What We Talk About When We Talk About Trans Rights


The first time I saw Masha Gessen was more than thirty years ago, on the streets of Moscow. This was during the Gorbachev era, the perestroika years, a time of reform and promise. It’s hard to imagine it now. As a reporter for the Washington Post, I was trying to keep track of the countless ways in which Soviet society was changing. For a long time, despite all the other radical shifts consuming the country, discussion of gay rights was largely absent. In those days, public figures would sometimes proclaim that homosexuality was a repugnant peculiarity of the West and did not exist at home. In the late eighties, the official press declared that H.I.V. was alien to the Soviet Union and had been created by the U.S. defense establishment, in a bioweapons-research lab at Fort Detrick, in Maryland. But by 1990 or so this, too, began to shift. For me, at least, one of the embodiments of this change was the sight of a determined young journalist and activist at the head of a small gay-rights rally near the Bolshoi Theatre. This was Masha Gessen.

Gessen has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 2017 and is best known for their writing on Russia, human rights, democracy and authoritarianism, and, for the past thirteen months, the war in Ukraine. Recently, not long after Gessen returned from a reporting trip to Ukraine, I sent them an e-mail pointing out some of the debates over the way trans issues are being covered and discussed. The latest flash point had been at the New York Times. I asked Gessen, who identifies as trans and nonbinary, how The New Yorker should be thinking about its own coverage and approach. The reply led to an interview on The New Yorker Radio Hour.

Gessen was born into a Jewish family in Moscow in 1967. The family moved to the U.S. in 1981, and Masha returned to Moscow in 1991. I first began reading their work, with admiration, in the pages of Itogi, a Yeltsin-era magazine led by two talented liberal editors, Sergei Parkhomenko and Masha Lipman. In the years since, Gessen has published books on Putin, the Russian intelligentsia, and many other subjects; their most recent is “Surviving Autocracy.” This week, it was announced that Gessen won the Blake-Dodd Prize for nonfiction, awarded by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2013, when Vladimir Putin intensified his anti-L.G.B.T.Q. rhetoric and threatened measures to take children away from gay parents, Gessen, who has three children, decided to return to the U.S. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Masha, to hear many Republicans right now, you’d think that L.G.B.T.Q. rights are somehow as big a threat as the new Cold War, or nuclear war. I spoke with Michaela Cavanaugh, a Democratic state senator in Nebraska, who is fighting to block a bill that would withhold gender-affirming care from trans kids, including mental-health care. She told me that the Republicans with whom she legislates aren’t that worked up about trans rights, and that these bills are designed to get airtime on Fox News; they’re a kind of directive from the national party. That seems like a convenient argument for a Democrat who doesn’t want to make too many enemies among her Republican colleagues. What is the motivation for Ron DeSantis, for Donald Trump, for the Republican Party, to make this issue into something so enormous?

I think I probably agree with the state senator a little bit, in the sense that all these bills are about signalling, and what they’re signalling is the essence of past-oriented politics. It’s a really convenient signal because some of the most recent and most rapid social change concerns L.G.B.T. rights in general, and trans rights and trans visibility in particular.

All the autocratic politics that we see around the world right now are past-oriented politics. It’s Putin’s call for a return to “the great Russia” of the past. Note that Putin’s war in Ukraine goes hand in hand with extreme anti-L.G.B.T. rhetoric. In his last speech, he took time to assert that God is male, and that the crazy Europeans and the “Nazi” Ukrainians are trying to make God gender-fluid. I’m not kidding.

Men are men and women are women, and that’s the end of the story.

Right. That simplicity—women are women, men are men. There’s social and financial stability. Where relevant, there’s whiteness. There’s a comfortable and predictable future. That’s a message that says, We’re going to return you to a time when things weren’t scary, when things didn’t make you uncomfortable, when you didn’t fear that your kid was going to come home from school and tell you that they’re trans. Andrew Solomon has written beautifully about this—about the anxiety connected with having children whose identity is completely different from yours.

Meaning how upsetting that difference is and the appeal of that difference not happening?

Right. Promising to take that fear and anxiety away is truly powerful.

I think many people know you from your coverage of Russia, and now the war in Ukraine. The first time I ever met you, or even saw you, was in 1991. You were leading, or part of, a gay-rights demonstration in Moscow. You’re a citizen of both Russia and the United States, and this movement has been a big part of your life. But I thought maybe we’d go back even further in time, for you to tell me about your own journey, about gender, about sexuality, and why this has become such a big part of your life, as well as your journalism and your writing.

Professionally, I started out in gay and lesbian journalism, as it was known, in the mid-eighties. At the time, it was obvious that, if somebody was doing gay and lesbian journalism, they were at least queer. Growing up, I was most definitely trans-identified, except I didn’t have words for it.

We’re talking how old, then?

Five? Six? I remember, at the age of five, going to sleep in my dyetski sad, my Russian preschool, and hoping that I would wake up a boy. A real boy. I had people address me by a boy’s name. My parents, fortunately, were incredibly game. They were totally fine with it.

Because they were so broad-minded, or because they just thought it was a passing thing?

I think because they’re pretty broad-minded. I remember that in the late seventies—so I would’ve been ten or eleven years old—they read in a Polish magazine about trans—“transsexual” at that point—surgery, and told me about it. And I said, “Oh, I’m going to have an operation when I grow up.” And they said, “That’s fine.” So that was kind of the deal. And then I went through puberty and I could no longer live as a boy so clearly. Then I was a lesbian for many, many years, or more likely queer. But I’ve always thought of myself as having more of a gender identity than a sexual orientation.

What does that mean?

We were not supposed to talk like this in the eighties and nineties. We were supposed to be very clear about sexual orientation being separate from gender, and that, if you were lesbian, that didn’t mean you wanted to be a man. In fact, for a lot of people, it’s more complicated than that. It’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that. I’ve always been attracted to both men and women, but I’ve always been very clearly gender nonconforming.

One of the things that became part of the language at a certain period of time was the following sentence: “Gender is a construct.” I think most people over the centuries thought of gender as something provided by biology. What is the origin of the notion of gender as a construct?

Judith Butler, who certainly did not invent the phrase “gender as a construct” but did a lot to popularize that idea, and an idea of gender as performance, which I think is even more relevant to what we’re talking about—she said fairly recently—or, I’m sorry, they said fairly recently—in an interview that—

I think it’ll be heartening for some to know that you made this mistake. We’re leaving it in!

[Laughs.] O.K. They said that “gender is imitation without an original.” I think that’s a beautiful description, not only of how gender operates but also why we have so much trouble when we do journalism, especially about transgender issues.

What does it mean that it has no “original”?

The simple answer would be—and a lot of standard journalism will give this answer—[that gender and sex are different]. Sex is also not so clear-cut. There are biological determinants of sex that vary from person to person, and there’s a small but significant minority of people who cannot be so neatly placed in the male or female sex category. There are expectations of gender, which change with time—historical time and personal time. One of the best quotes I’ve heard from somebody who studies gender and medical intervention was “Look, the gender of a five-year-old girl and a fifty-year-old woman is not the same.” I thought, You’re right. We think of these things as stable and knowable, but they’re not. They’re fluid by definition, and in our lived experience they’re fluid.


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