Pasha loved Crimea. He loved the sea, the sound of the crashing surf and the foam sizzling on the beach, the air tingling with salt. He loved the mountains dramatically jutting out of the verdant coast. When he looked at the landscape, he felt calm, all worries and problems melting away. This was the paradise he had sought his whole life, the place where he felt truly free and himself. But that paradise was now lost, perhaps forever.
I recently met Pasha in a small, plain apartment on the outskirts of Kiev, a specialized temporary shelter for LGBT refugees who had decided to leave Crimea after the Russian annexation of the peninsula in March 2014, or were running away from the ongoing military conflict in the east of the country, and had nowhere else to stay. The regular refugee shelters were already full and besides they held the threat of homophobic violence: Ukraine is generally a conservative country, its laws offer no explicit legal protection of sexual minorities, and hate-motivated attacks are not uncommon. For gay men and women, escaping the occupation and war does not necessarily mean escaping danger.
Shy and soft-spoken, with blue eyes and arched eyebrows, and sporting a crew-cut, Pasha was born female, but gradually came to discover a transgender identity as a man. Coming from a provincial town in central Ukraine, Kirovgrad, at first he had no concept and no adequate language to describe his longings. He knew he felt different, he liked girls, but being a lesbian woman did not exactly fit him either. Like his hometown, which was once called Elisavetgrad, after the eighteenth-century Russian empress Elizabeth, but in the 1930s was renamed to Kirovgrad, after the Soviet politician Sergei Kirov, Pasha wished for a more revolutionary change, yet he couldn't describe what that change should look like.
In 2011, he decided to move south, to the famous Crimean city of Sevastopol, right on the shores of the Black Sea. He felt immediately at home, looking at endless water expanses and possibilities. He found a job at a video games store and rented an apartment. He went swimming from time to time. Yet, even here, in sunnier climes, he had difficulty fitting in. Pasha was quiet and introvert by nature and often felt awkward, but there was another reason for his social isolation: he had begun his transgender discovery and was slowly making a radical transformation. He did not undergo a sex-change operation - even if he had wanted to, he had no means to do so - but he decided to fully adopt a new, male gender identity.
Pasha's decision was a brave one, but the hardships were just beginning. He lost his job because his boss couldn't stomach the change. When he decided to rent a new place, he had to doctor a photocopy of his passport, where he updated his photograph and changed the gender of his family name and patronymic (in Russian most family names have gendered endings). Even his friends from the small and fragmented LGBT community in Sevastopol disproved and began avoiding him. So long as Pasha had been a lesbian woman, he had found a modicum of acceptance, but his open transgender shift broke an important taboo: his secret life was now in the open for all to see; he had refused to stay closeted. And that was a strange and dangerous move in a place like Sevastopol, the home of the Russian Black Sea navy and a center of Russian conservatism. "The general rule was not to stand out," Pasha told me in his soft voice, sitting on a couch in the living room of the Kiev shelter. "You had to just lie low, to hide like a mouse in a hole, so that neither your parents nor your colleagues would ever know about your secret life. The rule was to blend in."
Despite the problems he had to face, somewhere on the horizon hope glimmered again. Pasha found a new job in a metal workshop, where he hauled steel and iron sheet right alongside the men. He earned a fairly good salary and gained personal confidence. He started a relationship with a girl from Ukraine and it seemed like it might get serious soon. Three years after his arrival in Crimea, things were starting to fall into place. Maybe, he thought, life as a transgender person in Ukraine was not impossible; maybe he could make it after all, against all the incredible, insurmountable odds. Pasha had fought hard for a life of freedom and he deserved a reward. He wasn't prepared for just one thing: that Crimea could suddenly transform its identity as completely as Pasha had transformed his own.
When anonymous, heavily-armed troops in balaclavas (Russian special operation forces, as was later confirmed) invaded Crimea at the end of February in response to the government coup in Kiev, which had removed the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych from power, everything changed overnight. Crimeans had never cared too much for politics before, preferring instead a life of idleness and leisure, good food and plenty of sun, their attitude more Mediterranean than Russian. The hysterical pitch of the political rhetoric in the previous few months however, and the intensity of the Russian media machine, had built up enormous pressure and, when the lid finally sprung open, peace-loving residents changed overnight into foul-mouthed nationalists. Russian tricolors popped up everywhere, fluttering on the roofs of government buildings and from the ledges of apartment blocks. Volunteer paramilitary units called "self-defense forces" patrolled the streets; Cossacks provided additional support; a detachment of the Night Wolves, a pro-Putin motorcycle gang, roared daily up and down Sevastopol's downtown. The Crimean community began to fall apart.
"People suddenly became less tolerant of each other," Pasha told me, an added urgency audible in his voice. "Former neighbors turned on each other and people separated into Russian and Ukrainian. Even the LGBT community split in the middle. It was stunning to me how many LGBT members in Crimea supported joining Russia, although they knew about Russia's 'gay propaganda' laws, which criminalize open displays of homosexuality."
During those early days, Pasha was firmly on the other side of the barricade, waving a Ukrainian flag and preferring to speak in Ukrainian as his private form of rebellion, even though his primary language was Russian. He was not simply defending his country, he reasoned; he was also defending the person he had fought for so long to become.
It was all in vain. Pro-Ukrainian protestors were pelted with eggs and Ukrainian flags were torn to pieces. There were open threats and some opposition activists disappeared. Then, in the second half of March, the Russian Federation annexed the Crimean Peninsula and everything seemed to be over. Pasha stayed on for a few more weeks, trying to assess the new situation, but difficulties were only mounting. Due to international isolation, many businesses suffered, supplies were interrupted and markets were lost, and Pasha's employer was among the hard hit. In the meantime, prices of food and basic commodities began to rise, though salaries in the private sector stayed at nearly the previous levels.
With the constant fear of violence in the air and the economic downturn, and with rumors spreading that the border with mainland Ukraine might close soon, Pasha thought it was time to leave. As a pro-Ukrainian transgender person, he was not exactly a model citizen for the new Crimean government, whose prime minister, Sergei Aksyonov would later tell the press that Crimea "does not need such [gay] people." As much as Pasha loved Sevastopol, as much as he loved the sea, he could not afford to stay in Crimea anymore.
With the help of his friends, Pasha contacted the LGBT organization "Insight" which ran a small shelter for refugees in Kiev, packed his bags, and reluctantly hopped on the train. But on the Russian side of the border the train was briefly held because of his passport. "The border guards couldn't even comprehend how it was possible to have a female passport and to look like a man," Pasha remembered. "They didn't know what being transgender was. They didn't ask questions, but stood there, stunned." At the end, a senior officer looked at his papers and waved him through.
Pasha was back on Ukrainian soil, about to start yet another life. This time around, though, it seemed that he was not going to be alone in his search for identity. The whole country was changing in front of his eyes. People would surly have to understand him now. In a sense, everybody in Ukraine was now trans.
Travel for this article was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
Pasha's name has been changed for protection of his identity.