UKRAINE: Podcasts

There’s a LOT of podcasts on Ukraine available right now, mainly focused on the the Russian invasion and analysis about Ukraine’s future. As always, I’m trying to prioritize podcasts that by Ukrainians or feature Ukrainian voices, though there’s plenty of good material out there otherwise – understandably, Ukraine has been on everyone’s mind lately. Here’s what I’ve been listening to over the last few weeks:

BBC: Ukrainecast – A daily podcast that the BBC started when the Russian invasion happened, focusing just on stories, interviews, news, and analysis on Ukraine and the war.

Highlights from Ukraine – To bolster the previous podcast, Highlights from Ukraine is a short summary in English of what’s in Ukraine’s media that day. It’s run by Ukrainians, and gives even better coverage of internal politics that may not make it into foreign reporting.

UkrainianSpaces: Queer Pride – UkrainianSpaces is an English language podcast that gets into discussions on Ukrainian life, culture, and reality that may be missing from foreign narratives. This episode is both on and by Ukraine’s LGBTQ community. The hosts speak with one of the organizers of Kyiv Pride, who has been getting requests from foreign media to comment on how the war has affected them and the community. However, the media has been asking for stories of suffering, and ignoring the stories of Queer Ukrainians fighting the invasion, or how Ukraine had been making significant strides for the community before the war. Really interesting and introspective podcast.

Fighting For Ukraine – Short daily updates from Yuriy Matsarsky, an Ukrainian journalist who is actively fighting in a civilian militia. Warzone updates, what he’s seeing on the ground, and what he’s feeling as a Ukrainian fighting for his homeland. He also has a GoFundMe up to help support him and his family – they’ve left the country and like all fighting-age men, he is staying.

The Conversation: The history and evolution of Ukrainian national identity – A really interesting podcast with discussion on the creation of Ukrainian identity out of both the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, and how it waned during the Soviet years, and is now being recreated – pushed by opposition to Russia.

Deconstructed: The War Over Ukrainian History and Identity – An interview from the Intercept with an Ukrainian sociologist that takes a bit of a different spin from the above podcast. It’s a more non-nationalist interpretation of Ukrainian identity looking at how the Ukrainian government is structuring identity, and the problem of corruption and oligarchs in Ukraine that has rarely been spoken about since the invasion started.

GABON: Yannis Davy Guibinga

From The First Woman

Yannis Davy Guibinga is a Gabonese photographer, now based in Montreal, who does incredible portraits exploring race, gender, decolonization, and the history and culture of Africa. His photography series come in stories – I’m really taken by The Grief, setting out the stages of grief and the reconnection to the self. I’d suggest scrolling through the whole story, but here are some beautiful excerpts:

Another incredible collection is Boy Wives & Female Husbands, a look a third-gender and gender-non-confirming stories from around Africa:

GABON: The Fury and Cries of Women by Angèle Rawiri

Angèle Rawiri holds the honour of being not just the first female Gabonese novelist, but the first Gabonese novelist, with her books published through the 80s. Her third novel, The Fury and Cries of Women is her best-known and most widely acclaimed. It follows Emilienne, an accomplished professional in a fictional Gabonese city, who met her husband while they were both at university in France. While outwardly successful, Emilienne is caught up in pressures from her husband (and from herself) to have a second child, especially after their daughter’s death – despite Emilienne’s pregnancies ending in painful miscarriages. Conflict with her husband over his infidelity and an antagonistic mother-in-law grows worse and more antagonistic, crossing from dysfunctional to melodramatic, and sending Emilienne into the arms of her female secretary, and things spiral from there.

It’s a really interesting book that puts a deeper spin classic “modern woman vs. tradition” trope, building on African feminism vs. Western feminism, and the inability of women to “have it all”. The afterword had an interesting discussion on “rebellious women” vs. “disobedient women” in literature, and where Emilienne crosses the line between the two. There’s also a class element here – Emilienne has her struggles intensified (but also has the ability to fight back) exactly because she is a powerful woman, who owns her home and out-earns her husband.

