“If I ever return [to Russia], I’ll end up in jail or I will be dead”
Queer Couple Story of transman Soldado and his now-husband. In keeping with today’s Transgender Day of Remembrance, also known as TDOR for short, our Couple of Men reporter Sarah had the chance to talk to transman Soldado. Soldado Kowalisidi was born in Siberia, Russia, and had to face discrimination and violence for being LGBT in his home country. Soldado, who had to flee to Ukraine, soon had to run again from the Russian authorities.
In the Netherlands, Soldado has finally found a safe home together with his husband. This article is about his experience being a member of the LGBTQ+ community in Russia and Ukraine, his chosen life as a refugee in the Netherlands, and his activism. We hope you get some interesting insights into what it is like to be LGBTQ+ in a gay-unfriendly country like Russi, what life as a refugee looks like, and about Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Transgender Day of Remembrance
Every year on November 20th, the LGBTQ+ community and its allies are commemorating the victims of transphobic violence, on the Transgender Day of Remembrance (“TDOR” in short). It is also meant to be the day when we should pay special attention to this topic and the disadvantages the trans community worldwide is experiencing every day. Trans people, be it transmen, transwomen, or people transitioning, are a part of the LGBTQ+ Community represented by the ‘T’ in the acronym LGBTQ+. For many queer people, trans representatives of the LGBTQ+ community played an essential role in modern LGBTQ+ history and activism. The international memorial day was initiated by Gwendolyn Ann Smith, a transwoman, and activist from San Francisco, commemorating the death of Rita Hester and other victims of transphobic violence. Trans lives do matter, and that what this day is all about.
Interview with Soldado about his life as a Transman
Soldado, you are a transman from Siberia, Russia. Currently, you are living in the Netherlands with the status of a refugee. What was life like for you back in Russia?
That already feels like a long time ago. I worked as a human rights activist for an NGO. Besides, I organized several other activistic activities that were mostly education-based.
What was the reason that made you become an activist?
Back then I also studied at the University with a focus on human rights and I felt the difference in behavior in how professors treated me compared to other students because I was openly LGBT.
During the first four years, I was seen as a ‚normal‘ person because I didn’t even know that I was LGBT. And my grades were always really good. Then I became openly LGBT when I discovered it myself and suddenly it was almost impossible to finish my studies. From that moment on I almost always had to do my exams with a committee of three people which has never happened before. One year everything was okay and then the next year it was not okay anymore, all of a sudden. And that surprised me. So I started to educate myself about discrimination and this is how I got in touch with other activists and started my work as an activist.
What was the reaction of co-students, friends, family, and society in general?
My fellow students were generally okay with the news and so were my friends. Unfortunately, my family did not react in the same way. It is also important to understand that the situation in Siberia is not comparable to the situation in Moscow or St. Petersburg. In Omsk or Siberia in general it was almost impossible to organize a public event. It was very dangerous for the organization and the attendants. So we never took this responsibility.
But the daily life was also dangerous on a personal level. Especially for me, because I looked different than a Siberian person. It was clear to see that I was in transition. Also on a professional level, things were difficult as the NGO where I used to work was a ‚foreign agent‘ and the Russian authorities kept a very close eye on it. There were always additional checks by the state.
Did you have to face violence?
It has happened five times that I was beaten up. One time even with a police officer standing right next to it. That was also the only time that I tried to get help from the police but that didn’t work out. The attackers always came from a right-winged group and they were ‚on the hunt‘ for gay men and LGBT activists. They had a personal agenda.
Was this the reason why you fleed to Ukraine?
It is a combination of factors and this is also one of them. Furthermore, it was impossible to live at home. My address was well-known and I was attacked twice in front of my house. Even worse, the attackers tried to violently get access to my apartment. In addition to that, I also was followed by the secret service. This is why I decided to leave Russia and moved to Ukraine in 2016.
In Ukraine, they tried to kidnap me
How was your life there?
