Liam Rivkin: “We are the only interregional trans* initiative in the post-Soviet space”

Clara Zid, July 2021

The post-Soviet space is a territory of pronounced homophobia, describes Liam Rivkin during this interview. Liam is information coordinator at Trans* Coalition, a human rights organization that helps trans* people (the asterisk includes not only transgender men and women, but also non-binary people) from the post-Soviet space since 2013. “We are the only interregional trans* initiative, We are a feminist initiative advocating for the depathologization of transgender people and the decriminalization of sex work”.

Liam Rivkin defines itself as a “28 years old transgender non-binary person, poly amorous and pan sexual”. That is a risky profile for anyone living in the post-Soviet space, where authorities use homophobic rhetoric.

During the past years, conservative sentiments have intensified in the region, and the field of civil liberties has gradually narrowed, according to Liam: “LGBT activists in Russia are now in the same position as other civic activists. They live under the threat of being searched, and being fined for a criminal case. Since 2013 there has been a law banning “LGBT propaganda”“.

Enemy of the people

The authorities in Russia have created an image of the LGBT people as “the enemy of the people” to divert public discontent. That is why, Liam explains, “LGBT people do not expect a friendly attitude when contacting the police”. But the situation in Russia, that influences the region, is not the worst. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan are countries with a higher level of homophobia and in 2020/2021 there was a conservative rollback in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. To the contrary, Georgia and Ukraine have some laws for LGBT people.

Russia itself has its bright and dark sides, Liam says: “In big cities LGBT people can live easier and more openly, because there is more diversity. Individual regions can be more or less homophobic for various reasons, primarily the influence of local authorities.” In Chechnya, Liam says, “LGBT people are persecuted by the authorities and homophobic groups, torture and killings are known and everything is denied at the state level”. That is why many LGBT persons choose to move from Central Asian countries to Russia or Georgia. However, in Russia there is extremely unfriendly legislation regarding migrants and the process of obtaining official documents is bureaucratic and long.

Trans* people are persecuted by the same forces as LGBT people: the state, law enforcement agencies, ultra-right groups, religious figures openly expressing homophobia and trans phobia, individual politicians and deputies

A difficult situation for LGBT persons in the post-Soviet space is the lack of legislative protection. In all countries of the region, except for Georgia and Ukraine, there is no anti-discrimination legislation. Family rights are not protected, homophobia and trans-phobia are not recognized as an aggravating motive for a crime and the procedure for legal gender recognition is weighed down by various obstacles.

According to Liam, “trans* people are persecuted by the same forces as LGBT people: the state, law enforcement agencies, ultra-right groups, religious figures openly expressing homophobia and trans phobia, individual politicians and deputies”. Physical harassment can include targeted raids on gay clubs, luring them into fake dates, attacking individual LGBT people, or disrupting LGBT activists’ events. Specifically in Chechnya, Liam says, “during a raid, the security forces can force LGBT persons to give away their password to their phones, so that they can search through personal correspondence to find out more about the person’s LGBT network”.

The pandemic has exacerbated a difficult situation

Trans* people are subjected to double discrimination because of legal gender recognition and their medical needs. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the healthcare system has primarily focused on helping victims of Covid-19, and other needs have been set aside. Liam explains: “Gender-affirmative procedures have been canceled, commissions have been closed, it has been difficult to get medical appointments and hormonal drugs have been hard to find”. The pandemic has exacerbated a difficult situation, according to Liam: “Trans* people have lost their jobs and homes, some have had to return to their homes and live with trans phobic relatives. Public life has also become more problematic with additional document checks on the street or in the metro that have proven stressful for those whose documents do not match their physical appearance”.

Trans* Coalition’s response to the crisis was to organize a humanitarian aid project and to open a support hotline: “As a part of the humanitarian aid, we provided grocery baskets, paid shelter and medical expenses, and via the hotline, we offered medical and psychological consultations“.

Trans* Coalition in the post-Soviet space consists of members from eleven countries: Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Belarus, Tajikistan, Latvia, USA, Sweden, Poland, Germany. The organization has 10 staff (6 paid staff and 4 pro-bono workers) and is a member of Transgender Europe (TGEU).

NGOs in the region, except for Georgia and Ukraine, are now in a difficult situation, according to Liam: “New amendments in recent years complicate the existence of NGOs, including the restrictions on foreign funding. At the moment, NGOs have become victims of political aggression, in the form of complex bureaucratic checks, the risk of being included in the register of “foreign agents”, or receiving a large fine as a result of not complying with the requirements”.

“Agents of Western influence”

Trans* Coalition activists need to take additional security measures: use secure messengers, separate personal and work accounts and never write about themselves and their work on social networks. Last week, Russian homophobic activists studied Trans* Coalition site and social networks, took information about their employees and tried to figure out the sources of their funding. “We now proudly hang alongside other NGOs on the list as “agents of Western influence””, Liam explains.

“We are all in some kind of stress and understand that we can be persecuted at any time.”

The tension is high: “In general, we are all in some kind of stress and understand that we can be persecuted at any time under a certain set of circumstances, but this is a risk that accompanies our work. We learn to live in parallel with this fear and stress.

Liam came to work in NGOs through grassroots activism: “Socio-political conditions are such that if you want to live openly and well, then you have to somehow change the surrounding reality, engage in self-advocacy, activism”. Liam likes activism as a profession but remarks that “in reality, this has its own risks, for example, burnout from the constant confrontation with someone else’s trauma or blurring the boundaries between personal and work”. Liam loves the idea that “you are doing activism not only for yourself, but also for a whole group of people, a certain community, is very supportive and gives courage and strength”.

For the protection of their website, Trans* Coalition rely on Qurium’s Secure Hosting service since 2018. In 2020, Trans* Coalition participated in Qurium’s Igloo program for human rights activists under threat, and participated in a six months long mentorship program in digital security.

Since 2013, Trans* Coalition has worked to support trans gender person in the region. The moral support of their families and friends, and the sense of belonging to the international community of trans*, LGBT and human rights defenders, have kept the organization moving forward and fighting a homo and trans phobic society. Liam says: “We see that members of the trans* community have common goals and by different methods we are moving towards our common picture of a better future”.

Trans* Coalition is hosted with since 2018.