A trans man facing persecution in Russia heard of ‘trans refuge’ state and fled to Minnesota

A man poses with a trans pride flag
Transgender Russian refugee Erik Beda outside the Twin Cities Pride offices in Minneapolis, a transgender pride flag draped around his shoulders, on Wednesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Updated: 12:40 p.m.

Use the audio player above to hear from Erik Beda in conversation with Aleesa Kuznetsov.

Erik Beda’s mere existence is practically a death sentence in Russia. He’s transgender, which is illegal and considered an act of terror in the country.

“There is a sense of despair and catastrophe,” Erik Beda, 36, said in an interview with MPR News senior producer Aleesa Kuznetsov. The two spoke in Russian. Being LGBTQ+ has long been socially unacceptable in Russia, and eventually became illegal.

“Younger people say they want to end their life,” he said of the law. “Their families don’t care about them, and now the government has turned against them.”

In 2013, the Kremlin adopted the first legislation restricting LGBTQ+ rights, known as the “gay propaganda” law, banning any public endorsement of “nontraditional sexual relations” among minors.

In 2020, same-sex marriage was outlawed in Russia’s constitution.

And in July 2023, a law passed prohibiting gender-transitioning procedures and gender-affirming care for transgender people. It also barred transgender people from adopting children. In November 2023, Russia added the LGBTQ+ community to its extremist list.

One month later, Erik Beda would flee his home in Russia with his husband in search for safety in Minnesota.

Being transgender in Russia

Erik Beda knew he was transgender as a young kid. In high school, he began dressing more masculine. But for a long time, he didn’t know physical transition was an option.

“I thought I was crazy,” he said.

Erik Beda met his future husband, Ivan Beda, in 2005 in college at Russian State Agricultural University. Both studied Animal Engineering. The couple married in 2006.

They were forced to divorce so Erik Beda could begin the process of transitioning. He became aware of gender-affirming care and surgery in 2012. But before being able to physically transition, he said he had to prove he was transgender.

In order to start that process, their marriage was annulled because same-sex marriage was not allowed. Erik Beda also said he had to undergo a psychological evaluation and share intimate details of his life to prove he identified as a man. He ended up with “diagnosis of transsexualism.”

When he spoke his truth, threats began to appear from every corner of his life he said, including from his mother in 2013.

“She hired three people who kidnapped me and drove me to an abandoned factory. They were torturing, beating and insulting me,” he described. “They knocked my teeth out, and threatened to rape me, all so I could become a ‘normal woman.’”

Erik Beda cut ties with his family after that incident.

A person being arrested
Russian riot police detained a gay rights activist during World Day Against Homophobia and Transophobia in St. Petersburg on May 17, 2019.
Olga Maltseva | AFP via Getty Images

Fleeing Russia

In 2021, Erik Beda and Ivan Beda bought a home and some land in the Volgegrad region, about 600 miles south of Moscow. The couple hoped to own a farm and business, but that dream was put on hold when the war in Ukraine began and the economy was uncertain. In the meantime, they both worked at neighboring farms.

Erik Beda had not yet physically transitioned.

“People saw that I looked like a man, but my documents stated I was a woman,” Beda explained.

Someone in their town threatened the Bedas, showed up to their home and eventually attacked them, Erik Beda said. He said that he went to the police, but the attacker was the son of the police captain and the police refused to investigate.

Instead, the police searched the Bedas’ home and arrested Erik Beda, he said. In prison, he said he was once again tortured and beaten.

Erik and Ivan Beda decided they needed to leave, and went to Moscow.

In June 2023, Erik Beda started taking testosterone and had top surgery. He changed his legal documents to match his identity one month before the ban on gender-affirming care went into effect.

“You could say I jumped on the last train leaving the station,” said Erik Beda.

In October 2023, Erik Beda was served a summons to appear for questioning in November. He said he was accused of making a false report to police back in Volgegrad. Erik Beda and Ivan Beda started making plans to flee.

“We understood that I couldn’t go to the questioning, because they would arrest me and throw me in jail,” said Erik Beda. “They would beat me, and I would die.”