I stayed in Ukraine for almost two years and life was so much better than in Russia. The people were really friendly and the society was more democratic. Life there was great! I also met my husband there and we got married.
It was not possible for you to stay in Ukraine and you had to flee again. This time to the Netherlands. What was the reason?
Again, this is also a combination of different factors. Most of them came from Russia. In Ukraine, I had the feeling that someone was following me, and my husband felt the same. So there was somebody after us, I was not just paranoid. It even happened once that they tried to kidnap me. This is quite a common thing in Ukraine that Russian refugees get kidnapped and are brought back to Russia. I was really lucky that they did not succeed. But it was not safe for me there, so in 2018 I fleed Ukraine but had to leave my husband behind. A friend of mine, who is also an activist, had left Russia at that time and had moved to the Netherlands and urged me to move here.
Happy Pride! With this international greeting, lesbians, gays, transsexuals, and queer people, as well as their friends and allies, are marching side by side demonstrating various LGBTQ+ Pride parades for equality, acceptance, and equal love. But what does PRIDE for the LGBTQ+ community and stand for?
The Netherlands granted your asylum status, Ukraine didn’t. What do you think is the reason?
I had all my documents and I had proof that I was physically attacked multiple times when I was working as an activist. I also had them in Ukraine but I assume for the local authorities there were too many Russian refugees, especially LGBT. In the Netherlands, it was not a problem at all. I think the problem was mostly that the Ukrainian authorities had too much work and too little manpower to proceed.
What do you think would happen if you ever returned to Russia?
If I ever return, I will end up in jail or I will be dead. Those are the only two options that I can imagine.
Do you miss Russia and your friends and family?
This is a difficult question. Here in the Netherlands, I am trying to build a new life with my husband. And that means that I focus my attention only on the present and the future. I don’t want to look back. Maybe I do miss Russia a bit, but I try to not think about it. Now my husband and I focus on a career in science which I have always dreamed of.
By sharing their stories, we get to understand the daily lives of couples that are running a business together, that are activists for freedom and equality together, that are facing everyday problems together or that simply are what they actually are, two people in love. We want them to be seen – by sharing their stories.
It is too dangerous to be a trans activist
What are the changes that you would like to see in Russia to make life safer for LGBT?
This is a very difficult question because changes are needed on so many different levels. There need to be equal rights but also the reception of LGBT people among society needs to change because they are very often still seen negatively. I think that unfortunately, I have such a negative personal impression of Russia that I do not see much hope within the next ten or fifteen years.
Are you still working as an activist, f.e. online?
No, I am very much done with it because it is simply too dangerous. I already had to understand that in Ukraine. Therefore, I have decided to not get involved with activism again. But of course, there are different kinds of activism. For example, our interview. I am doing this because in the past, in Ukraine, I had to learn that there is almost no information for LGBT about what happens after they fleed their country. What comes next? How do they feel? Was it easy, was it hard? There was no way to find out.
And it is typical thinking that those who decide to stay in Russia or Ukraine to stand up against the system and to fight for LGBT rights are considered heroes. But those who decide to flee are seen as weaklings. Even among activists. Even I used to think this way. But now I have a whole different perspective on what it means to be free, to live freely, and to follow your dreams. And that means so much more than just your safety.
Soldado, thank you very much for your time and I wish you all the best.
Trans lives do matter, and that what this day is all about
At the end of the day, we are all human with different appearances, life stories, gender expression, gender identity, and sexuality. No one should be discriminated against, persecuted, beaten up or, kidnapped.
There are still 72+ countries in the world, where being different – homosexual, transsexual, queer – is a legitimate reason to be punished, even by law. The annual Transgender Day of Remembrance is drawing special attention to the difficulty of the trans community. But we should never forget about, ever.
Wanna know more about our gay travels around the world? Stay tuned on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, and Instagram. See you again soon during an LGBTQ+ pride or during our gay travel somewhere around the world.
Karl & Daan.
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