in childhood, doesn’t fit their personalities,” Alexander admits. They are thinking about gender transitioning. Consequences of such crisis are tragic: alcoholism, attempted suicide, deep depression, he says, plainly.
Making space in a heteronormative society
“How do Russians perceive intersex? Mainly they behave like these human beings don’t exist in our world,” Alexander says.
For Russian society – being formed by conservative ideas of traditional family with certain pictures of men and women – any differences from the heteronormative binary system are predictably seen as “not normal”.
As a result, intersex people, being put beyond the Russian society’s cultural standards, face discrimination and isolation.
How do Russians perceive intersex? Mainly they behave like these human beings don’t exist in our world.
Alexander points out that Russian parents tend to hide the intersex status of their child. Most of the time, intersex children are not informed about surgical interventions they had in childhood.
“Parents don’t know what to do, how to behave and where to seek help. They are afraid. It is easier to keep a blind eye on the issue and pretend that nothing is happening. But it doesn’t solve the problem,” he says.
In 2012, the movement for the rights of intersex people began to grow in Russia. This year, on 26 October, the first a one-man picket dedicated to Intersex Day of Remembrance took place on Palace Square in St Petersburg. Local intersex activist Fedor Laptev went to the square with a sign of the letter “i”. Laptev said that intersex people are often perceived in Russia as “freaks of nature”: his pickett’s aim was to draw public attention to discrimination against intersex people in the country.
“Intersex” was one of the topics addressed at this year’s LGBT film festival Side by Side in St Petersburg.