1920s Soviet Union:
Rights for lesbians, transgenders, transsexuals
Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series part 12
By Leslie Feinbergp class="first">According to
historian Dan Healey, "Unlike their male counterparts, Russian
women who had erotic relations with members of their own sex
had less access to the public sphere and so were less able to
construct for themselves a coherent subculture with the
attributes of the male homosexual world. This is not to suggest
that no female homosexual subculture existed in revolutionary
Healey has made a great contribution towards digging up some
of the records of the lives of lesbians, masculine females and
transsexual men in revolutionary Russia during the 1920s. Much
of this research can be found in his book "Sexual Desire in
Revolutionary Russia." (Univer sity of Chicago Press, 2001)
He offers this caveat: "Adequate sources about this love
between lower-class women have yet to emerge, and its character
must be judged through the distortions of a single ubiquitous
In the business of prostitution during the capitalist era,
"same-sex relations could be sheltered and even tolerated,
particularly in licensed brothels, and the freedom (or
opportunity) to express same-sex love in this environment was
evidently sought by some women as prostitutes and as clients."
Brothels, he writes, "constituted a social sphere that
undoubtedly sheltered some same-sex relationships," but "this
harsh environment offered sex workers rather limited prospects
for agency and self-expression."
But the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution both abolished licensed
brothels and took over privately owned hotels and other
businesses. This had an impact on prostitution. "The abolition
of licensed brothels," Healey says, "turned prostitution into a
very unstable and dangerous livelihood for female sex
During the 1920s, "The housing shortage and the decline in
private control over sheltered urban spaces appeared to drive
illicit heterosexual sex into the streets, railway stations and
carriages, restaurants, bathhouses, and taxicabs.
"Russian historians have argued that more urban women and
more declassed women from the former elite supposedly turned to
casual or occasional heterosexual prostitution in the 1920s as
urban unemployment hit them hardest."
The Bolsheviks tried to abolish sexual exploitation, but
they did not prosecute the women. "The revolutionary regime
repeatedly declared that women who sold their bodies were
victims of economic exploitation, not to be criminalized, and
campaigns to discourage them from taking up sex work were
However, ending the economic need that drove people into
prostitution required raising the living standard for all. The
constant imperialist sabotage of the Soviet economy from within
and without, and the devastation that was the legacy of the
world war, made that essential economic task difficult.
Demanded right to same-sex marriage
In both Europe and the U.S. at that time, very rigid social
codes enforced what was deemed appropriate behavior and dress
for males and females. In Soviet Russia, however, "masculine"
females were finding a prominent place in the early
revolutionary society. They included many "out lesbians."
Masculine, cross-dressing females could be found in academic
and cultural institutions as well as in the military--even high
up in the Red Army command.
This acceptance sheds light on the vulgar anti-communist
typecasting of Soviet women as so "mannish" that they might
really be males in drag.
"If there was any sign of a lesbian subculture moving into
the public realm of urban streetscapes, the workplace, or halls
of study," Healey elaborates, "it was in the 'almost masculine'
styles cultivated by some women entering public life. Medical
and lay sources confirm that, at least in towns, the woman
regarded as 'masculine' was a fixture of early Soviet
Healey says: "Their image as energetic and enterprising
participants in the new society's political, economic and
military life earned the so-called 'active' (that is, imitative
of 'masculine' traits) female homosexual admiration from some
In an earlier essay Healey notes, "In a 1929 discussion
about 'transvestites' and the 'intermediate sex' conducted by
the Expert Medi cal Council of the Com mis sariat of Health,
women of the 'masculinized type' (cross-dressing army
commanders, for example) were considered with fascination and
And some of these cross-dressing females demanded the right
to same-sex marriage. ("Russian Queen")
But while there was an "out" social current of masculine
females who were identified with same-sex love, other
female-bodied individuals sought to live as males.
Was the motivation of all these female-bodied individuals to
express their masculinity and/or cross-dress driven solely by
sexuality? In other words, in today's U.S. terms, were they all
"lesbians"? Or would some of them be more accurately identified
as "transgender" or "transsexual"?
Transgender and transsexual lives emerge
The Bolsheviks tried to replace mysticism and idealism with
a scientific approach to all social and economic questions,
including gender expression and sexuality and what in modern
terms would be called "transsexuality."
