Drag ball in the USSR, 1920’s
From a review of Dan Healey’s Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia:
Famously, the Russian Revolution brought the decriminalization of homosexuality in an act both nearly unique in Europe and astonishingly advanced in a country with semi-feudal conditions in vast parts where religious hierarchy had long been a cornerstone of the state. Healey reveals long-forgotten, even concealed, facts showing even greater advances: the early Soviet Union was the first industrialized state to recognize same-sex marriage, the USSR alongside Weimar Germany briefly led the world in gender corrective surgery, and Soviet medical experts working alongside transgender people began exploring the idea of gender not being a simple binary of man and woman but, instead, a spectrum.
Even as reformist socialists like the followers of Karl Kautsky took conservative views on sexuality in the early 20th century, the Russian Bolsheviks forged ahead because they were based on a movement from below. Same-sex marriage recognition occurred almost organically: two people of the same legal gender applied to be married, and local courts and officials in the wake of the Russian Revolution quickly decided there was no basis on which to deny the request.
Healey discusses at length the case of one of the parties to this marriage, anonymized as “Evgenii Fedorovich M.” Assigned female at birth, Evgenii Fedorovich struggled with gender identity and inconsistent support from family until the Russian Revolution gave him the chance to express himself as a man. While working as a political instructor far from his village of birth, he courted and married a woman, “S.”, and formed a family. Tragically, Evgenii Fedorovich’s reassignment to a distant city split the relationship and, suffering from psychiatric issues, he sank into alcoholism.
Revolutionary Rethinking of Sex and Gender.
Evgenii Fedorovich’s discussions with Soviet psychiatrists informed a revolutionary political analysis of sex and gender. Healey devotes chapter six of his book to describing how Russian attitudes toward same-sex relationships quickly evolved from the Revolution to the end of the first Five Year Plan (1932) from challenging the idea of same-sex relationships as “perverse,” to medicalization, to the statement by biologist N. K. Kol’tsov that “there is no intermediate sex, but rather an infinite quantity of intermediate sexes.”
Several Soviet doctors were assembled into an expert commission, and ideas such as Kol’tsov’s found broad support. These doctors were being driven by experience: as soon as gender corrective surgery began to be practiced in the early 1920s, its practitioners were inundated with inquiries from ordinary Russians who had fought with their own bodies for their whole lives and finally saw a means of resolution.
While this commission of doctors put forward highly advanced ideas on gender and gender identity, their ideas were, tragically, never fully realized. With Stalin’s consolidation of power in the late 1920s came a vicious social reaction. In 1933, the Soviet state terminated the commission, and in 1936 it restored homosexuality to the status of a crime in Russia. The legacy of this reaction stands today, with some Stalinist groups around the world still spitting upon the ideas of transgender identity, transsexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality as “undialectical.”