September 14, 2017

The unique challenges of trans-activism

It may seem like common sense to say LGBTQ rights are – or should be – universal. Everyone deserves to be able to express themselves and their love for others safely, and have access to the resources they need to build a healthy, happy life.

But context matters. Cultural differences, shaped by history, influence how such ‘rights’ would take form, and how they might be won. Creating change in one’s environment requires extensive local knowledge, based on experience. If universal LGBTQ rights is an idea, then time and place make that idea a reality.

Trans* Coalition in the post-Soviet space puts this productive tension between specificity and universality into practice. As a platform of trans* activists and allies founded in 2013, the Trans* Coalition currently has members in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine, and is in the process of expanding this network. These organisations, separated by space but united by history, share the vision and goal of creating societies in former Soviet states that are not only safe for trans people, but also representative and inclusive of their needs and realities.

This is the specificity of trans-activism.


At the root of many of the issues that trans people all around the world face is that being transgender is considered ‘unnatural’ or otherwise ‘wrong.’ In some countries this belief is no longer officially part of medicine or law, and trans people are gaining access to the healthcare they need and the recognition they deserve (even as the more subtle belief in the ‘naturalness’ of the being cisgender and of the gender binary persist).

Becoming a trans-activist in the first place, then, is risky: “It is extremely important for us to be cautious about our personal information to avoid being outed not only by the transphobes, but also by colleagues, relatives, others,” Daniyar Orsek explains (Orsek, who is from Kyrgyzstan, is coordinator of a study within the Trans* Coalition about the national contexts of trans rights). “This is the specificity of trans-activism.”

Particularly in this region, where space for civil society has already been shrinking for some time, getting off the ground as a trans-activist organisation is in no small feat. “There are huge difficulties in terms of staffing, as trans-people often lack access to basic resources, like food. So we’re ashamed to ask them to volunteer and not pay them anything. Trans-activists should be paid at least minimum wage,” Orsek tells us. Otherwise, they anticipate that the movement will not be able to sustain itself.

In Kyrgyzstan (as well as Russia and parts of Central Asia), a particular paradox around funding has emerged: “The work of civil society depends entirely on Western and American donors. At the same time, due to the initiation of a bill on ‘foreign agents’, such activities of organisations and coalitions are considered as ‘espionage’, ‘value-corrupting’ activities,” Orsek explains. “Moreover, even some human rights and service organisations consider work with gender-nonconforming people as unimportant.”

This lack of support from peer groups and organisations limits the ability of trans organisations to develop their capacity to organise. “The funders do not take us seriously and we are constantly denied any support or are required to be endorsed, which means we are compelled to approach LGBT organisations for endorsements.” Although the “LGB” and “T” are often put together in this way, transphobia exists within gay and lesbian organisations too. “The voices of the trans people, especially non-binary, are not heard,” Orsek says. Feminists are not necessarily allies, either. Some argue that how we were raised determines our gender identity, and so cannot be changed; this logic is used to justify trans-exclusion in ‘women’s spaces.’

Despite these many challenges – from authoritarian governments, transphobic medical communities, and even feminist, lesbian and gay organisations – the Trans* Coalition, its members, and other trans-activists throughout the post-Soviet region persist, find innovative strategies to organise and develop their capacity. By connecting the dots between national, regional and international activism, the Trans* Coalition works to make universal ideals into specific realities.

In the Netherlands? Check out TranScreen: Transgender Film Festival Amsterdam 2017!