:: Donate now ::

Email this articleEmail this article 

Print this pagePrintable page

Email the editor


1920s Soviet Union:

Rights for lesbians, transgenders, transsexuals

Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series part 12

By Leslie Feinberg

p 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 Russia."

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 occupation, prostitution."

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 workers."

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 launched."

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 society."

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 sexological authorities."

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 indulgence."

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 unusual.

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 reassignment.

'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 Commons License.
Workers World, 55 W. 17 St., NY, NY 10011
Support independent news