Man with a dog
Ivan Beda, Erik's husband, is currently in ICE detention in Georgia. When Erik and Ivan fled Russia, they had to leave their dog behind.
Courtesy of Erik Beda

Erik and Ivan didn’t have enough time to get a visa anywhere in Europe, so they decided to flee to Mexico. Their goal was to eventually enter the United States.  

The couple made it to the airport before security found Erik Beda’s testosterone, which he said is considered a hard drug in Russia and could mean time in prison. Luckily, his doctor changed the documents, so he was able to go through customs with his prescription.  

Additionally, he said the summons for Erik Beda’s arrest was in his deadname.

“I can’t say for certain, but I think their records were not up to date,” he said.

Erik Beda and Ivan Beda made it on a plane to Mexico on Dec. 23, 2023.

The couple spent every day of nearly three months in Mexico trying to get an appointment to apply for asylum. They ran out of money and decided to attempt to cross the border into the U.S.

“On our way to the border we were robbed by two people,” Erik Beda recalled. “They had a knife. We tried to run away but their dog ran after us, and we were bit.”

He said all of their money and belongings were stolen before they reached the border crossing.  

“That’s not an uncommon story that we hear,” said Hanne Sandison, the program director for refugees and immigrants at The Advocates for Human Rights. The organization has been working on Erik Beda and Ivan Beda’s case.  

They were both taken to a detention facility in Yuma, Ariz. Erik Beda was released from detention while his immigration case proceeds, as is common for asylum seekers. Since they are divorced, Ivan Beda's case is processing separately and he remains in detention.

Refuge in Minnesota

After his release from ICE custody, Erik Beda said he took a bus to a place full of makeshift tents. A nonprofit gave him food, asked if he needed to call anyone and said they would buy him a one-way plane ticket. They asked Erik Beda where he wanted to go. He said he wanted to go to Minnesota.  

“It’s an obvious fact that Minnesota is a refuge for trans people, so we had no doubts that we had to go,” Erik Beda said.

The LGBTQ+ community in Russia uses private internet networks to share news articles blocked by the government, Erik Beda explained. That is how the trans community in Russian learned about Minnesota’s “trans refuge” status.

On April 27, 2023, Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill designating Minnesota as refuge for transgender people. The law means people can seek gender-affirming care in Minnesota regardless of the laws of where they’re from.

Sandison said she has met other trans people who have sought refuge in Minnesota.

“We imagine that as laws in Russia and in other places around the world continue to become more violent and more anti-LGBTQ, that this will be a population that we continue to serve,” Sandison said.

On March 22, Erik Beda flew into Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Through Google Translate, Erik Beda asked the first person he saw for help from airport police. Ultimately, it was airport assistance volunteer John Pundsack who helped.

Pundsack immediately took Erik Beda under his wing, buying him some clothes, food and finding him a shelter in Minneapolis. Pundsack and his husband also started a GoFundMe for Erik Beda and Ivan Beda.

The governor speaks at a podium
Gov. Tim Walz speaks in front of supporters of the trans refuge bill at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul.
Ben Hovland | MPR News 2023

When Erik Beda is not with Pundsack, he spends time taking the light rail around the Twin Cities. He also gets five minutes each day to talk to Ivan over the phone.

“I share with him what is happening here, and progress on our legal case,” Erik Beda said. He wants to make sure Ivan remains hopeful in the detention center.  

Erik Beda is desperate to find someone to sponsor him and Ivan Beda. “My biggest fear is Ivan will be sent back to Russia and deported,” he said.

Sandison said sponsorship can help a person get released through a petition to ICE. When released, it is easier for a person to seek asylum. Once asylum seekers are released, Sandison said they can wait as long as 10 years for their case to play out in court.

Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar’s office is also helping the Beda’s and has contacted ICE.

“As a refugee myself, I have been a consistent advocate for fair and quick asylum hearings. It is not reasonable to keep people with valid asylum claims detained for long periods of time simply because we don’t have the capacity to review their cases,” Omar shared in a statement to MPR News.

While their journey in Minnesota has just begun, Erik Beda said it’s a miracle they were able to escape Russia.

“There are thousands of LGBTQ people that are still there, and they are trapped. And that’s something the whole world needs to know,” Erik Beda said. “They need to know.”

Correction (April 26, 2024): This story and audio have been changed to correct that Erik was attacked by a neighbor before he began receiving gender-affirming care.

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