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U.S. offers a deal to Russia aimed at release of WNBA star Brittney Griner

Blinken indicates that the administration would like a response from Moscow

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Brittney Griner appears in Russian court room on Wednesday, July 27, 2022 (Screenshot/YouTube KPRC Houston,TX)

U. S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said today that the Biden Administration had offered the Russian government a deal to obtain the release of jailed WNBA star Brittney Griner and another jailed American, Paul Whelan.

The Secretary’s statement marked the first public acknowledgment that the American government had taken action to secure the release of Griner, who was arrested on drug-related charges at a Moscow airport last February.

Blinken did not offer details on the proposed deal, which was offered weeks ago, and it is unclear if it will be enough for Russia to release the Americans. But the public acknowledgment of the offer at a time when the U.S. has otherwise shunned Russia, reflects the mounting pressure on the administration over Griner and Whelan and its determination to get them home the Associated Press reported.

Blinken also indicated that the administration would like a response from Moscow.

Russia has for years expressed interest in the release of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer once labeled the “Merchant of Death,” who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 on charges that he schemed to illegally sell millions of dollars in weapons.

The AP also noted that Blinken said he had requested a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. U.S. officials said the desire for an answer on the prisoner offer was the primary, but not only, reason that the U.S. on Wednesday requested the call with Lavrov.

Griner, who faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting drugs had appeared Wednesday in a Russian courtroom to testify on her own behalf.

Voice of America’s Moscow Bureau reported that the WNBA star admitted arriving in Russia in February with vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage, testifying during Wednesday’s hearing that a language interpreter provided to her translated only a fraction of what was being said as authorities arrested her.

Griner said she was offered neither an explanation of her rights as she was detained nor access to lawyers to explain the documents she signed.

During a Tuesday court session, a Russian neuropsychologist testified about worldwide use of medicinal cannabis, but the drug remains illegal in Russia. Griner’s lawyers have presented a U.S. doctor’s letter recommending that she use medical cannabis to treat pain, which she says she has sustained from her basketball career.

Griner’s U.S. supporters say she is being held as a political pawn, possibly for a prisoner swap. Russian officials say no exchange can be discussed until her legal proceedings are completed.

Additional reporting from Voice of America and the Associated Press

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Transgender journalist who enlisted in Ukrainian military designated a terrorist by Russia

Sarah Ashton-Cirillo is from the US

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Sarah Ashton-Cirillo in D.C. on May 19, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

A transgender journalist from the U.S. who enlisted in the Ukrainian military has been designated a terrorist by Russia.

“The Kremlin added me to Russia’s official international terrorism list,” wrote Sarah Ashton-Cirillo in a Feb. 5 post on her X account.

Russia launched its war against Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. 

Ashton-Cirillo was a journalist when she began to cover the Armed Forces of Ukraine’s Kharkiv Defense Forces. She later enlisted and is now a junior sergeant. Ashton-Cirillo has also traveled to the U.S. several times on behalf of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry.

Shrapnel from a Russian artillery shell wounded Ashton-Cirillo last February while she was working as a senior combat medic in a trench near Kreminna, a city in eastern Ukraine. 

“For Russia to name me as an officially sanctioned terrorist is laughable enough, however what was truly indicative of the hate coming from the Kremlin’s regime was that every press release and article in Russia about my being placed on Putin’s terrorism list was prefaced with the fact that I am trans,” Ashton-Cirillo told the Washington Blade on Friday. “The Russian government is genocidal and hate ridden and this is why it will collapse.” 

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Putin signs law banning transition therapy and surgery in Russia

Lawmakers approved measure earlier this month

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Russian President Vladimir Putin in July 2023. (Photo courtesy of the Russian government/Office of the Russian President)

Legislation that will effectively ban the existence of transgender Russians was signed on Monday as expected by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The new law, which takes effective immediately, was passed earlier this month by the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament, and then last week by the Federal Council, which is its upper body.

The law now bans Russians from changing their gender on official government identity documents including internal and external passports, driver’s licenses and birth certificates, although gender marker changes had been legal since 1997.

