A.C. has spent her life striving to be perfect, in looks and behavior alike.
As a child in southern Moldova, she was friendly and well-behaved. At medical school in Chisinau, she spent her evenings over her books, rather than partying late into the night with her friends.
And now, at 33, she cuts a striking figure, with glossy black hair and a broad, engaging smile. "If people stare at me," she says, "it's only because they like how I look."
Ask for her documents, however, and the image of perfection starts to unravel.
A.C. is a transsexual, born with the physical characteristics of a male. Eight years of hormone therapy have raised her voice and softened her features. But on paper, she is still a man - a fact she's confronted with every time she's asked to show her passport or ID card.
"If you need to make some payments, for the phone or for power for your apartment, you need to show the bank your identity card," she says. "Otherwise they cannot make the payment. To open an account or get a Visa [credit] card, you need a passport. If you have a problem or troubles, for example, with an ATM, or you lose your card, you need to go to the bank and give them an explanation. And if you're in a dress, with makeup, it's a little bit strange, you know?"
A.C., who asked that her full name not be used, has spent years petitioning Moldovan authorities to alter her name and gender designation on her documents, even submitting to psychiatric evaluations in hopes of bolstering her case.
But late last month, she received the devastating news that her application had been rejected a final time. Having exhausted her options at home, A.C. must now take her complaint to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), where her case could take years to resolve.
Slow But Steady Progress
Discrimination against sexual minorities remains rife in Moldova. In 2012, together with Russia, it was ranked the lowest of 49 European countries in terms of rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.
But, in the past year, the country has shown slow but steady progress that may put Moldova at the forefront of LGBT rights in the post-Soviet region.
In June 2012, the ECHR ruled that Moldova's ban on a 2005 gay-rights demonstration was a violation of human rights. This January, a sweeping anti-discrimination law came into effect, formalizing the protection of labor rights for LGBT members. And on February 14, a small group of activists quietly staged the country's first legal pride march, a milestone made all the more remarkable by the fact that it was conducted with full police protection.
Anastasia Danilova, the executive director of GenderDoc-M, Moldova's main LGBT organization, was among the participants.
"A representative from the Internal Affairs Ministry invited someone from our organization to a meeting to discuss what path the protest would follow and assured us that the safety of the participants would be guaranteed," she says. "In the end, there were eight participants in the march, and 15 or 20 policemen around them."
Activists say they hope the small-scale march sends a positive signal to people who still remember the vicious crackdown on a city pride event in 2008, when a bus carrying LGBT activists was attacked by hundreds of antigay protesters as police stood by and watched. A second march is planned in the Moldovan capital on May 19.Deep Social Stigma
LGBT rights have struggled to find their place on human-rights agendas in the former Soviet Union, where homosexuality and gender nonconformity, criminalized under communism, still carry a deep social stigma.
But in Moldova, groups like Gender Doc have matched a savvy legal offensive with gentler tactics to ease LGBT rights into mainstream public debate. This includes the launch of Egali, an online video project in which ordinary Moldovans, both gay and straight, speak frankly to the camera about their coming-of-age challenges.
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The initiative has been so successful that Egali has been selected to host Eastern Europe's first official affiliate of It Gets Better, the prominent U.S.-based campaign aimed at preventing suicide among LGBT youth.
The modest progress in Moldova is seen as a sharp contrast to developments in neighboring Russia and Ukraine, where authorities are pressing a range of measures -- including a ban on so-called homosexual "propaganda" -- seen as a massive setback for the LGBT rights movement.
Moldova's pro-European government, in place since 2009, has so far prevented the country from following suit. But last month's dismissal of the government over corruption allegations has raised the specter of early elections and a return of the Communist Party, which has already threatened to introduce its own Russia-style propaganda law.
In the meantime, the West has sought to leverage its current influence to push LGBT rights onto Moldova's reform agenda.
U.S. Embassy officials have been vocal in their support for the Moldovan LGBT community, and the EU made the antidiscrimination law a precondition for a much-desired visa-liberalization regime.
A Constant Struggle
Ulrike Lunacek, the co-president of the European Parliament's Intergroup on LGBT Rights, says sexual-diversity rights are high on Europe's agenda in Moldova.
But she warns that government instability in Chisinau and opposition efforts to repeal the antidiscrimination law could easily derail current gains.
"There's a constant struggle, because LGBT rights are something that raise a lot of concerns and protests in many countries," she says. "[This is] especially [true] in the ex-Soviet countries, where homosexuality was always seen as a Western deviance, and where [LGBT rights] are now seen as something imposed by the European Union. They argue, 'It's something the EU is imposing on us, it's not our values.' And I think that has to be tackled."
A.C., for one, has watched the changes in her country with a mix of hope and despair. Her document impasse, among other things, means she is unable to vote if Moldova is forced into early elections.
She is also unable to pass through customs, ask a policeman for help, or find official work in her trained profession. All those things require airtight documents. A trained anesthesiologist, A.C. currently works off the books for a friend with a private clinical practice. "I have no rights," she says heavily.
A.C. hopes to eventually travel abroad to receive the sex-reassignment surgery that would complete her physical transformation from male to female. But she says she would never leave Moldova for good. She's initiated plans to build a pharmaceutical plant to produce low-cost medicine for cancer patients. And she hopes to someday marry and raise a family.
"I'm a smart woman, I can make a lot of beautiful things happen here in Moldova," she says, her voice starting to shake. Without documents, however, any plans for the future remain indefinitely on hold.
"It's only a formality, but it's something that's very important for me," she adds. "I'm not a person who stays in jail or uses drugs. I'm a normal person, but they cannot accept such things. Me and my friend who is in the same situation, we are good people. We have diplomas. We have a lot of things going on in our lives. Why can't they accept it? We're not from the street."
This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.