SAN MARINO: Referendums on women’s and LGBTQ rights

Being a small voter base with a robust democracy, San Marino has passed some big referendums over recent years. In just this past September, San Marino voted 77% in favour of legalizing abortion, which had previously been totally banned (and with criminal sanctions on the books for it). San Marino was one of the last few European countries that still banned it; the remaining countries with bans are almost all other microstates like Andorra and Malta. Women from San Marino previously went over to Italy to terminate pregnancies, but access could be limited there either due to cost (over 1000 euros, with no reimbursement by San Marino’s healthcare) or due to doctor refusal. There’s a good rundown of parts of the campaign and the outcome in this post on San Marino Watch.

San Marino had previously been late to the table with women’s rights – women only could vote starting in 1960 and run for office in 1973, and up until 2000, if a Sammarinese woman married a foreign citizen, she lost her San Marino citizenship (which did not apply for men marrying female foreigners).

In recent years, San Marino also has had a rapidly evolving attitude towards the LGBTQ community – until 2004 homosexuality was still a crime there. However, in 2018, San Marino legalized same-sex civil unions (being a Catholic country, no way they’d be getting the Church on board), and in 2019 passed a referendum that added protection against discrimination over sexual orientation directly into the Sammarinese constitution. While they’re not up to full equality yet – civil unions don’t provide the same rights as marriage, joint adoption is still not available, and there is no right to change one’s gender – it’s definitely concrete progress for a country that holds very closely to tradition as a core part of its identity.

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO: Witchbroom by Lawrence Scott

Witchbroom by Lawrence Scott is a flowing, dizzying novel – it feels much like Love in the Time of Cholera. Both a satirical and mournful book, following Lavren, the last child of a great plantation family on Trinidad, who is both intersex and able to conjure up his family’s past – somewhere between telling tales, actual visions, and physically manifesting in the past.

It’s dreamy floating magical realism, without hard narrative boundaries, but that tracks through the crimes and passions of Lavren’s family through Trinidad’s history. Class, race, religion, and colonial power structures weave their way through the decline and dying out of this wealthy family, who are sometimes cruel, wholly self-interested, and all very odd, but at the same time, it’s shot through with the human tenderness of Lavren taking care of his mother in her last days.

THAILAND: Kathoeys and Toms

Thailand is well known for being one of the most open Asian countries for trans and queer people. Why it stands out compared to its neighbours is largely chalked up to traditional Thai culture, which includes third genders, mixed with Buddhism’s focus on the inherent earthliness of all matters of sex and gender. That being said, legal equality for the LGBTQ community isn’t there yet, discrimination definitely still exists, and many people end up either choosing or needing to work in the sex industry.

I was looking for interviews with Thai kathoeys – the trans women who often are the face of discussions on sex and gender in Thailand, and oh boy, I had to wade through a LOT of weird exoticizing and fetishizing “ladyboy” crap first.

I’m not going to share any of that, instead, I want to start with an interview with Sirikanya Julalukkun (Sauce), and entrepreneur and actress about her experiences as a trans woman. What’s very interesting is that she herself draws a distinction between trans and cis women in a different way than we do in the West.

The term kathoey can also be a bit broader in Thailand – it mainly means trans women, but can also include intersex people, other gender expressions, as well as drag performers or feminine gay men.

Less talked about internationally when looking at gender and sexuality in Thailand are Toms – gay women who present in a very masculine fashion, while still identifying as a woman. They’re very similar to butch lesbians (and have corresponding femmes, called Dees). However, they usually don’t use the term lesbian, which in Thailand instead generally refers to feminine gay women who are attracted to other feminine women. There’s a lot more complexity and subtlety to these identities and they don’t fit exactly into a lot of Western ideas of queerness – I’d strongly suggest the below video for more details on Toms.

