Gay marriage has been firmly in the spotlight recently, but in many parts of the world the LGBT community is still persecuted. In Mongolia, there is a brave transgender activist who is standing up for his community’s rights.
Friday, the 22nd of May 2015 was a momentous day in the history of my country. With the eyes of the world watching, Ireland became the first nation on earth to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote. A small island that had for centuries been held within the moralistic shackles of the Catholic Church and where homosexuality was a crime up until 1992, almost 70% of the Irish population made the decision to embrace fairness and equality by voting “yes”. Labelled in the run-up to the referendum as “the civil rights issue of a generation”, the overwhelming result was viewed by many as a powerful statement of acceptance towards a section of the population that had been oppressed for so long.
Ireland now joins a list of 20 countries where same-sex marriage is legal; a list that, with the exception of South Africa and Israel, doesn’t include a single nation from Africa or Asia. It is also a list that stands in stark contrast to the 80 countries that still have anti-homosexual laws in place, including the 10 countries that believe that homosexuality is a crime meriting death.
One country where homophobic sentiment has seen a rise in the number of violent attacks on members of the LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transsexual) community is Mongolia. The enormous Central Asian country, most famous for its ancient emperor Genghis Khaan, has a population of just over 3 million but thanks to a recent mining boom, now has one of the fasting growing economies in the world. A relatively impoverished nation that had been a Soviet satellite state before communism fell in 1991, this economic growth has seen poverty levels drop by 11% in the space of 2 years. But with vast amounts of foreign investment flooding in to the country, it is clear that some are profiting more than most from the country’s mineral wealth.
As the Mongolian economy has expanded, the gap between rich and poor has followed suit. This has led to an increase in social tensions among the marginalised of society and an environment that is ripe for extreme right-wing views and accusations against ‘outsiders’. As a consequence of this rising disquiet, a number of ultra-nationalist groups have cropped up in Mongolia over the past few years. They portray themselves as patriots and guardians of Mongolian traditions, attacking and threatening those they view as threats to Mongolian ‘pure blood’; mainly foreigners, inter-racial couples and members of the LGBT community.
One notable ultra-nationalist group is Tsagaan Khass (White Swastika), whose 100 or so members dress in black uniforms and wear the swastika with pride. In an interview with The Guardian in 2010, the group’s leadership spoke of their admiration for Adolf Hitler, hailing the manner in which he fixed the German economy in the 1930s while “preserving national identity”. Although the group has publicly distanced itself from violence in recent years (in order to focus on addressing environmental issues caused by foreign mining companies), few within the Mongolian LGBT community believe that the violent attacks and threats have ceased.
One of the small number of activists standing up to this rising hatred is Anaraa Nyamdorj, a transgender man who has been championing gay rights in Mongolia for over a decade and who in 2007 founded Mongolia’s first LGBT rights organisation – the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Centre. A fluent English, Russian and Japanese speaker, he has represented Mongolian LGBT human rights both nationally and internationally and was a speaker at the International LGBT Human Rights Conference in Montreal in 2006. He organised the first HIV/AIDS human rights conference to be held in Mongolia in 2007 and has published numerous reports in English and Mongolian on LGBT human rights.
He was also kind enough to talk to No-Yolo about the issues currently facing LGBT and minority rights in Mongolia.
– Could you tell us a little about the LGBT Mongolia Centre; when it was set up, what its aims are and how it has been received in Ulaanbaatar and Mongolia as a whole?
The Center was set up in March 2007 to implement equal rights for LGBT people in Mongolia. Frustratingly, it took us nearly 3 years to get officially registered as a non-government organisation (legal firms had been claiming that the name conflicted with “Mongolian customs and traditions and has the potential to set the wrong example for youth and adolescents” ), but since then we have worked tirelessly to engage multilateral platforms and ensure that the Mongolian government recognizes the issue of LGBT rights. This particular engagement tactic is called the “Boomerang effect”, and it’s especially crucial for social activists that work on behalf of so-called new (for the context) human rights issues, such as SOGIE ( Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity/Expression) issues in Mongolia.
