I’ve been involved in work for LGBTQIAP* community locally in Poland for over 5 years now. My experience revolves mostly around direct action, community building, providing anti-discriminatory education and campaigning. I was involved in raising awareness in “LGBT-free zones” and building networks and groups working in the area of affirmative language and action. I’m a co-author of the interactive anti-discrimination book ‘From A to Z about LGTBQIAP’ created with queer youth from all over Poland. Although my experience is limited to Poland, I’m well-networked with groups and organizations all over Europe thanks to earlier work in ASTRA Youth (network of youth SRHR activists from Central and Eastern Europe).
6 February 2023, Poland – $707.2 million USD. This is the sum of anti-gender funding from 2009 to 2018 identified in the European Parliamentary Forum (EPF) report¹, received from 54 organisations (nongovernmental, religious organisations and political parties) originating in the US, Russia and Europe. This is the amount spent on hate, driven by a heterosexist, patriarchal vision of society; a vision of society in which individuals that do not fall into the cis-hetero-matrix pattern simply do not exist. This 7 million dollars has sponsored anti-choice, anti-gender, anti-LGBTQI* strategies and social campaigns against sexuality education, marriage equality, the LGBTQI* community, and reproductive rights, gaining popular support and impacting national policies. These campaigns encapsulate the illiberalisation and de-democratization, rise of extremist, far-right movements and parties, and shrinking spaces for civil society. Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia are currently regarded as key arenas for pushing hateful agendas under the disguise of protecting the ‘traditional’ order, ‘natural’ law and (nuclear, heteronormative) family at all costs.
The realities of transgender communities across the region are those of struggle and insecurity. Within the Europe and Central Asia (ECA) region, transgender people are not legally protected from hate crime and speech – out of 54 ECA countries, less than a half have policies in place that ban hate crimes against trans people, with only 18 countries prohibiting hate speech². In Central Asia, no country provides access to legal gender recognition, and the transgender community is the most vulnerable to discrimination within the general LGBTI community³. Widespread stigma, structural and institutional violence against trans people limits basic freedom and impedes safe functioning in society. Across Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA) trans people face various barriers in accessing healthcare and, as a consequence, many avoid seeking healthcare entirely, with one third of respondents to the Internalized transphobia reported having avoided seeking care due to fear of stigma⁴. Additionally, many trans people are forced to employ a range of strategies in order to navigate the labyrinth of discriminatory laws and attitudes, economic constraints, social stigmatization and, in many cases, lack of support in their immediate environment, including from friends and family. These factors, combined with the lack of affirmative public representation of sexual and gender diversity and restricted public access to information, especially in rural and remote areas (particularly in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan⁵) severely impact trans individuals’ holistic safety and bodily integrity. This leads to serious mental health issues, higher risk of suicidal thoughts and attempts, and sexual and reproductive health issues.
Despite this hostile environment, trans activism has proliferated in the region and we can observe the emergence of organizations and collectives that provide direct support, strengthening communities and creating transnational coalitions. However, the general threat to civil society from anti-gender movements that are forcibly shaping the political landscape is affecting trans communities, with their already affected general wellbeing and mental health worsening. Holistic security – physical, psychosocial and digital – has remained of great concern, especially in countries where police brutality is normalized, legal protection is nonexistent, and the execution of one’s rights is simply impossible.
I asked some groups in the region about the impact of anti-gender movements on their holistic wellbeing, as well as information on the tactics used and what is needed to move forward and work more efficiently. Activist burnout, anxiety, and living in fear for one’s health and life has become a common experience:
“I am increasingly anxious about their shocking growth and spread in Turkey. [At a demonstration targeting LGBTI people] I felt very insecure among them. It is hard to imagine what would happen if they knew who I was.” (Oğuz)
“It affects all of us. Our wellbeing is declining. I was diagnosed with cancer right after the legal gender recognition ban in Hungary. My role as an activist on the national and international level, fighting the anti-gender attacks, clearly played a role in that.” (Tina, trans activist from Hungary)
Trans groups mobilize to continue their work, despite the increase of anti-gender forces and political focus on their agendas. Others create safe spaces and develop networks of collective care to sustain their communities:
“they are the answer to the damage that transphobia causes, in order for people to remain alive in principle.” (Slava, Trans*Coalition).
A wide range of direct service provision is accompanied by various strategies to counteract the hatred, such as advocacy, awareness raising campaigns, working with decision makers, media, art and culture sector, municipalities, LGBT faith groups, organizing educational activities, and so on. Trans groups form diverse alliances: in Turkey, as Oğuz shared, before the anti-LGBTI march in Istanbul, many public actors expressed their support with feminist groups, bar associations, labour unions, and organizations of families of LGBTI+ people. These new connections with sometimes unexpected allies increase the potential of strengthening trans communities and making their activities more effective. They also take some of the burden from the shoulders of trans groups when responding to anti-gender forces.
To be able to do all of the above and more, trans groups need to develop a deeper understanding of anti-gender movements’ strategies of work, which are based on feeding on fear within societies, manipulating this fear and targeting populations susceptible to being influenced by fear narratives. It goes without saying that anti-discrimination legislation and gender recognition laws are of the utmost importance to ensure legal protection of gender-diverse individuals and to protect and improve their overall wellbeing. Activists from Armenia and Hungary highlighted the importance of ensuring human and financial resources, such as long-term and flexible funding, in order to continue the work of trans organizations.
Transgender and non-binary activists need to be involved in regional and national structures on an equal footing to other actors to ensure the diversity of local perspectives. In the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is critical to ensure humanitarian aid, access to safe refuge, and assistance in accessing healthcare, as well as support for those who are suffering as a consequence of the Russian invasion along the borders of other ECA countries The invasion that caused the unprecedented increase in forced migration should also serve as an important reminder:
“to study the needs of people who live in areas reaping the effects of war in the past (Chechnya) and in areas between Russia and Ukraine, and between Russia and Sakartvelo [Georgia] (currently occupied and controlled by Russia territories), which have been engulfed in hostilities for decades.” (Slava, Trans*Coalition).
Learning about the needs resulting from, and the impact of, past wars on the lives of gender-diverse people, and developing adjusted responses is crucially important now to strengthen our work for the populations that will be affected by the Russian-Ukrainian war for years to come.
- Tip of the Iceberg: Religious Extremist Funders against Human Rights for Sexuality and Reproductive Health in Europe 2009 – 2018: https://www.epfweb.org/sites/default/files/2021-08/Tip%20of%20the%20Iceberg%20August%202021%20Final.pdf
2. Trans Rights Map Europe & Central Asia 2022: https://tgeu.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/tgeu-trans-rights-map-2022-fast-facts-en.pdf
3. LGBTI+ in the region of Central Asia: repressions, discrimination, exclusion: https://adcmemorial.org/en/publications/lgbti-in-the-region-of-central-asia-repressions-discrimination-exclusion/
4. Internalized transphobia and opportunities for mobilizing communities of transgender and gender non-conforming people: https://ecom.ngo/library/internalized-transphobia
5. As above.