Human rights advocates are speaking out against a new Russian law published this week that prohibits transvestites, cross-dressers, and transgender people from driving automobiles within the country.
The new decree, titled "On Road Safety," was signed by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on December 29 and published January 4. The decree covers a number of physical medical conditions, such as hereditary eye diseases and blindness, but also includes people who "desire to live and be accepted as a member of the opposite sex" and "wear clothes of the opposite sex in order to experience temporarily membership of the opposite sex."
The Russian government has defended the decree, featured on its official website, by citing the World Health Organization's (WHO) ICD-10 classifications of illnesses that include "gender identity disorder" and "disorders of sexual preference."
The list also appears to disqualify people diagnosed as pyromaniacs, pathological gamblers, and kleptomaniacs from driving in Russia. Legal experts are warning the legislation could be stretched to incorporate a host of other WHO-defined conditions, such as voyeurism and sadomasochism. It's not immediately clear how these new rules will be practically applied.
Human Rights First LGBT rights advocate Shawn Gaylord was among those who publicly decried the new regulations. Gaylord called the banning of people from driving based on their gender identity or expression "ridiculous" and "just another example of the Russian regime's methodical rollback of basic human rights for its citizens."
"At first glance, it already appears absolutely absurd," Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director and senior research at Human Rights Watch told VICE News. "It's not just about transgender people, it also refers to a wide-range of what is being categorized as 'psychological disorders' that have nothing to do with ability to drive."
Despite the outpouring of criticism from LGBT and human rights organizations, Russia's Professional Drivers Union has spoken out in support of the rules.
"We have too many deaths on the road, and I believe toughening medical requirements for applicants is fully justified," Alexander Kotov, the Union's head, said in a statement.
According to the Russian Interior Ministry, Russian road accidents kill around 30,000 people and injure another 250,000 each year.
In stark contrast, the Association of Russian Lawyers for Human Rights called the new law "discriminatory" and demanded clarifications from the country's constitutional court.
Russia's stance on LGBT rights has already come under the spotlight. In 2013 a law banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" — including the holding of gay pride events — cast a shadow over the Sochi 2014 Olympics, as high-profile athletes spoke out against the legislation, which also prompted an international movement to boycott Russian vodka.
Conservative and anti-gay sentiment, however, remains within the mainstream in Russia. A 2013 Pew Research Center Survey found just 16 percent of Russians say homosexuality should be accepted by society.
The discriminatory driving ban in Russia has also had a wider ripple effect, increasing pressure on the WHO to redefine the categories it defines of mental illness.
The United Nations public health organization has said it is already in the process of updating its two-decade old classifications in light of "substantial advances in health-related knowledge… [and]… social understanding of sexual disorders and sexual health." The draft document of the new WHO classifications has reportedly already dropped "gender identity disorders" from the section covering "mental health and behavioral disorders."
"Not labeling trans people as mentally ill anymore will be an important step forward and will help to reduce stigma," the Berlin-based NGO Transgender said in an August statement.
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