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Imara Jones: Hey fam, it’s me, Imara Jones. Welcome to the TransLash Podcast, a show where we tell trans stories to save trans lives. Well, it’s been just over a year since the war in Ukraine began. There have been hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides against all odds, the Ukrainians have held on despite tremendous advantages held by the Russian Federation and their military, one of the largest on earth. But one of the ways that we got here is through the growing and creeping authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin.
In fact, the war would not have been possible unless Putin had managed to concentrate power into his hands across two decades in Russia. One of the underreported stories is the way that his assault on trans people, LGBTQ people overall, and an intense focus on gender was a key indicator for both how Putin would grasp power and his ability to hold onto it and, of course, Putin’s authoritarian playbook is also being mimicked by candidates here in the United States, wishing to do the same, of course, departing on their way to authoritarianism by using an assault on trans rights.
So today, we’ll be digging into the issue of Putin’s anti-LGBTQ agenda and its impacts on the Ukraine war and how we got here with a true expert on the issue, award-winning journalist and author, Masha Gessen.
Masha Gessen: I think that for autocrats such as Putin and Orban and the current ruling party in Poland, the topic of LGBT rates and just the existence of LGBT people is super handy because it holds everything at once.
Imara: And just a warning, Masha lives on a very busy street in New York City, which you may be able to hear in parts of the interview, but the interview is gold. So hang in there past all of the various sirens and noises. But before we get to that conversation, let’s start out as always, with some Trans Joy.
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I’m Imara Jones. Every day the attacks on trans kids grow louder and more anti-trans bills keep moving through state legislatures in this season of the anti-trans hate machine, we’re going to illuminate how the right wing has fueled these bills by generating a breathtaking and wide-ranging disinformation campaign.
Man: It’s spreading like wildfire on the internet. It’s then being discussed by families and churches.
Imara: None of this is an accident. It’s a strategy to delegitimize trans people and create a world where our existence is a question. Subscribe to Season 2, The Anti-Trans Hate Machine, a plot against equality wherever you listen to podcasts.
Imara: Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian LGBTQ community has been steadily growing in visibility and political force. But the Russian invasion has presented a new set of challenges, including access to gender-affirming care and housing documentation for traveling abroad and discrimination within the military. That’s why we wanted to highlight a Ukrainian group working to support trans people there before and during the war. Inside Ukraine is a key-based human rights organization that provides legal, medical, and psychological support to trans individuals in addition to public education programs. We spoke to their trans program coordinator, Inna Iryskina about their work.
Inna Iryskina: Ukrainian, uh, trans uh, the community is, uh, quite, uh, closed.
Woman: The Ukrainian trans community is quite closed. Many people prefer not to reveal their identity, but on the other hand, during the last years, the community has become more active and is consolidated around organizations like Insight.
Inna: Organized, uh, trans.
Woman: We’ve organized trans marches for several years in Kyiv, and I’ve worked with the Ministry of Health to improve things around gender transition procedures. I can say that trans activism here is on the rise, and I can say that after the war, the trend will only continue. Our movement will only become stronger and stronger. I always believe that sooner or later we will win this war because this is a war for our freedom. And this is a kind of war between the future and the past.
Inna: Ukraine here is on the side of, uh, future and, uh, Russia on the side of, uh, one of us.
Imara: Inna, you and everyone at Insight Ukraine are Trans Joy.
Imara: I’m beyond thrilled to have the chance to speak with journalists and the author of 12 books, Masha Gessen, born in Moscow. Masha immigrated to the United States in 2013 with their family. In response to anti-LGBTQ threats in Russia, Masha became a contributing writer at the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and Slate where they’ve written about LGBTQ rights. Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Masha has been an influential voice on the topics of authoritarianism in Russia across news outlets and several PBS frontline documentaries.
Their books include The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, and The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. You may have read their article, Autocracy: Rules for Survival in the New York Review after the election of Donald Trump, it became a must-read. Masha’s many distinctions include receiving the Guggenheim, Andrew Carnegie, and Neiman Fellowships, as well as the Hitchens Prize.
