Debunking otherness: how do transgenders deal with Transphobia in their everyday life

The art gallery at Kyiv city center is filled at the weekend. Crowds of people scurry through different parts of exhibition follow their guides and try not to miss a single word they say. That is how people nowadays learn the art.

Leo looks at his reflection at the restroom mirror while washing his hands. Suddenly a man in the back of a room calls him:

“Hey, miss, I guess you have chosen a wrong room. Ladies’ restroom is right nearby,” a bearded man in round sun glasses and tweed jacket says.

“No, I am in a right place. Thank you,” Leo answers.

“Are you sure?” the man looks distracted.


Leo dries his hands and leaves the room. At the hall he meets his friends and the next moment they decide to have a cup of coffee elsewhere. He doesn’t retell his friends a conversation that happened at the restroom. He doesn’t mind about the man’s comment. He is used to situations like this. From time to time people in the street perceive him as a girl. And Leo knows that it is all because his appearance. The truth is that Leo is a transgender.

Transgender is an umbrella term which is usually applied to describe people whose assigned sex doesn’t assort with their gender identity. The rage of these non-conform identities is quite wide. At the same time this term corresponds to transsexuals who accept medical assistance to transition from their biological sex to the opposite, and genderqueers as the category of non-binary identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine. It also covers cross-dressers, bi-, pan- and a-genders and androgens.

It is hard to determine how many transgenders there are in a certain society. But some sources say that about a 10% of population consists of the members of LGBT community. And nearly a third part of them are transgender people. In Ukrainian context there is about a million citizens who experience everyday discrimination, have special needs and limited rights. Moreover, who are underrepresented and stigmatized as “different” or “another”.

Leo was 16 when he finally decided that being a woman is absolutely unacceptable for him. It doesn’t mean that before this time he felt uncomfortable of being a female biologically. But since childhood Leo had always preferred to be viewed as a boy. He did not remember exactly everything himself. But his parent told him so. With their words, at three years old he asked them to call him a boy when he actually was a little girl. However, when adults didn’t listen to him, he was indignant why this was happening. And asked not to call him a boy anymore.

Today Leo is 18 years old. But he looks rather androgyny even at this time. His almost shoulder length light brown hair is ragged. The bags under the eyes make him look a little tired. He has no make-up on. His clothes seem to be a few sizes bigger than he actually needs. He wears classic blue jeans and a monotone dark roll-neck. So he can be easily viewed either a teen girl or a boy. But when he suddenly tends to look more feminine it causes him a lot of misunderstandings.

For instance, a week ago Leo was going to pierce his brow. And he was horribly concerned about it, although there were no obvious reasons for the fear. He wondered whether his master would recognize him at least. The point was that his piercing-master had agreed this session with a young boy. It’s all because Leo had a male profile in the social network with almost no his photos there. But actually Leo looked more like a teenage girl in real life. So because of this situation he felt out of his plate.

In the end all Leo’s concerns were rootless. When he entered the studio, he had probably the shortest dialogue in all his life:

“Hi, my name is Leo. We had planned a brow piercing session with you at this time.”

“So you are Leo?” the master clarified.

“Yes,” answered Leo.

Then take you sit.”

Therefore this visit appeared to be painless in all possible senses. Leo got his brow pierced. And he felt totally satisfied with master’s delicacy and etiquette. But when it comes to the formal interaction with public services it all gets tremendously worse.

Couple months ago Leo had to pass his medical check as a current student. And actually his appearance corresponds with his documents, so he has no need in changing them. But over the past few years Leo has talked about his perception of himself as a male. So he has to monitor and filter what he was saying during that visit to avoid the useless questions from the officials. He has finally completed his medical check successfully. But it costed him plenty of wasted nervous cells.


Today Leo considers himself as an open transgender, but only in informal interactions. Still he hasn’t informed this family yet.

“I don’t feel the discomfort of being called Maria at home now. But previously I felt this in a rather different way. I felt that it was wrong to remain silent, but I couldn’t tell them everything,” Leo explains every time the same question about his family coming-out.