"Soviet psychiatry of the 1920s took an interest in women
who convincingly occupied a male gender identity," Healey
states, "and in accordance with the evolving sexological
categories of European science, labeled them 'female
homosexuals' or occasionally, 'transvestites.'"
Healey adds that "The reasons why some women decided to
acquire manhood by changing their identity documents, assuming
male variants of their names, and altering their dress,
manners, and hairstyle, are hard to reconstruct."
One of the most famous of these individuals was the soldier
Evgenii Federovich, born Evgeniia. While posted with a
regiment, Federovich married a woman postal employee in a
provincial town in 1922. When Federovich's birth sex was
discovered, local authorities charged the marriage was a "crime
against nature." But the Commissariat of Justice found that the
marriage was "legal, because concluded by mutual consent."
Evgenii Federovich wrote using concepts of the period in
which homosexuality and intermediate sex were intertwined.
Federovich argued for acceptance of "same sex love ... as a
particular variation" of human sexuality and stated with
conviction that once individuals of the "intermediate sex" were
"no longer oppressed and smothered by their own lack of
consciousness and by petty-bourgeois disrespect," their lives
would become "socially worthwhile."
Demand for sex reassignment
As the Bolsheviks tried to examine social questions in a
scientific light, individuals came forward to press social
demands on the scientific community. That included the request
for medical sex reassignment.
A 23-year-old female-bodied respondent to a 1923 sex survey
of students at Sverdlov University in Moscow wrote, "I want to
be a man, I impatiently await scientific discoveries of
castration and grafting of male organs (glands)." The student
expres sed optimism that science would one day be able to
achieve this desired goal.
Healey explains that this request was not exceptional or
However, "The medical techniques of gender reassignment in
Soviet Russia in the 1920s were as rudimentary and broadly
unsuccessful as those then available in the West."
Despite this limitation, individuals began seeking out
"clinical psychiatrists and biologists engaged in the emergent
study of the mechanisms of sex differentiation" to request sex
'Passing' in the countryside?
It's not clear from the following description by Healey
whether he is talking about the pre- or post-revolutionary
epochs, or both. "Outside of Russia's great cities, some
'female homosexuals' turned to more traditional methods of
appropriating the privileges of masculinity, effecting
self-transformations with clothing and ges ture that allowed
them to 'pass' as men."
Healey ascribes sexuality as a primary reason why some would
live as another sex. "Some used their acquired masculinity as a
pathway to sexual relations with other women," he writes.
"These total transformations typified the survival of the
'passing woman' in Russian culture."
Sexuality may, or may not, have been a driving factor for
some individuals, but it doesn't explain the entire phenomenon.
Many of these individuals must certainly have lived without a
sexual partner for fear of being "outed." Therefore, going
"underground" with an identity would not have easily
facilitated finding sexual partners.
And it was no secret in any village or rural area that there
were jobs--and greater anonymity--in the cities.
At the time, of course, homosexuality was inextricably
linked to the "intermediate sex." However, in actuality, a
feminine homosexual female would have found it difficult to
live as a male. Comfort with mas culine gender expression and
body type certainly also played an important role.
It would also be of great interest to know whether these
individuals were "in the closet" or whether some found social
acceptance--unspoken or not--among the peasantry. While
peasants had been chained to the land under medieval conditions
in the tsarist era and force-fed superstition and prejudice as
a class, they were keen observers of variance in nature. And
Healey himself notes that the sexual patterns and practices of
the mass of Russians was marked by pagan survivals. The
pre-class beliefs about the sexes, gender expression and
sexuality still held some sway amongst the peasantry.
Healey found the research of a lexicographer who, gathering
material in the 1830s and 1850s in central Russia, discovered
numerous terms for masculine females, and none of them were
insults. And the researcher found that female-bodied peasants
were defined as "resembling a man in their appearance,
movements, voice, et cetera," "by structure, by body
formation," or because they might "even approach the condition
of a 'hermaphrodite-woman.'"
This fact from Healey's study of the peasantry is very
illuminating: "Rural and lower-class Russians possessed an
array of terms to describe individuals who appeared or behaved
like members of the opposite sex. They associated this gender
marginality with hermaphroditism observed in domesticated
animals, linking social qualities with the familiar phenomenon
of physical sexual indeterminacy."
Next: 1930s--Political reversals
Reprinted from the Aug. 18, 2004, issue of
Workers World newspaper
This article is copyright under a Creative
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