They currently serve as a staff writer at the New Yorker and teach at Amherst College. Marsha, thank you so much for joining me. You come from, you know, a long line of journalists and one of the things about journalists is that [deep sighs] we often have a sixth sense of when things are starting to percolate that we need to pay attention to, even if the [sighs] firm line of evidence hasn’t started.
[sighs] And so I’m wondering for you personally, when did you first have a sense, one that Putin may not just have been a run-of-the-mill leader of Russia succeeding Boris Yeltsin, you know, trying to clean up what he saw as the failures of that administration and move more into a dictatorial authoritarian bent. [sighs] And secondly, when did you have that same sense about his focus on LGBTQ people as a mode to enter into a more repressive stance?
Masha: In one case, [chuckles] in response to one of those questions, [sigh] I can actually take credit for yes, seeing things early on, and in the other, it’s the opposite. I-I really feel like I missed the importance of the anti-LGBT campaign. I was super concerned about Putin from the beginning, from the literal beginning, from the time that Yeltsin sort of anointed him, his successor in 1999, and then made him acting president by resigning on New Year’s Eve 2000.
And I wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times in January 2000, sort of arguing that this was incredibly dangerous. That this was a guy who just in the first days of being acting president, showed us that he was going to create a re militarized aggressive Russia. I did not imagine that he would wage war in Ukraine 22 years later. But it was very clear that his politics were driven by full-throated nostalgia for the Soviet Union, which involved both the, you know, kind of social nostalgia but also nostalgia for an actual totalitarian state.
He wanted to rebuild it and he wanted to reclaim Russia’s power in the world, you know, talk of banning what they were calling homosexual propaganda began around 2010 and 20 11. And I thought it was silly. I thought it was kind of quaint and I thought they were quoting, you know, Anita Bryant and ha, ha, ha, and then some three, four years later, I had to flee the country because they were going to come for my family. So I really, I really missed that second part. So, um, you know, journalists are sometimes good and sometimes not so good, and maybe it’s directly related to how personal it is.
Imara: Yeah. Perspective. [deep sighs] When you had to flee the country as a part of kind of this growing crackdown, did you have a sense or a belief that it was something that was temporary, that Putin was just kind of landing on this as an issue or would move on to something else? [sigh] Or did you have a sense by having to flee that, no, this represents some sort of tonal shift in the regime overall?
Masha: By that point, it was very clear to me that the country was just going to continue becoming more and more repressive and moving in the direction of totalitarianism and aggression, military aggression. I couldn’t predict how fast it was going to happen. And that’s related to whether I thought it was temporary because all of this is going to continue happening as long as Putin is alive and in power.
And you know, there was no telling whether he was going to live for another decade after I left, which is what’s happened so far, and live long enough to see the country to full-fledge the totalitarianism and all-out war, which is what’s happened. But I knew, and, and, and again I wrote about it at the time, I knew this was the direction that the country was headed in.
Imara: All of this was happening at a time where not only were these laws passed that you mentioned, but Putin began as you’ve written about extensively then and since focusing on most emblematically riot, but in general, just this idea of gender focusing on a group that was speaking out against him, group of all women, [sigh] that in many ways kind of this confluence of gender issues and LGBTQ issues.
[sighs] And [chuckles] I’m wondering if you believe that this is something, or you know, from your reporting, is this something that the regime was road testing as a way to see how it could through this mixture of laws and extralegal actions, kind of the weaponization of unknown masked figures as well as the official police to begin to crack down on groups? [deep sighs] Was it that and or is it something that’s just a deeply held value by Putin himself that is a, was this just a vector into a more repressive type of politics?
Masha: That’s a very smart question, but it’s also an unanswerable question because I think that the distinctions between sort of rhetoric that are instrumentalized and rhetoric that’s inherent in a regime, I think that distinction is, is less clear than we would like to think. And in fact, I think it’s very dynamic. Things that are road tested and proven to get traction to become integral to the regime. They’re only instrumental the first couple of times they’re used and then they become a part of the core ideology.