Our work is done on two levels: we serve both the LGBT community and the wider public. Earlier this year we set up programmes dealing with legal, health and youth issues, while we are also in the process of restructuring programmes that we already have in place (such as the Rural Outreach and Advocacy Programmes), or closing programmes that didn’t engage sufficiently with the community in question (such as the Trans Programme).
Having campaigned on behalf of LGBT rights since the early 2000’s, I must admit that it has taken a long time for other, mainstream human rights NGOs to come on board with SOGIE issues. This attitude still persists, and we often find ourselves excluded from crucial engagements and policy talks on LGBT issues because we were not informed in advance by the organizers. It’s a challenge when even fellow human rights defenders see SOGIE issues as superfluous.
– Have attitudes towards sexual orientation changed in Mongolia since the end of communism?
A lot of water has flown under the bridge since Mongolia became a democratic country in 1991, but the biggest problem in terms of attitudes towards sexuality was the lack of information and education on SOGIE issues that was available to the Mongolian public. Until the LGBT Centre was set up, any information on these issues was available solely via the media and pop culture (movies and foreign tv series, etc.)
The media has played an instrumental – if albeit at times negative – role in shaping attitudes towards sexual orientation by stereotyping LGBT people and using derogatory language to describe us, but this is slowly getting better. We’re a long way from living in a society where same-sex unions are recognized on a par with opposite-sex unions, but we’re hoping to make headway once the upcoming anti-discrimination legislation is passed.
–Through your work with the LGBT Centre and running your bar, have many of your members and customers experienced discrimination or attacks because of their sexual orientation?
I don’t think there is a single lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans person in Mongolia who could say that they have never faced some sort of discrimination or violence on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Very often, our community members will downplay a hate attack, believing that only an act of physical or sexual violence should be worth reporting, and so they leave out the verbal and psychological attacks when approaching us for help.
-Have you yourself been the victim of hate crime/attacks? How have the authorities treated these crimes?
I have been subjected to many instances of violence in my life, along with being denied the recognition of my marriage (pre-transition, so it was a same-sex union with my ex-wife who is an Australian citizen, and which made our lives hell when she needed to get her Mongolian visa renewed). Post-transition I was kicked out of my house by my family and denied accommodation by landlords who would not rent to us because of our relationship. I have also been fired and let go of from jobs because of my identity.
The worst hate attack I have experienced came in February 2012 when an ex-boyfriend of my sister’s came into the bar I owned at the time and punched me twice in the face, while shouting “So they say you’re a guy now. Let’s fight it out like men”. As a result of the attack, I was left with a fractured orbital bone (eye socket), and was required to go back and forth to the police station where I had to state my case again and again. Although the attacker was found guilty in September 2012 by the first instance criminal court, the Chingeltei District Criminal Court, he was never handed a sentence, not even a fine. A few months later, while I was going through the State Criminal Database, I couldn’t even find my case in their files. So he appears to have been exonerated from all wrong-doing.
Many of our community members do not approach the police when attacked for fear of secondary victimization, and rightly so: recently one trans woman went to the police after being defrauded by a taxi driver. Not only was her case never registered and no measures taken against the taxi driver; the woman’s hair was pulled by the police officer on duty, which lead to the trans girl becoming indignant and slapping the police officer in question.
Very often, even when community members do report a crime and lodge criminal complaints, we find that our cases are treated lightly, and our injuries, both physical and mental, are belittled. As a result, a sizable number of LGBT victims of these instances of violence will withdraw their complaints because of slow police work and the police officers’ attitudes.
– How would you assess the current state of LGBT rights in Mongolia? Is it something that is highlighted in the media or at a political level?
