Society

Katya, Zhenya and their tamed demons

When Katya's mother found out that her daughter had fallen in love with a transgender person, she said: "Both of you have dangerous demons inside and you will go to hell." And then, crying, she locked Katya at home and took away all her personal belongings, including her keys, documents, money and a SIM card. At the age of 18, Katya fled from Volgograd to Moscow and immediately moved in with Zhenya. She was against his transition and identified herself as a lesbian, but over time everything changed. They got married. AIDS.CENTER tells the story of Katya and Zhenya.

Through Katya's eyes

Alena Agadzhikova

Katya and Zhenya

Alena Agadzhikova

Katya and Zhenya

Alena Agadzhikova

Katya

Alena Agadzhikova

Katya and Zhenya

Alena Agadzhikova

Katya and Zhenya

"It means there is no God"

When Zhenya and I met, I was 17 and studying at the Eurasian Theological Seminary in Moscow. It was chosen for me by my deeply religious protestant mother: she didn't want me to go somewhere else and start talking to the "wrong" people. During classes we read the Bible and holy scriptures, I wrote an assignment on the figure of God in Tarkovsky's films, for example. And during the secular part we studied management, networking, and all kinds of business. The seminary provided cheap dormitory, and the courses themselves cost just five thousand rubles.

I like to joke that my brother and I are fifth-generation "pure-bred believers". My very first religious ancestors were Molokans, then came the protestants, but when it came down to us, I ruined everything. I stopped believing in God at the age of 11, when I first fell in love with a very beautiful girl. My parents have always acted quite liberally, they didn't love the government and all that, but when it came to minorities, it started: "a family must be a family," "don't touch the ties that bind." And at the age of 11, at the time of that very first love, a paradox arose inside of me: if God creates everyone as they should be, and girls are not supposed to love girls, but God created me exactly like this, then something has gone wrong. I came to the conclusion that this means there is no God! Many people talk about a long road to accepting themselves, but this was never the case for me. This is very strange because I found out about same-sex couples and lesbians at the age of 14. And it was more like I related to myself as a boy in a girl's body. Which now seems very ironic.

Zhenya

At the age of 17, I still identified as a lesbian, and Zhenya had a "female" profile on Tinder. He looked like a tomboy but still within my interest zone. I liked his profile – his photos were cool and he was studying at VGIK, where I wanted to go. But the funniest thing is that he liked my profile by chance. And he only admitted it a few months ago.

"If God creates everyone as they should be, and girls are not supposed to love girls, but God created me exactly like this, then something has gone wrong. It means there is no God!"

On our first date, Zhenya said that he identifies as a guy and he was going to change his sex. I couldn't imagine myself with a man, which is why I told him in that case we would be together until he began his transition and then we would say goodbye. I began using the right pronouns but I didn't take it seriously and I shelved the topic of switching genders to the very back of my subconscious. We started dating and fell in love. In a telephone conversation, I told my mother about Zhenya as my new girlfriend, but she found his VK profile, saw that he looked like a guy and went into hysterics, crying. She began screaming that the people I communicate with are perverting me. She tried to pry out of me whether we were dating. I denied it. In the end she asked me to come to Volgograd for two weeks on the condition that then I would continue studying in Moscow. You need to understand that I was never an emancipated teenager, I wasn't a teenage rebel, and if my mother was telling me "come," it meant that I had to go. I went.

Alyona Agadzhikova

"If necessary we will break your legs"

When I got home they started asking me what kind of people I was surrounded by, what I spent my time doing there. "There are demons inside Zhenya!" they said, "And there'll be demons inside you too!" The longer I lived with my mother and older (just as devout) brother, the more of these questions there were. At one point, I admitted that I liked girls (at that time I talked about Zhenya as a lesbian girl), in response to which mother started crying. Then we hugged and sort of made up. Zhenya and I were in contact the whole time.