Medical healthcare providers are now banned from “performing medical interventions designed to change the sex of a person,” including surgery and prescribing hormone therapy.

The law, which human rights organizations have labeled draconian and barbaric, also bans individuals who have undergone gender reassignment from adopting children and annuls marriages in which one of the partners is trans. 

LGBTQ activists have warned that the law will lead to a further increase in already high rates of suicide and suicide attempts among trans Russians. Worse, say sympathetic physicians and trans rights advocates, it will foment an underground market for surgeries and medications, which are dangerous as unproven drugs or outright fake drugs may cause irreparable harm.

LGBTQ activists also said that this law will lead to an increase in attempted suicides among trans youth unable to access medical care.

“The way how these people see their future is collapsing,” Yan Dvorkin, the head of Center-T, a group that helps trans and nonbinary people in Russia, said in an interview with The Moscow Times earlier this month. 

During debate over the law, Deputy Duma Speaker Pytor Tolstoy, a co-sponsor of the legislation, pointed out that banning the “practice of transgenderism” was in the interest of national security.

The diagnosis of “transsexualism,” he added, refers to gender identity disorders and is the basis for recognizing a citizen as unfit for military service. In addition, “we must not forget that by changing the sex of one of the partners, a homosexual couple gets the right to adopt a child. Unfortunately, there are already such cases in Russia,” he said.

LGBTQ and human rights organization ILGA-Europe issued a statement condemning the actions of the Duma and offered support and solidarity with the Russian trans and queer communities.

“We firmly assert that such legislation flagrantly violates fundamental human rights standards and principles.

ILGA-Europe firmly believe in the inherent dignity and equal rights of all individuals, regardless of their gender identity or expression. International human rights standards, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, emphasize that everyone has the right to self-determination, privacy and the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. Denying trans and gender diverse individuals access to trans-specific healthcare and legal gender recognition blatantly disregards the international human rights framework,” ILGA-Europe wrote.

A young woman who only identified herself to Russian freelance journalist Sergei Dimitrov by the name Elena, told him in an interview in St. Petersburg earlier this month:

“There is no safety anymore, soon they will openly hunt us like swine, we no right to exist they say,” she said.

The young woman also said that since the latest passage of laws including expansion of the Russia’s “gay propaganda” law to include adults last December, coupled with the crackdown by the Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, abbreviated as Roskomnadzor, on any websites and on popular phone apps that cater to LGBTQ people, she has now begun efforts in earnest to leave the country.

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Transgender and gender diverse rights in Russia deteriorating rapidly

Lawmakers on Tuesday expected to give final approval to gender transition ban bill

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Russian President Vladimir Putin signs legislation this past Spring. (Photo courtesy of the Office of the President/Russian government)

In a scene eerily reminiscent of a 1960’s cold war era novel, the young woman sat nervously at the outside table of the café not far from the museum district and main railroad station in St. Petersburg, chain smoking French Gitanes and toying with the food on her plate in front of her. She kept nervously glancing around as if she expected to suddenly be swept up in a secret police raid.

The primary cause of her anxiety and discomfiture she explained to the journalist sitting across the table from her, was that as a transgender woman, she felt threatened and afraid. Unable to continue to live in her native region in the Sverdlovsk Oblast, [region] in the Ural mountains she had moved first to the Russian capital of Moscow. Then as tensions rose over the treatment of LGBTQ Russians she fled to St. Petersburg.

“There is no safety anymore, soon they will openly hunt us like swine, we no right to exist they say,” she told Russian freelance journalist Sergei Dimitrov.

The young woman who only identified herself to Dimitrov by the name Elena said that since the latest passage of laws including expansion of the Russia’s “gay propaganda” law to include adults last December, coupled with the crackdown by the Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, abbreviated as Roskomnadzor, on any websites and on popular phone apps that cater to LGBTQ people, she has now begun efforts in earnest to leave the country.