You know, we imagine that ideology is something coherent that that sort of, they start out with a philosophy and a roadmap [sighs] and try to put it into effect, but that’s not how ideology actually works. Ideology is usually, especially to Tarian ideology a hodgepodge that was tried out and turned out to be effective. When Putin was confronted with mass protests in 2011 and 2012, he got genuinely scared.
It was the biggest challenge there had been to his power. It wasn’t a huge challenge, but it was the biggest challenge there had been. And he tried all sorts of things to discredit the protestors and to mobilize the public and queer-baiting the protestors seem to get traction. Now, there are reasons that got traction and those reasons predate the sort of road testing, which is where it gets complicated.
I think that for autocrats such as Putin and Orban and the current ruling party in Poland, the topic of LGBT rates and just the existence of LGBT people is super handy because it, it holds everything at once. It holds this idea of a fear of the future, a fear of the future in the present, right? A fear of a society that, that contains multitudes and it holds the promise of a return to a more comfortable past.
So, it basically says, you know, do you wanna go back to a time when these people didn’t exist? [sighs] I often say, you know, there were no gay and lesbian people in the Soviet Union and people laugh, but the fact is that’s true. There were certainly in the Soviet Union, people who had pe-, uh, sex with people of the same gender. There were people who were gender nonconforming in their own self-invented ways. There were people in all kinds of configurations of relationships, but there were no people who claimed identity and claimed to belong to a group and claimed to have rights that accrued to them because they belonged to a group.
So, saying that there were no LGBT people in the Soviet Union is actually accurate and it’s accurate when Putin says it or when Orban says it or when Kaczynski says it and they say, “You know, you wanna go back to a time when you felt comfortable when you didn’t have to contend with people whom you didn’t understand when you didn’t have to fear being estranged from your children who are completely different from you.” I can take you back to that time.
Imara: A lot of what you’re describing of Putin is kind of around and at the beginning of the third term, which was if memory serves technically legal because you couldn’t serve consecutive terms, and then there was the Medvedev [sighs] presidency and then Putin runs again.
And that’s when as you mentioned, the protest and the pushback and then Putin finding ways to begin to undermine that, [sighs] in this consequential third term. Not only do we have all of the things that we’ve been talking about and the impact on you personally, but it’s also the time that we have sort of the first invasion, of course, of Ukraine and Crimea.
I’m wondering if you have been able to understand the connection between those from the perspective of Putin if any. Um, if there’s not any, just say there’s not any and we can move on, but I’m just [deep sighs] wondering, as you know, these are all clustered within a basically three-year period. So [sighs] is there a connection between the things that we’re talking about in this first invasion of Ukraine?
Masha: Yes. I’m trying to talk out two sides of my mouth because, on the one hand, it’s insane, right? And then the way they’re connected is that Ukraine was moving in the direction of the European Union and was hoping to join the European Union, and generally, the people of Ukraine had spoken out to say that what awaited Ukraine and Ukrainians on the other side of this integration into Europe was the sort of the homo, homo reposition of the population.
And criminal propaganda does spread all kinds of myths about children being taken out of normal heterosexual families and being forcibly adopted into LGBT families where children are forced to transition at the beginning of what is now known as the Revolution of Dignity, which was the mass protests in Ukraine in 2013 and 2014, which culminated, uh, with the downfall of the then President Viktor Yanukovych his escape to Russia and began this new chapter in Ukrainian history.
At the beginning of those protests, the head of the parliamentary committee on foreign relations said, “We have to understand that if Ukraine goes European.” That will mean the dominance of gay culture, which is the official policy of the European Union.
Imara: Fast forward to where we are now, the first invasion, then turning into the largest land battles in Europe in 70 years since World War II, and even in the midst of this intense battle right now that has global reach and implications through sanctions and shifting alliances, Putin keeps coming back to this theme in his speeches of being anti-LGBTQ and increasingly anti-trans, I mean in some of the biggest speeches that he’s given in the midst of the war, rallying Russia.