After a month's stay in Volgograd, I got the false feeling that everything had been forgotten. If a conflict hadn't been resolved but some time had passed, my family would always act as if nothing had happened. I decided to tell my mother that Zhenya was planning to come to Volgograd, and then the worst began. My mother said that if necessary, they would break my legs so that I would sit at home. I doubt she really could, but it was easy to scare me. They took away my money, documents, keys, laptop, they tried to take away my phone, but I held onto it with my hands and legs, curled up like an embryo, and they physically couldn't get to it. My local SIM card was immediately blocked, it legally belonged to my mother, but no one knew that I had brought my own SIM card from Moscow, issued with my passport details. Only because of that SIM card, my communication with Zhenya wasn't interrupted.

"They took away my money, documents, keys, laptop, they tried to take away my phone but I held onto it with my hands and legs, and they physically couldn't get to it."

First they started giving me the keys so that I could go to the shop for food and groceries. The laptop, documents, larger sums of money and personal belongings were not returned to me. My brother and mother didn't let me go to job interviews, although I very much wanted to save money to go back to Moscow. My mother said: "I will give you work myself." She had a book store. All of this was explained with the phrase "for your own good," they said particularly dangerous demons had entered my body and I had to eject them. When I suggested going to a psychotherapist together to talk about it, she flat out refused. She still doesn't believe in psychiatry.

Zhenya and I agreed that as soon as I turned 18 in March, I would grab all the personal belongings I could and get out. What would happen next we would decide then. But then we realised that leaving right after my birthday would be too revealing: my brother and mother would be more likely to wait for that moment. That's why I had to lay low till May (by that point they had given me back my keys). I had saved up some money by drawing custom-made porn illustrations and found all the money left from my birthday. One early morning, while everyone was asleep, I left home. To say goodbye I left a note, most of which was not true: "I am leaving because I can no longer live with you, but I love you and want to keep in touch with you." I didn't want to keep in touch with anyone, but it was Zhenya who convinced me to write those lines. He is still the main initiator of our communication with my relatives, he feels sorry for them. I went straight to his place from the train station, and we started living together.

Alyona Agadzhikova

Zhenya's gender transition

With my return the issue of his gender transition came up again. I perceived Zhenya as a man, but his body was still female, and I couldn't imagine at all how I could love a man's body, with a beard and everything else. Inside I was very much against him taking hormones. It got to the point where I almost gave Zhenya an ultimatum: "me or your body." From my current point of view, I can see that to say that then... Well, you need to be a total b**ch to behave like that. I knew just how much Zhenya loved me, but I was still saying these things hoping that he would decide to stay in his former body. With time, step by step, I started realising that I was more scared of the unknown than of a man's body. Against the background of leaving home and the whole situation with Volgograd, I just wanted stability. I wasn't afraid that Zhenya would remove his breasts, for example. I saw how much discomfort they were causing him, that he was constantly wearing sculpting clothes and removing them only at home. I just didn't know how it all happens and started digging deeper into information about it. When Zhenya started to take hormones, I was ready for the metamorphoses. But they didn't take place all at once. Gradually and smoothly, the first moustache hairs, the first beard hairs appeared.

"Inside I was very much against him taking hormones. I almost gave Zhenya an ultimatum: "me or your body."

But what became an incredible experience for me was his changing voice. He was recording it every week for a project, and recently I listened to all those recordings. It was incredible. I listened to the earliest ones and he was a completely different person! Because in my mind it's like Zhenya has always had the voice that he has now.

When Zhenya's breasts were removed and he had surgery to masculinize his chest, I didn't feel sorry at all about "losing the breasts". After all, I have my own and I can touch them at any moment. And I was sincerely happy for Zhenya. Although I was very sorry for him, after the operation he walked around like a shivering little sparrow. There were holes and drains everywhere, liquid was constantly being pumped out of him. For the first couple of months he was prohibited to raise his arms, so I tried to take care of him and fluttered around.

"Everything was clear: "Katya, 19 years old, lesbian". And now it was "Katya, 19 years old, blank"."

