Latvia, a country neighbouring Russia, regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1992 and decriminalised homosexuality soon after, however, general social opinion has not moved on much since then.
In 2005, Riga, the capital city, held its first Pride but unfortunately counter protesters greatly outnumbered Pride attendees and in 2006 Riga Pride was banned by the authorities. Regardless, Pride took place again in 2007 and the 500 Pride-goers outnumbered the 100 counter protesters. However, simultaneous anti-Pride events elsewhere in the city attracted thousands of protesters.
Same-sex marriage is banned as is same-sex adoption with only 12% and 8% of Latvians supporting these equalities. As an LGBT+ person in Latvia you are at a much greater risk of attack than you are here in the UK and local meeting points for the small LGBT+ community are often targeted. As an LGBT+ person you’re not able to make criminal charges against your attacker other than that of ‘hooliganism’.
So what was I, a trans woman who doesn’t pass through the world looked upon as cisgender by the majority of people, going to Latvia for in the first place?
A hair transplant. I had searched the world for a surgeon willing to take me on as a patient and I just could not find one. I’m so bald from going through male menopause at 19 years old that most surgeons wouldn’t touch me stating that I was simply not a candidate for this surgery and my only option was wigs, or they would try to take my money upfront knowing that they would only be able to give me a partial head of hair and not tell me this until I had made the journey to their country and was half way through surgery.
I’d just about given up hope after receiving so many knockbacks when my now standard email explaining who I am accompanied with photos of myself didn’t get a refusal email, but a request to Skype.
I wasn’t too hopeful as I’d been through this process many times and been refused, but this time was different. I had my first Skype consultation with a female surgeon who explained what I’d heard many times about the limited amount of donor hair, but I appealed to her, reminding her why she went into this line of business in the first place and made it very clear I was prepared to take a risk if she would.
This would be new to her as even the most advanced clients are done in one day of surgery lasting 8-10 hours, and perhaps the next morning. She warned me that this wouldn’t be easy, it would be pioneering. There would be no guarantees and that I’d have to sit through up to 16 hours of surgery a day over multiple days. She recruited extra nurses to work alongside her and we were all set to try something new – so, I was off to Riga. Scary on all accounts.
I’d never used my female passport before and going through the London airport I found it all very exciting. Having breasts and testicles show up on the 3D scanner, which then assumes that one of them is concealing drugs, resulted in me being referred for extra security.
My gender and pronouns were respected and I felt I was treated with dignity. This continued as I passed through the airport which, by their very nature, are a crossroads for all types of people of all diversity. It was only when I approached the gate of a Latvia-borne flight by a Hungarian carrier that the attitudes towards me changed.
I’m a strong woman who’s not easily flustered anymore and although I could tell the man sitting shoulder to shoulder with me on the flight wanted to punch me in the face, he knew he couldn’t and I felt safe knowing that.
Passport control was much easier than anticipated and before I knew it I was in a car on the way to a five-star hotel. The hotel and the staff were amazing and couldn’t do enough for me, even running out for cigarettes for me because I didn’t feel safe.
The next morning I was picked up in a car at 8am and taken to surgery. I met my team of five who were to be working on me and we wasted no time. The actual procedure was worse than I’d ever imagined but I always knew it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. We worked solidly, stopping twice for meals and I was driven back as the nurses cleaned up the theatre at 11.30pm. I was picked up at 8am the next day and we finished at 11pm, agreeing that the potential risks of working a third day far outweighed any benefits, so we stopped and booked another two full days of surgery in 10 weeks time when I have, fingers crossed, healed without infection.
The physical and emotional pain I was in over those two days was matched by the physical and emotional exhaustion from the team working on me. I consider myself very lucky to have found them and to have convinced them into taking on this level of work.
As I prepared to fly home my face was swollen beyond recognition. I tried my best to apply some make-up to at least try to look a little like my passport. I had a letter in Latvian and English from my surgeon explaining what I’d been through and that I wouldn’t look like my passport photo. Nor could I wear a wig, and so bandaged up, with my best foot forward I headed home, grateful of those letters, as I really did need them.
I’m now seven days post-op and the nerve-endings are starting to come back which is increasing my pain levels despite the cocktail of painkillers. There’s no sign of infection, which is great, and I’m looking forward to nine weeks time, five by the time this is published, when I fly back to be reunited with my surgical team for another few days of work.
What a lucky, lucky woman I am.