At the same time he does not identify himself as strictly male or female. He prefers to be viewed as genderqueer. Therefore he has rejected the idea of surgical and hormonal correction of his gender. After all, he considers his identity wider than the binary male-female opposition. He believes it to be fluid and changeable. So he finds no sense to transform the physical appearance of his body. Instead, he tries to focus on the importance of self-perception.

He decided this for several reasons. On the one hand, a modern Ukrainian law provides a long and complicated procedure for a biological sex changing, which can last at least several years and has a number of limitations. On the other, Leo is not sure that the surgical and hormonal changing will make him feel more comfortable.

“Of course, everyone can define themselves as they wish. And it is quite okay in the frames of social sciences paradigm. But from the point of view of the current medical perspective transgender is the one who feels uncomfortable with his assigned sex, prescribed social role and with his body in general”, Oksana Surchok summarizes. ”So according to valid Ukrainian law people who do not accept medical or hormone transformation are not considered as transgenders”.


Oksana is a specialist in human rights sphere and transgender woman. She was born in Donetsk. She says that she didn't feel being a boy from a very childhood. Therefore she has had many conflicts with her parents which used to transform into a home violence issues from time to time. Oksana says that due to this lack of understanding and acceptance she had never told her parents about her gender identity. Because of the social pressure she even tried to commit a suicide but the gun didn't shot that time.

When the warfare on the East Ukraine started, she has moved to Kyiv because of her proukrainian opinion. Her have parents stayed at Donetsk. Here, in the capital she had already found a job. She had never hide her transforming identity and her collegues accepted her. Thanks to this in 2014 she began her personal transformation and applied for a commission to get a permission for transformative surgery. She had almost finished it when suddenly her father had a heart-attack a month ago. So she spent the most part of her savings for the surgery on his recovery recently.

“There was no other way for me. We made peace with him just a year ago. But he still doesn’t know who I really am,” she says.

Oksana believes that not all of the LGBT public events and discussions are useful, as they can both improve and worsen the current social attitude towards LGBT, including transgenders. She believes that only the personal influence can change the mind of intolerant person. That’s why she focuses her attention on the help to other transgender people. She helps them to overcome different legal difficulties during their changing periods:

“Dania, my good friend, is now a Junior Lieutenant at the National Guard unit. And she has just returned from the ATO. So now we are passing a psychiatrist to gain a mental health diagnosis. After this we can address the commission directly to get the conclusion about her gender variance.”

The procedure of gender transition is quite difficult.

Firstly, a person should contact a psychiatrist and to pass the stationary observation at a mental medical care institution. When he gets a conclusion about one’s mental health, he can respond to a special commission. They will check the data validity. And only their positive conclusion the one can start his transformation. This process itself can last for months or even for years.

Yuri Frank, the human rights activist, transgender man and the member of the transgenders’ organization “Insite” asserts quite an opposite point of view. He believes that only making LGBT visible in public area can increase the overall LGBT tolerance in Ukraine.

But while having different views on some aspects transgender activists agree that the attention paid to the transpeople needs is almost negligible. Partly it can be caused by the inner diversification inside the community.

“Actually there is no only transgender people community. There are some cells in the structures of other LGBT communities. But I know only two organizations that are focused on transpeople’s needs. They are ‘Insite’ and ‘T-ema’,” Leo memorizes. “But I’ve never been to ‘T-ema’, and I was only once at the ‘Insite’.”

Being transgender is not easy. The inner transphobia takes its place even inside the LGBT + communities. At this time Leo is involved only in the students’ feminist organization where he feels relatively comfortable. Because of horizontal group structure Leo feels free to raise any topic related to transpeople’s rights and needs.

At the cafe where Leo and his friends order coffee they are offered to choose a small note with a prediction in it from a large bowl. Leo gets one and reads it - “appreciate yourself”. There probably could not be more advisable note for him.

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