This is a central theme and I’m wondering why you think he believes this has currency in rallying the country. That is to say, why is he still using this? Does this seem to be lower on the list of things to be obsessed about right now?
Masha: Well, again, this, this is where we get to the yes, it’s absurd and yet it’s clearly central. It’s a central obsession. He wants to live in a world in which none of this existed, in which we didn’t have words for people like us.
Imara: Right. And as a matter of fact, it is, it’s the raison d’etre for his regime in a way ideologically he thinks that it represents something that is pure than what we have now. It seems one of the things that’s interesting is the way in which this idea of a traditional values civilization kind of grounded in anti-LGBTQ anti-feminist rhetoric and vision appeals to many, many people in the United States.
And we see often Putin’s rhetoric and portions of his speeches disseminated across the Christian nationalist movement in real-time. There’s this gravitational affinity between these two ideologies. [sighs] And so with that, I am wondering what you see given your experience in Russia and given what you’re seeing right now, what worries you about this affinity and what is happening now here legally in certain states signals about dangers ahead or potential dangers ahead for the United States where you now live?
Masha: That’s a really insightful way to, to ask that question, right? Because I think affinity is, is a great term to use to describe what we’re observing. Back in 2016, I went to the World Congress of Families, which it’s this, it’s this big international gathering of super conservative groups from, from all over the world, from, from Russia, from Australia, New Zealand, uh, you know, and everything in between.
And part of the reason that I went was because I’d heard vastly sort of different theories of the existence of this whole Congress of families. Uh, one theory was that the Christian right rate that had lost its audience and its political influence in the United States was exporting it and in particular exporting it to Russia and Eastern Europe. And the other theory that I was hearing from my Russian friends was that Russian billionaires were bankrolling the sort of emerging worldwide Christian right.
Rather naively. I thought that I would go and, and figure out which of these narratives was true. And what I actually saw was a genuine meaning of the minds people who, who came from the United States, people who came from Russia, people, uh, you know, billionaires were there, [sniffs] Christian Evangelicals were there. This whole cast of characters was there. But it wasn’t about exporting, it wasn’t a genuine exchange of ideas, a genuine sense of a common sort of fate and common sense of victimhood, which of course is something that’s, that’s, that’s always very important to this kind of politics.
And all of that was there and all of it was genuinely connecting people. And that’s a better explanation, right? And the word you used, affinity is a better explanation for how these ideas travel between these two very different countries and, you know, very different in many ways because there are in fact people who think alike. And you know, when that happens on the opposite side of the political spectrum, we think it’s beautiful. [sighs] I think that the pool of past-oriented politics in this country is incredibly strong.
And that’s exactly why, you know, during the Trump presidency, even though there was little indication that Trump had any politics at all, and certainly, little indication when he was running for office, that that he had homophobic politics. I mean, he was the first Republican candidate ever to drape himself in a rainbow flag. And yet as soon as he came into office, he started instituting anti-trans policies.
And I think the reason for that is because, uh, you know, in addition to all the things that I’ve said about how, how this, the sort of the political queer baiting packs, so many convenient messages at once, the final message that it packs is I’m going to signal that I mean business by reversing the most recent and fastest social change that you have experienced. I’m going to show you that I’m actually taking you back to the imaginary past.
Imara: I find that people who have directly experienced authoritarian or dictatorial regimes have a different sensibility than those who haven’t. I-I just look at, for instance, the way that Brazil and Lula who personally experienced what it was like to live under a military dictatorship, responded to the insurrection surrounding his inauguration [sighs] versus Joe Biden and America. It’s a difference in experience.
[sighs] You, of course, have had direct experience and with that direct experience and all of the knowledge that you’ve gathered about what’s happened in Russia and what’s happened in the United States [deep sighs] as we enter into a presidential season in which we have a political party where every major candidate either declared or likely has this anti-LGBTQ lens as a pillar of their ideology and perspective.