After Zhenya's transition I started thinking a lot about what my sexual orientation was. I like women's bodies, and I seem to like men's bodies too, but at the same time I was not sure if I liked penises, how I felt about cis-men. In short, I was jumping from label to label and came to the conclusion that it was pointless to try and clarify my sexual orientation – I go to bed with any consenting person that I find attractive. I felt a bit offended by this realization, of course, in the past I had had a clear sense of identity and a community related to it. Everything was clear: "Katya, 19 years old, lesbian". And now it was "Katya, 19 years old, blank".

Alyona Agadzhikova

Making up with my mother

At a certain point I stopped communicating with my mother and brother completely. They wrote some rude things to me which I posted on my social media page. And someone with a fake account (who turned out to be my brother) wrote that I was an ungrateful creature who lived "with a half-boy and half-girl." So as not to further traumatize myself, I blocked them all, and then the "you'll burn in hell" was replaced by "Zhenya, how is Katya?" Out of despair, my mother started writing to Zhenya, and little by little he began communicating with them. I think that they fell in love with him when my grandmother wrote "We are praying for you." And he replied: "Thank you for your prayers!" After that the relationship made a 180 degree turn.

A month ago, I decided that Zhenya and I would go to Volgograd together and clear the air with my mother once and for all. If my relatives were accepting, we would continue communication with them, but if they started blurting out rubbish again, I would be able to close the door on it and let them go. But it turned out that my grandmother and my mother had changed. As a big present for us my mother rented a luxury apartment in the city centre and was friendly towards Zhenya. Although, when we were alone together, she still said that she "didn't accept our same-sex marriage." I harshly replied that our marriage wasn't same-sex, and if I heard her say that one more time, that would be it. She nodded and fell silent.

Through Zhenya's eyes

Alena Agadzhikova

Zhenya

Alena Agadzhikova

Zhenya and Katya

Alena Agadzhikova

Zhenya and Katya

Alena Agadzhikova

Zhenya

Alena Agadzhikova

Zhenya and Katya

"Before death"

When Katya and I met, I had a female profile on Tinder and I talked about myself as a woman. Now I understand that that was wrong, it misled others and caused discomfort to myself. But at that time I was doing it on purpose. I was haunted by a feeling that before starting the medical transition I had no right to talk about myself in a gender I wanted to be or introduce myself as a man. It seemed like there was a "true transition", but I still hadn't reached it. In fact, everyone has their own transition, of course, and their own attitude towards it.

Katya and I first saw each other when I had just left the mental hospital where I was in rehab. I was in a suicidal state, I had difficulty speaking due to a large number of drugs, and I decided to meet her just for fun, right before death, you could say. At that time I had no hope for the meeting or for life. I knew she was enrolled in theological courses, and when I saw her I immediately thought that she was a modest seminary girl. Katya came wearing a turtleneck and I thought "that's it, the image is complete." But it turned out differently. Katya joked a lot and was funny, she was easygoing and so calm. On the date I laughed and felt relaxed for the first time in several months.

When we had been dating for just three weeks, Katya's mother told her to come to Volgograd. There was an official reason, she was supposed to apply for her courses and come back in a month. I knew about Katya's mother's attitude towards me and I even remember asking, "are you sure they're not going to lock you up?" Katya replied: "My mother has never and will never do that, she thinks everyone should be able to make their own choice." And generally her mother really is like that, but it seems that this situation was her limit. There was also Katya's older brother, who only fuelled the situation.

"My mother has never and will never do that, she thinks everyone should be able to make their own choice."

That time was terrible. When I decided to go to Volgograd, all of Katya's things, including her telephone, had been taken away from her, and on the first day I just couldn't get in contact with her. I was hysterical. I went to a friend's place, lay on the floor and cried. I didn't know what had happened to her and when I would hear from her. But Katya got in touch with me the following day, she had managed to keep her phone and use a Moscow SIM card. For a very long time before her return to Moscow we were communicating in secret. And in April, a month before her arrival, I bought an engagement ring.

