We’re marking International Trans Day of Visibility by looking at Russian-American journalist, author, translator, and Vice President of PEN America Masha Gessen, who identifies as non-binary and transgender.
A Russian citizen, born in Moscow in 1967, Gessen moved to the US in 1981 as part of a refugee re-settlement programme. In 1991 they moved back to Russia to work as a journalist.
Gessen joined the PEN America board in 2014 after two decades in Russia working as a journalist and campaigning for LGBT rights.
This experience as a refugee, as a Russian journalist and as an LGBT rights activist in a country famously hostile to both the media and to LGBT rights, informed their activism.
Gessen’s tenure at PEN America coincided fittingly with the rise of the right wing in America and, significantly with the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
Gessen became an essential advisor to PEN America and to activists across the United States because of their experience and the persecution they endured in Putin’s Russia.
Soon after the election, as progressives in the United States tried to make sense of Clinton’s loss, Gessen stepped in with a piece in the New York Times entitled ‘Autocracy: Rules for Survival’. The piece criticised the acceptance of Democratic politicians and called for increased vigilance to defend ‘the laws, institutions and the ideals on which our country is based.’
This presence of mind – the result of hard-won experience – gained national renown.
When Gessen gave PEN’s Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture in 2017 they concentrated on these parallels. In the lecture, they discussed language as a structure of power and the ways in which regimes in Russia and America used language to ‘pre-emptively discredit’ ideas of freedom and truth.
Gessen described, to an audience of writers and their guests, the importance of language in enacting violence, enacting a Judith Butler-esque critique of the violence inflicted on language by authoritarian regimes like those of Trump and Putin – for example by undermining or attempting to redefine phrases such as ‘fake news’ and ‘safe space’. They raised a laugh among the audience about the fact that, as they shrewdly pointed out, ‘witch-hunts cannot actually be carried out by losers, the agent of the witch hunt must have power.’ Their point was serious and their discussion a masterclass in the techniques of authoritarian power from a writer who had experienced it first-hand.
They continue to be active on free expression issues through PEN and also write regularly about LGBT and particularly Trans* rights in the United States and beyond.
PEN itself is becoming increasingly active on LGBT and Trans* issues across the world, promoting the work of Trans* writers and speaking up for Trans* rights in countries such as Belarus, Hungary and Russia, as well as America.
Gessen’s latest book, Autocracy: Rules for Survival – based on the influential New York Timespiece is out now.