[deep sighs] I’m just wondering what are the things that you think people should be very aware of between the link in that rhetoric and a desire for authoritarianism? Like what does it tell us [sigh] and what from your own experience would you counsel people to be focused on?
Masha: You know, I think the difference that you point to is the difference in imagination. And I-I think of it as the, as having a catastrophic imagination. I know things can get very bad, very fast. Your life can change profoundly in a very short amount of time. I know, you know, I-I-I’m just back from a trip to Ukraine, [chuckles] in a city where, you know, you, you, um, I was in Kharkiv.
You walk out the door or you, or you or you drive around the city and there isn’t a single block that hasn’t been damaged by the war. It’s not a city that’s been destroyed. People are living there and people are living what, what has the appearance of, of normal 21st-century lives, but vibrant culture and, [sighs] and the internet and whatnot. And yet it’s a life that’s been catastrophically transformed in a very short amount of time. So I know it’s possible because I’ve seen it.
And so I wouldn’t say pay attention to any one thing in particular, just pay attention to what they’re saying. Just because it feels like it can’t happen doesn’t mean it can’t happen. And I still think that’s the most important thing I can say. Believe what they’re saying, it’s not bravado, it’s not hosting, it’s not dreaming. It’s exactly what they’re going to try to do if they come to power.
Imara: Well, I wanna thank you for taking the time to join us today in the midst of so many crosscurrents that are happening. I’m a tremendous admirer of you and your work and have been for a very long time.
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Imara: Our entire audience will benefit from the insights and the warnings and the personal experience that you’ve shared with us today as we try to navigate some of these forces here in the United States. And again, my deep gratitude for your taking the time today. Thank you so much.
Masha: Thank you Imara. Thank you for having me. And thank you for those excellent questions.
Imara: That was journalist, an award-winning author, Marsha Gessen.
Imara: Thank you for joining me on the TransLash Podcast. Now, listen all the way through to the end of this show for something extra. Special thanks to Aruz UC 427 for giving us a 5-star review on Apple Podcast. Aruz says, “The podcast is amazing. Imara is so damn smart and fun.” I’ll take it. “She takes the pretentiousness out of political rhetoric while remaining true to the trans and communities. Do yourself a favor and listen.” Well, I totally agree. Aruz, thank you so much for your kind words and if y’all want to help support the show and if you want to help support the show, go ahead and leave your own 5-star review on Apple Podcast.
It’s gotta be 5 stars you might just hear us read it on the show and you’ll help combat all of the trolls that are trying to bring us down with 1-star ratings of the show that they’ve never even listened to. The TransLash podcast is produced by TransLash media. The TransLash team includes Oliver-Ash Kleine and Aubrey Calaway. Xander Adams is a contributing producer to the show. And our sound engineer digital strategy is handled by Daniela Capistrano. The music you heard was composed by Ben Draghi and also courtesy of ZZK records. The TransLash podcast is made possible by the support of foundations and listeners like you.
Imara: Well, this week I’m really looking forward to, as you all heard in the mid-roll [sighs] just more and more prep and conversation around the upcoming launch of Season 2 of The Anti-Trans Hate Machine. [sighs] We’ve been working on this for over a year and a half. It’s an incredibly intense series this season [sighs] because we’re really just charting the cultural conversation, like how do we even arrive at this conversation about trans people and trans kids? [sighs] And when we looked into it, it became clear that it’s not an accident.
But even more shocking is the way that the disinformation campaign surrounding us is actually being spread by an incredibly powerful Christian nationalist media and then infiltrating mainstream sources beyond that. So it’s so intense that we’ve divided it up into two parts, [laugh]. So Season 2-Part 1 comes out on March 31, [sighs] Part 2 comes out, um, in early June. So listen to that.
But either way, just make sure that you go [sighs] and sign up for the new season because if you want all three episodes at once, you gotta go sign up for Anti-Trans Hate Machine, which is a separate podcast from this one. So make sure that you go do that. But [sighs] we’re really excited and like you kind of on the edge of our seats.
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