More Harm Than Good

01.15.15 6:46 PM ET

Russia’s “Trans Driving Ban” Doesn’t Really Target LGBT Community. It Actually Targets the Mentally Ill

An overhyped government decree had much different problems than the ones originally reported, but Western media coverage has led to an anti-LGBT backlash within Russia

“Russian Government Bars Transgender People From Obtaining Drivers Licenses!”

Such were the headlines on prominent gay blogs, most linking to a BBC story to the same effect.

Trouble is, it isn’t true.  And the media reporting, say activists, has made things worse.

“On 6 January the Russian government issued a decree that approved a list of medical conditions and diagnoses leading to full or partial limitation of the right to drive a vehicle,” emailed Anastasia Smirnova, former Project Manager of the Russian LGBT Network and now Programmes & Policy Officer at ILGA-Europe.  (ILGA, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association, is a worldwide federation of LGBT organizations from 110 countries.  Smirnova is also a participant in The Daily Beast’s recent Quorum: Global LGBT Voices program.)

However, Smirnova found, “Trans* people have not been purposefully targeted by the decree.”

In fact, the decree – Decree #1604, issued December 29, 2014 – included a list of diagnoses that may become grounds for revocation of a driving license.  And that decree simply included a laundry list of diagnoses from the new ICD-10, the World Health Organization’s revised classification list for mental and physical diseases and disorders.  The disorders included:

F00-F09: Mental disorders due to known physiological conditions

F20-29: Schizophrenia, schizotypal, delusional, and other non-mood psychotic disorders

F30-39: Mood [affective] disorders

F40-48: Anxiety, dissociative, stress-related, somatoform and other nonpsychotic mental disorders

F60-69: Disorders of adult personality and behavior

F70-79: Intellectual disabilities 

Most importantly, Smirnova said, the decree specifically limits the possibility of license revocation to cases with the “presence of chronic and protracted psychotic disorders with severe and enduring symptoms or frequent aggravations.”  

In other words, the decree doesn’t target trans people, isn’t a case of ignorance, and (in theory, but maybe not in practice) actually makes perfect sense.  If you’ve got a serious mental illness which leads to frequent psychotic breaks, you shouldn’t be driving.

Smirnova did note that the decree was issued without a proper consultation process, which might have led to better regulatory language. That language could prevent a particularly litigious clerk from heading down a slippery slope, banning drivers for a hastily defined “stress-related” or “other nonpsychotic mental disorder.”

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This is why the Russian Psychiatric Association, among others, criticized the decree: It might deter people from seeking psychiatric help if they feared losing their licenses. To the extent the decree is a human rights violation, the practical victims are not LGBT people but those with mental illnesses of various kinds.  “Its potential to affect practical experiences of trans* people in obtaining a driving licence was assessed by our contacts as very low,” writes Smirnova.

Moreover, Smirnova noted that decrees being issued without proper process “is a scenario typical for Russian policy-making.”  (Not only Russian, of course – the U.S. House just voted to authorize the Keystone XL Pipeline before the full environmental impact review is complete.)

But then the Western media got hold of it. The original BBC report didn’t focus on transgender people – only the headline and the lede did, with the latter also mentioning “fetishism, exhibitionism and voyeurism.”  (Generally, journalists do not write their own headlines.)  But the headline – “Russia says drivers must not have 'sex disorders'” – sent the story viral.

And that’s the worst part, Smirnova told The Daily Beast.  In her email, she said “the most efficient way to respond would be to do quiet advocacy with relevant bodies in the country (expert statements, letters from professional groups, etc.). That way, there would be some chance that amendments would be made as quietly as the order itself was prepared. Any public attention to the matter (especially international attention) lowers these chances to negotiate amendments or revisions by creating a confrontational environment.” 

Instead, since international attention has focused on trans* people, the decree has become “associated almost exclusively with LGBTI [issues] and already contributed to stigmatizing and hostile public statements on the matter.” 

It’s even possible that the media reports will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  “Given the existing public discourse and overall political will to target LGBTI people, this leads to a greater risk of active enforcement of the law in relation to people with ‘F64’ records,” Smirnova said, using the ICD-10 classification for gender dysphoria and other gender/sexuality conditions.

That would be a rich, tragic irony. A decree that actually had little to no impact on LGBT people is misrepresented as being anti-LGBT – and as a result, it becomes anti-LGBT. 

The whole episode is a cautionary tale of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread – or, more specifically, Western media jumping to conclusions about anti-LGBT persecution out of ignorance, zeal for clicks, or sheer confusion.  And the result is to undermine the efforts of those activists on the ground who are actually working to make a difference – in this case, a broad alliance of mental health organizations who would be far more effective if the decree weren’t now associated, mistakenly, with a far narrower group of transgender people.

What’s next for the decree?  Smirnova wrote, “I hear from Russian friends that an explanatory note on the decree is being prepared now by St. Petersburg groups.  I’m looking forward to it being circulated.”