Last week the lower house of the Russian Parliament, colloquially referred to as the State Duma, passed on its final reading a bill that would outlaw gender transitioning procedures in Russia. The measure now heads to the Federation Council, or upper House where it is expected to pass in the scheduled vote on Tuesday and then transmitted to Russian President Vladimir Putin for his approval and signature which is expected.

State Duma [Parliament] Deputy Speaker Pytor Tolstoy, a co-sponsor of the legislation, pointed out that banning the “practice of transgenderism” was in the interest of national security. 

The diagnosis of “transsexualism,” he added, refers to gender identity disorders and is the basis for recognizing a citizen as unfit for military service. In addition, “we must not forget that by changing the sex of one of the partners, a homosexual couple gets the right to adopt a child. Unfortunately, there are already such cases in Russia,” he said.

The proposed law would bar Russians from changing their gender on official government identity documents including internal and external passports, driver’s licenses, and birth certificates, although gender marker changes had been legal for 26 years since 1997.

Medical healthcare providers would be banned from “performing medical interventions designed to change the sex of a person,” including surgery and prescribing hormone therapy.

In a floor speech prior to the vote last month after the measure’s first reading, Tolstoy blamed the West for what he deemed a profitable medical industry:

“The Western transgender industry is trying in this way to seep into our country, to break through a window for its multi-billion dollar business,” Tolstoy said. Then he claimed there is already a developed network of clinics in Russia, “it includes trans-friendly doctors and psychologists, and all this operates with the active support of LGBT organizations. However, in the past six months they have changed their names to more, perhaps harmless ones,” he said inferring that the recent expansion of the country’s law banning LGBTQ propaganda was somehow responsible for those changes.

Deputy Speaker of the State Duma Pytor Tolstoy speaking during a session of the Duma. (Photo courtesy of the Russian government/Duma)

According to Tolstoy, gender reassignment surgery is “a very profitable area of ​​medical services. And it’s understandable why a number of doctors defend this area so fiercely, hiding behind academic knowledge, including those obtained abroad while studying in the United States and other countries,” he said, “running into” Western medical education.

Provisions to the bill in its second reading, approved on Thursday, also ban trans people from adopting or fostering children, and force them to annul their marriages if one of the couple subsequently changes gender.

LGBTQ and human rights organization ILGA-Europe issued a statement condemning the actions of the Russian Duma and offered support and solidarity with the Russian trans and queer communities. 

“We firmly assert that such legislation flagrantly violates fundamental human rights standards and principles.

ILGA-Europe firmly believe in the inherent dignity and equal rights of all individuals, regardless of their gender identity or expression. International human rights standards, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, emphasize that everyone has the right to self-determination, privacy, and the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. Denying trans and gender diverse individuals access to trans-specific healthcare and legal gender recognition blatantly disregards the international human rights framework,” ILGA-Europe wrote.

Sympathetic physicians and trans rights advocates have warned that the ban is poised to create a black market for hormone substitutes, some of which likely will be dangerous and lead to an increase in attempted suicides among trans youth unable to access medical care.

ILGA-Europe’s statement also warned: “Furthermore, the bill invalidates all certificates of legal gender recognition for individuals who have undergone transition-related surgery but not yet changed the gender marker in their passport. This is a violation of their right to privacy, places trans people in legal limbo, and creates unnecessary burdens on trans people, forcing them to disclose their private and medical history and exposing them to discrimination, harassment and violence.”

According to Dimitrov, that particular provision of the legislation is specifically applicable to Elena, who while having completed transition-related surgery has been unable to get the gender marker changed on her documents, which with the current war in Ukraine has further complicated her life. 

She told Dimitrov that demands for her to present herself for required military service, under her former name and gender, was yet another reason she had fled. Now she says, she is trapped and unable to legally leave, entertaining the option of illegally entering the EU and asking for asylum, most likely to neighboring Latvia, or Estonia. 

Independent news outlet Mediazona reported in February 2023 that the number of passports issued due to “gender change” has more than doubled in 2022 compared with two years earlier — from 428 in 2020 to 936 last year, according to Russia’s Interior Ministry.

