Trans man launches campaign to bring attention to gendered language in Russia
Lars has identified as a man for as long as he can remember, but the structure of his native Russian language has always made it difficult for him to express his identity.
The language genders almost all grammatical forms, including first names, nouns, adjectives, and verbs in the past tense, and only takes biological sex into account. Lars, who has chosen to go by his first name only for the purposes of this article, spent years struggling with having to refer to himself in female terms.
“Everything about the highly gendered language was super difficult, because I knew that I was in the wrong body and I felt like a man,” he wrote in a statement to PinkNews. “So writing anything—because I had to use the female form—just didn’t feel natural for me.”
That’s why, in collaboration with the language-learning app Babbel and the Russian team, Lars is the frontman of a campaign called #BabbelForAll to bring attention to the Russian language and open a dialogue about the inequalities that LGBT+ people still face nationwide.
The European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA-Europe) ranks Russia 45th out of 49 countries for its human rights pertaining to LGBT+ people.
Russia decriminalised consensual same-sex activity between adults in 1993, but same-sex couples are still ineligible for the same legal protections as heterosexual couples. The country lacks legislation against discrimination based on sexual identity, gender identity, or gender expression.
In 2013, Russia enacted a controversial law banning distribution of materials promoting “non-traditional sexual relationships” to minors, yet it is so broad that it can include any form of LGBT+ public expression.
The 2018 World Cup provided the perfect opportunity to highlight the limits of Russia’s gendered language for LGBT+ people. Lars began working in 2016 on his idea to create special Russian courses designed to include specific information about traveling to Russia for the football event.
Not surprisingly, the language structure of the courses initially came out as heteronormative, so Lars decided to include pictures of same-sex couples to make gendered phrases such as “I am married”—which literally translates to “I am behind the husband” (Я замужем) for women—and “I am wifed” (Я женат) for men, more inclusive.
Advertising for the #BabbelForAll campaign now includes two posters of same-sex couples to be displayed in newspapers, trains, train stations, and main outdoor football viewing areas in several countries, and video content for social media channels.
Lars was inspired to launch #BabbelForAll because of the intense isolation he experienced as a child and young adult, only able to speak about his frustration in his personal diary. Born at the time of the Soviet Union, Lars found that talking about sexuality in Russia was taboo.
“It was forbidden to even talk about the subject, so I just didn’t speak about it,” he said. “This is when I started writing about it in my diary—it was a place where I could express myself and make sense of the situation, and in that diary I always wrote in the male gender. Really this was the only way I could ‘speak’ about it as such.”
Even schools avoided the subject. A science class only featured one lesson—two pages in a book—about reproductive organs.
“That was given to us as ‘homework’, not even to be discussed in the classroom,” he said. “This is how restrictive the society was at that time.”
Once his diary was discovered when he was a teenager, Lars was taken by his mother to see a psychiatrist. Refusing to stay in a psychiatric ward, he was forced to go home and try to adapt to what was expected of him by suppressing his feelings.
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“I couldn’t be open, because to have an LGBT+ member of the family just wasn’t acceptable,” he said.
Despite his family’s views, Lars decided to embrace his identity and sexuality in his late teens. Three years ago, he started the process of transitioning and now celebrates being a fully transitioned and healthy man who has the courage and strength to advocate for those who are going through the same injustices he experienced.
He hopes that #BabbelForAll will open up a dialogue about sexuality and language in Russia by motivating people to learn to speak the language and visit the country to create their own opinions about the country rather than believing stereotypes.
“On one hand, we want to start a discussion about the topic, but we also want to promote Russia—we are not spreading a message to boycott it,” said Lars. “We want people to learn Russian so they can understand the situation there, and to, of course, draw attention to inequality.”
He believes that improving the situation in Russia can only happen with more communication, education, and acceptance.
“Learn Russian. Spread the message of equality and diversity. Love one another,” said Lars.