Everything her family did was really ******, but however strange it sounds, they really thought their actions were for the best. In their mind, if Katya had continued living they way she was living, she would go to hell. And they couldn't perceive anything else. That's why I tried to push Katya not to exclude them from her life completely. Especially since I saw that she needed her mother, and her mother needed her. And generally I tend to forgive parents and I think that parent-child relationships are the most complicated of all.

Alyona Agadzhikova

Childhood

When I was little, my parents, just like Katya's, were also members of a protestant church. Although our church was more totalitarian and tough, and, in addition to that, my father was a pastor. My mother regularly beat me up and never displayed love. When I was a teenager, she suddenly started to change dramatically. She left the church, divorced my father and became severely depressed. My mum started saying that for 12 years she had been living someone else's life, not her own. At the age of 14, her mother abandoned her. At the age of 17, she fled to Moscow from the war in Abkhazia. What do you do, when you are 17 years old with no home, almost no possessions, as a refugee? And churches like the one my mother found herself in are very effective at luring people in. They don't immediately start telling you about God. You go there and just start feeling like the most needed and loved person in the world. Everyone is kind, everyone is smiling.

After the changes my mother started to get in touch with me. But I said, "actually, a couple of years ago you were making my life miserable." First she denied it, and that was offensive, but then she started remembering everything, admitting things, and at one point she said she was a terrible mother. I forgave her because she admitted that the abuse happened and apologized for it. I believe that a person should always have a chance to be forgiven.

Self identification

I remember myself from the age of 5 or 6. Even then I felt like a boy, not a girl. Actually, "feeling like a boy" is a tricky expression, I can't fully explain what it means. But I identified with male faces, images, and characters. It was normal for me, I didn't know it could be any other way. In elementary and middle school I felt a great sense of repulsion to the female gender. On principle I didn't only not make friends with girls, I wouldn't even talk to them. I rejected everything that could seem stereotypically feminine. I angrily conducted ritual burnings of dolls and buried them in the ground. When asked why I did it, I replied "I hate girls." Now I understand that I hated my assigned female gender. But in my childhood it was expressed through aggression.

"I angrily conducted ritual burnings of dolls and buried them in the ground. When asked why I did it, I replied "I hate girls.""

Before adolescence, I had no physical dysphoria. In its mild form it began during puberty, when I realized that the difference between the sexes is not just between the legs. Girls' breasts begin to grow, everyone's voices change depending on their gender, height changes. I would close my eyes, and the image I had of my body differed a bit from what it really looked like. But still it wasn't strong enough for serious dysphoria. I went through a period of hyper-femininity, when I wore dresses, skirts and make-up in order to look like a "real woman", but I felt ridiculous and awkward. Then came a period when it was very important for me that others would perceive me as a guy. I had short hair, I wore trousers and bands around my chest so that I wouldn't get misgendered on the street (misgendering is the intentional or unintentional use of pronouns that do not correspond to a person's gender identity) and removed them when I was alone.

"I would close my eyes, and the image I had of my body differed a bit from what it really looked like."

Many transgender people wear bands even at home, some of them cannot look at their body when they're taking a shower. I didn't behave like that. I had perfect breasts, and if I was all alone on this planet, I would accept them as normal male breasts. But I knew that in the real world people would not perceive them that way. And I simply wanted to wear just swimming trunks on the beach.

At the same time, until I was 18 I knew almost nothing about transgender people. For me, a gender transition was something about Thai prostitutes in films. I constantly felt like there was something wrong with me, but never reflected on it seriously and didn't even google it. Then three years ago I met my now best friend Yulia, who has many transgender friends. I remember going to a party, seeing all those people, they explained the transition to me and I was shocked; "So you could do that?!" Then I started making a documentary about a support group for transgender people and began learning more about them and myself.