In justifying the provision, lawmakers cited concerns that men are using the relatively simple procedure of changing gender in official documents to dodge the military draft.

Another point was raised by a lawmaker who asked what to do with 3,000-plus trans people who have already managed to change their gender and documents. Tolstoy responded noted that the law does not have retroactive effect.

State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin called gender transitioning “pure satanism.”

Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin standing at the podium calls for the first vote on the proposed law to ban gender-affirming surgeries in Russia (Photo courtesy of the Russian government/Duma)

Akram Kubanychbekov, a senior advocacy officer for ILGA-Europe, this past week sent out a “dear colleagues” request for assistance detailing specific needs and actions that will be crucial to assisting trans and gender diverse Russians.

Kubanychbekov wrote: 

“Discrimination, violence and the enactment of oppressive laws have made it increasingly unsafe for trans people to live their lives authentically and without fear. In light of these circumstances, we have reached out local trans organizations to ask them of support trans community need at the moment.”

“To address the urgent needs of trans people who wish to leave Russia, there is a need in facilitating support for broadening the criteria for humanitarian visas. By expanding the eligibility criteria, we can ensure that those facing persecution and threats to their safety have a viable pathway to seek refuge in other countries. It is crucial to work together to advocate for this change with governments at the national level to extend our support to trans people seeking a safer environment in safer countries.”

“In addition to humanitarian visas, trans organizations [inside Russia] asked to assist in securing multi-entry, long-term (preferably Schengen) visas for activists, who will continue their important work within Russia but may need to swiftly leave in case of escalating danger. By facilitating the necessary visa support, activists are enabled to carry out their vital work with the knowledge that they have an emergency exit if required.”

“We would like to encourage you to stand in solidarity with the local trans organizations in Russia and support their requests.”

Political fallout

Yulia Alyoshina, the country’s first trans politician, had made plans this past year to run for governor of Russia’s Altay region, an area bordering the former Soviet republic and now independent nation of Kazakhstan.

Yulia Alyoshina (Photo courtesy of Yulia Alyoshina)

Alyoshina, who had been the head of the regional Civic Initiative party, resigned her post after Putin signed the expanded anti-LGBTQ law last December. With gubernatorial elections set for this September in the Altay region, party officials had urged her to consider running.

Alyoshina says she didn’t expect anyone in the Civic Initiative party to suggest that she run in the gubernatorial elections. But she figured “well, why not” and agreed. “I’m sure that the fact that I was born in a different body is not as important to voters as my honesty, integrity, and sincere desire to make my native land better,” she told Russian media outlet Novaya Gazeta Europe.

On the topic of Russian society’s relationship to trans people, Alyoshina told Novaya Gazeta Europe the current political climate is quite bad. She described losing supporters after the Duma passed and Putin signed the anti-LGBTQ laws last December. She thinks people have been influenced by the authorities’ rhetoric on “LGBT propaganda.”

In another interview with Russian language media outlet, Meduza, which the Putin government banned in January 2023, Alyoshina reflected on the effects of the bill. She told Meduza that her medical transition took about a year and a half. There were no private clinics in her region where should could go for gender care services, so she was seen at a state psychiatric hospital. It took another year and a half after she was first seen to get a certificate for changing gender markers [on legal documents.]

In a phone interview with the Moscow Times just prior to the Duma’s impending vote, Alyoshina confirmed the post she had made on her Telegram channel that she had abandoned her effort to campaign as a gubernatorial candidate.

“I was told by municipal deputies and village heads that the [gender reassignment ban] bill was being considered and that they couldn’t give me their signatures,” Alyoshina told The Moscow Times.

“They told me: ’How can we publicly support a transgender person if the State Duma prohibits transgender people in Russia?” she said.

“By putting our signatures in your support, we will go against the country’s policy, and we have families and children, we don’t want to fall under repression,” Alyoshina quoted the deputies as telling her.

Alyoshina said she was weighing “various options” for her future, but said she would wait for the passing of the gender reassignment law.

“I’m not ready to dive into [my future plans] until the legislation is passed,” she said.

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