THAILAND: Call It What You Want

I may have spent this past long weekend watching Thai dramas – I have no regrets.

Call It What You Want follows a struggling director, James, as he grudgingly takes a contract to film a “BL” (Boys’ Love) drama – Asian media that focuses on romance between men, but is largely marketed towards women. James himself is gay, but before signing on, has focused on making much more serious films (there’s a nod towards more outright queer films with James’ posters of Brokeback Mountain, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in his apartment).

James, despite already having a boyfriend, finds himself infatuated with one of the leads, and the show becomes a meta BL drama – one that’s both goofy and self-aware, but rich with emotion and sensitivity. It also focuses on the abusive and manipulative working conditions that the film crew, particularly the actors, are trapped in. The two men playing the leads take the brunt of it, navigating the media attention on their lives that’s drummed up to make a buzz for the TV show.

ALBANIA: Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones

Albanian author Elvira Dones‘ personal story is sounds like a novel in its own right – she started her career with Albanian state television in the communist era, then used a filming trip to Switzerland in 1988 to defect. She was only reunited with her son after the fall of communism. She is both an author and a filmmaker, and she writes as much in Italian as Albanian.

Sworn Virgin is the story of Hana, a young woman who gives up her university studies in Tirana to return to her rural mountain town to take care of her dying uncle. She decides, both due to external and internal factors, to stay in the village and take the oath to become a sworn virgin. She lives as a man until a decade and a half later, where the slow decline of the village eventually pushes Hana to join her cousin who has emigrated to the US. She also decides at that point to return to living as a woman, and faces the uncertainty of her own feelings and identity.

Hana’s story is as much about the emigrants’ experience as it is about gender and identity, with Hana’s male existence deeply tied to her roots in the rural mountains, while her former and current female iterations are very much placed in Tirana and the States. Deep down, Hana navigates not just her family’s expectations, but her own expectations of herself.

As with my other post on sworn virgins, tagging it LGBTQ because of gender identity, but again noting that sworn virgins are women living as men, not trans men – it’s more transitioning your role in your community rather than yourself.

ALBANIA: Sworn virgins

An brief look into Albania’s custom of sworn virgins – women who take an oath of celibacy and then live as a man, fully accepted into male spaces and male roles. These vows have often happened when there are no men left in the family, or by women to escape an arranged marriage, or sometimes purely voluntarily – in a very patriarchal system, it allows a woman to live much more freely.

The custom is tied into the same Kanun codes that blood feuds belong to, and set out larger interpersonal and societal relationships in northern regions of Albania. These traditions have been dying out, though there was a resurgence after the fall of communism as structure was needed to fill the gaps left by the state as it collapsed. While these oaths still occur occasionally, most sworn virgins are older – the decision happens less and less as traditional patriarchal gender roles erode and women exercise rights in their own capacity as women.

I’m tagging this with the LGBTQ tag, mainly as it deals with gender identity, but sworn virgins are not to be confused with trans men. Sworn virgins are women living as men, and doing so inside a very strict gender binary – this oath is often taken because of external factors, and most sworn virgins do not consider themselves transgender.

CHILE: A Fantastic Woman (2017)

A Fantastic Woman starts with a tender couple, Marina and Orlando, on a romantic date night. Later that evening Orlando suffers an aneurysm – they rush to the hospital, but it’s too late. Marina’s world begins to fall apart, not just from her grief of her lover’s death, but also that it brings her into close contact with Orlando’s estranged wife and family, whose anger at her is piqued not just because she was Orlando’s girlfriend, but also that she is transgender.

Marina grieves as her life is upended, and her last connections to Orlando are severed and she navigates the humiliations, large and small, that are thrown at her. It’s a powerful and moving film, with exceptional acting by Daniela Vega as Marina. It won an Oscar in 2018 (the first with a trans performer as the lead), and the film helped push through trans rights legislation that year in Chile to protect gender identity and allow for easy changes of names and gender on official documents.