Alyona Agadzhikova

Coming out, a psychologist and a commission

"Crawling" towards transition was long and slow. At first I thought I was a gender non-conforming girl. Then that I was somewhere in between, later that I was non-binary but still a guy. Then I realized that I felt normal like that, why would I need operations and hormones. Then I wanted to remove my breasts because they got in the way, but I was still against hormones.

During my second year at the institute I suddenly decided that I wanted hormones as well. I imagined myself after a year of HRT (hormone replacement therapy) and thought about what I wanted. My mother was sitting next to me and I said to her, "'Mom, I've decided that I'm going to take hormones." She had heard so many of my coming outs by that time that she reacted normally. As a child I would tell her that I was a boy, at school I would tell her that I liked both girls and boys, then just girls, then that I was non-binary and in the end that I was a man. In short, when it came to hormones, she didn't even react.

"'Mom, I've decided that I'm going to take hormones." She had heard so many of my coming outs by that time that she reacted normally"

I called the Research Center for Personalized Psychiatry, where doctors are licensed to issue f64 certificates (a diagnosis of "Gender Identification Disorder" according to ICD 10). This certificate allows you to take hormones in the future, have plastic surgeries and change your sex in documents. Before signing up for a commission you must go to a psychologist for an initial consultation. I signed up and felt incredibly inspired, it was my very first step on the way to an important thing. At the session I was given a list of tests that I had to do. Among the most complex and expensive there was a complete analysis of chromosomes and a test related to genes. The commission is necessary in order to understand if there are any psychiatric or other contraindications to the transition: schizophrenia, Down syndrome, autism. Doctors think that such factors can influence decision making, and some of them are accompanied by gender dysphoria. But this is a controversial issue which causes a lot of indignation within the transgender community. Because you might have both schizophrenia and a mismatch between your assigned and real sex.

I had a lot of fears going to the commission. For example, among the contraindications to the transition was "homosexual behaviour". But I didn't understand what it meant. That's if I like girls or boys? Homosexual behaviour is meant in terms of which gender, assigned or real? And if I like both girls and boys, then what? But everything turned out fine. At the research centre I was given a long questionnaire consisting of questions like "as a child, did you play with dolls or cars?" I answered them all in good faith, although I understood that it was a stupid formality. They quickly looked through the questionnaire, my tests, told me that there was a peculiarity with my genes, talked to me a bit and gave me permission to take hormones.

Alyona Agadzhikova

Hormones and operations

The following day I went to an endocrinologist. There are private specialists in Moscow who specialise in helping trans people, but they are very expensive and you need to sign up well in advance. At the local hospital, I went to a sweet, young endocrinologist, who regardless had no idea who transgender people are. She asked what to prescribe to me and in what doses. If you're a transgender in Russia, you're your own endocrinologist. She wrote out a prescription for me, I ran to the pharmacy, but the prescription had been filled out incorrectly. It turned out that the hormones are among the most stringent drugs in terms of issue, and you need a special type of prescription for them that ordinary endocrinologists simply don't have. The chief doctor issues them with his signature, and the prescription itself is valid for only one ampoule (and you need to have an injection every two weeks). On the third try I managed to get the right prescription from the chief doctor, and I bought everything. That same day I gave myself the first injection. That was the happiest moment of my life.

There are no strict rules as to when breast removal surgery can be performed, but it is recommended that you first take hormones so that the fat from the chest is redistributed across the body so it's easier for the surgeon to perform the operation. In Russia there are not many surgeons performing operations on transgender men. There is, for example, mastectomy, the removal of female breasts, which is often performed in the case of oncology. And there is masculinization mammoplasty, but that is completely different. It requires two operations at a time: first, the mammary gland is removed, and then the male form of the breast is made out of your muscle tissue, the muscles are sawn in a different way and the nipples are changed.

"On the third try I managed to get the right prescription from the chief doctor, and I bought everything. That same day I gave myself the first injection. That was the happiest moment of my life."

I was operated on by Doctor Startseva at the Family clinic. Our conversation was short:

"Do you have permission from the commission?"

"I do."

"Good, which operation do you want, what kind of nipples do you want?"