We’re fairly happy that we’re seeing progress in the LGBT rights situation in Mongolia, primarily thanks to the advocacy efforts we’ve undertaken on the international stage, notably at the UN Human Rights Council (Universal Periodic Review in November 2010 and May 2015) as well as with various treaty bodies (CAT in 2010, CCPR in 2011 and CESCR in 2015). These engagements have helped ensure that LGBT rights issues are firmly on the agenda of the Mongolian government and our ultimate goal is to see a comprehensive, anti-discrimination legislation passed in Mongolia that will protect every citizen from discrimination, including discrimination on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Since supporting our registration as an NGO in 2009, the National Human Rights Commission of Mongolia has been proactive in engaging with SOGIE issues; ensuring that the rights of LGBT citizens were addressed in the 12th Periodic Report on the Human Rights Situation in Mongolia in 2013, as well as in the hate crimes definition in the new draft of the Criminal Code.
Following talks with experts from the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on 4 June 2015, a government representative declared that despite the slow progress being made on protecting sexuality minorities in Mongolia, the government is committed to protecting everyone equally from all forms of discrimination. While we await the results of these talks, we’re continuously working to ensure that the 2010 and 2015 UPR reports are implemented. We see continued engagement of all relevant ministries and agencies in charge of specific issues such as education, healthcare and social protection as crucial to achieving our goals.
– Is there much in the way of Gay tourism in Mongolia?
Tourism is one of the areas of income generation for the country, but there has been little done to create gay-friendly tourism in Mongolia. In 2013, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism passed a sector-wide anti-discrimination policy, but I am not sure to what extent companies are targeting the ‘pink dollar’. The Centre wants to do a survey on the Mongolian tourism sector and help train tourist companies on providing LGBT-friendly services starting this year. Let’s see how we get on.
– Along with working on behalf of LGBT right, you also have experience working with refugees; where are the refugees usually from and as a whole, how are they treated and dealt with in Mongolia? Do many get the chance to develop and contribute to society?
Having worked with refugees in Mongolia, I can say that they are, at best, tolerated by the Mongolian government, which continues to completely overlook its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as under its own Constitution. Since the status of refugees is not legally recognised in the population movement frameworks, asylum seekers and refugees are allowed to stay in the country until their asylum application is processed, but in the meantime they are not allowed the same rights that a legally residing foreigner would be allowed (which are essentially the same economic, social and cultural rights that a Mongolian national is entitled to).
Very often, a newborn refugee child’s registration causes problems; accessing education and childcare for their children continues to be an issue for our refugees. Because the majority of our asylum seekers and refugees are Inner Mongolians from the People’s Republic of China, they are often abused and mistreated by people like their landlords, neighbours and other people who deal with them on a daily basis.
Asylum rights is one of the most backward areas of human rights in Mongolia, with no NGOs dedicated to supporting the rights of asylum seekers or refugees. Being personally committed to refugee issues, I find myself giving advice to asylum seekers from time to time, but I wish I could do more than that.
-What is your opinion of ultra-nationalist groups like Tsagaan Khass? A Central Asian neo-Nazi group is just so bizarre, particularly given Mongolia’s history; what do you think their reasoning is?
Ultra-nationalism that is outwardly and ideologically very fascist, is a whole social phenomenon that deserves its own article. I see this phenomenon as echoing the social disparities and inequalities that have grown wider in our society and left many people on the margins.
The inequality and resulting violence that manifests itself in disadvantaged areas breeds radicalisation of marginalised people, and this is evident in groups like Tsagaan Khass; ultra-nationalism with a fascist face in Mongolia. People are easier to manipulate when they have little or no access to information and knowledge. The very fact that these self-professed ultra-nationalists are often found trying to violently impose rigid gender and sexuality-related norms, proclaiming that what they propagate is based on Mongolian traditions, proves that they have no knowledge of the tradition of tolerance and acceptance of sexuality and gender in Mongolia. Ultra-nationalist movements may call themselves what they like, but the fact remains that they engage in extreme violence.