We discussed everything, she gave me a small book with different nipple options, they could be of any size. I chose, took preoperative tests, then I was operated on and after a couple of days I was discharged.

Masculinization mammoplasty is a complex operation. It takes a very long time to come around; during the first few weeks you can't move your arms; the stitches don't hold; there's bleeding; you can’t lift your arms or heavy things for half a year. You get your bandages changed, drainage is put in. When I felt better, the doctor allowed me to change the bandages myself. And here I am taking the bandages off of one nipple, it's all good, then I take it off of the other one and realize that the nipple has come off with the bandages, and in its place, right in the middle, there is a bleeding hole! I got scared and started calling the doctor. She calmly told me that it wasn't a serious issue, just come back tomorrow and we'll get the nipple back in place. They put the nipple back, but now it's different from the other one and I can't feel it.

Changing documents and the military enlistment office

The Pravo-trans organization helped me a lot in the process of changing my documents. Since January 2018, new rules have been put in place, which have simplified the process of changing the gender indicated in your passport. But when I was doing it, you needed to get a medical certificate from a commission which was to be submitted to the civil registry office. However, it did not guarantee that they would change the gender in your passport, which is why I went to court.

As soon as I changed the gender indicated in my passport, my university's military enlistment office sent my documents to my local enlistment office. My knees were shaking as I walked there. I thought that I would be put on record in the psycho-neurological hospital or sent to the army. But there were good women who reassured me, "Hey, you're not the first of this kind, our surgeon is a normal person, he will mark you as unfit for service."

"And here I am taking the bandages off of one nipple, it's all good, then I take it off of the other one and realize that the nipple has come off with the bandages, and in its place, right in the middle, there is a bleeding hole!"

Transgender people are not enlisted in the army. At all. They don't need a guy with a vagina or a girl with a penis in the barracks, it would cause riots. But what particular disability they assign you is a game of Russian roulette: some are marked as unfit for service on the basis of psychiatry, which now contradicts ICD-11, because since 18 June, 2018, the diagnosis "transsexualism" is no longer considered an illness; for some – on the basis of surgery, "the absence of a penis" diagnosis. It's just that normally this applies to those who have lost their penis in an accident, military action or due to disease. But technically it could be applied to me as well. Some get endocrinology.

I've got dysphoria in relation to my genitals, but I'm not planning to have surgery in the near future. Because I'm not okay with any of the currently existing types. There is phalloplasty, where a penis is formed from a piece of skin from the hand or the thigh, into which a pump is inserted, which helps achieve an erection. But the sensitivity of such an organ is minimal. And there is a metoidioplasty, in which the clitoris, already enlarged due to hormone therapy, is lengthened even more, resulting in a sensitive, but small penis. I'm prepared to wait another 10 years. Maybe by that point medical science will have achieved a more advanced method of phalloplasty.

Katya and I want kids a lot and it is likely that we will want to adopt them in Russia. Given the level of transphobia here, I wanted to know if it was possible to hide the fact of my transition from the child adoption services. It turns out that it's impossible. A certificate confirming the absence of a criminal record must, of course, be submitted to the child adoption services, and it lists all the names and last names that you have had throughout your life. So it is impossible to hide a transgender transition.

Alyona Agadzhikova

P.S. Katya's letter

I know that my mother will read this story and I would like to finish by addressing her personally. Mom, it is useless to try to prohibit anything. It is better to try to understand a person, rather than boarding up the doors. Well done for setting your priorities right and beginning to accept me and Zhenya. You want to build on the relationship, many parents would not have done that.

I believe that it's important to share this whole story, because many other people face similar situations. I have accepted and forgiven her. Now it's part of my experience and my emancipation, and I think you, mom, also have to accept this story. If only because it shows your progress. Now you wouldn't do what you did before, and this is your personal victory.

My 17-year-old self can be locked up somewhere without a phone thinking that it's the end. But if my past self had read a story like this, it would have been a big discovery for me.

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