Is exile the only solution for queer Mongolians?

Screenshot from Keks Youtube Channel.

Mongolia, a country with a relatively small population of three million people who maintain very close relations, has a vibrant LGBTQ+ community. Yet, for them, living an openly queer life can be so challenging that many consider exile the only viable solution.

Portrait of Otgonbaatar Tsedendemberel. Photo used with permission.

As several reports indicate, queer Mongolians who step out of a hidden, often underground life and come out to their families, or publicly at work and in public spaces face rejection, abuse, verbal and physical violence in a vast majority of cases. To unpack the reasons for homophobia and transphobia, Global Voices spoke to Otgonbaatar Tsedendemberel, who is a co-founder and former executive director of the LGBT Center of Mongolia. Currently, he is a PhD candidate at Doctoral School of Sociology of Corvinus University of Budapest in Hungary, exploring the notion of shame and how it characterizes the lived experiences of contemporary Mongolian queers. The interview has been edited for clarity.  

Filip Noubel (FN): What are the roots of homophobia and transphobia in Mongolia? What factors contribute to it?  

Otgonbaatar Tsedendemberel (OT): The root causes of hatred against LGBTQ+ people in Mongolia are a mix of different factors. Making it a taboo topic during socialism led to lack of knowledge and understanding of sexuality; also, the patriarchy perpetuating strict gender norms and roles alienates LGBTQ+ people as it condemns them for not conforming to the stereotypical masculine and feminine binary. Finally, nationalists and conservatives view the community as a threat to national security in the context of reproduction and accuse it of ‘perversion’ and ‘unnaturalness.’ Given that one third of the population lives under the poverty line, that there is a corrupt government and consequent deteriorating educational and health systems, understanding and respecting LGBTQ+ Mongolians is not a priority, sadly. Whereas Buddhist teachings preach tolerance and sympathy towards individual beings, and shamanism implies and practices two-spiritedness, such concepts are not fully embraced by the public in terms of accepting sexual and gender minorities. On a positive note, religion is not used as a weapon to demonize queer Mongolians.

FN: Most if not all Mongolian queers seem to experience shame due to rejection, and also erasure or invisibility. Can you describe the legal status of queer people in Mongolia and the availability of supportive and safer spaces?  

OT: In my opinion, consciously or subconsciously, most Mongolian queers experience some level of shame of being born and living as belonging to sexual and gender minorities. The Mongolian Constitution implicitly protects queer Mongolians, and our Criminal Code prohibits hate crime and speech against LGBTQ+ people. The younger generation, civil society, and human rights NGOs discussing minority issues, intersectionality, feminism, and other controversial issues, and most importantly the hard work of Ulaanbaatar's LGBT Center, have been driving forces in advancing queer rights. Pride has been held since 2013.

Promoting equality, diversity, and inclusion through queer art and literature not only by media, but also by queer community members does help improve public awareness. Although there are some progressive media outlets, art projects, and emerging queer literature that shed light on acceptance and understanding of queer Mongolians, certain mainstream media, plays, movies, and other insensitive, old-fashioned artists still portray LGBTQ+ roles as subjects and objects of joke, slapstick, and outright insult. All of this turns into a source of shaming in return.

FN: In your recent academic research, you point out that both families who reject LGBTQ+ members and queer people seem to consider exile a “solution.” Why? 

OT: Through this research and interviews with Mongolian queer diaspora, I realized how many of us have left Mongolia to seek better lives free from discrimination, hatred and violence. First, laws can’t protect us. Even if laws have SOGIESC-friendly [friendly to sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics]   provisions, judges are not doing their jobs to implement them. I heard from a respondent that a judge shamed her for bringing her family member to court for physical assault and violence because of her sexuality. In addition, going through these procedures is expensive for victims. That is why most queer Mongolians do not bother to report cases to the police and to go to court.

Secondly, relatives and others from intimate circles directly and indirectly insult and verbally abuse queers so that their family members are in the difficult position of living, with the fact that there is someone labeled as ‘pervert’ in the family. For the sake of safety and the ability to live free from all these problems, Mongolian queers are in both forced and self-imposed ‘exile.’ Mongolia's population is small — a little over 3 million people — and about half lives in the capital city Ulaanbaatar, thus there is hardly any degree of separation. As a result, people know no boundaries and limits when it comes to privacy. Once you are out, your laundry will be done openly; and it is unbearable for most queers to put up with it.

FN: Do you see a change in acceptance of queer Mongolians within Mongolia among certain groups — youth, artists, global Mongolians?

OT: In the past ten years, it has been changing a lot for the better. We have an androgynous-then-transgender model, who struts her stuff for major fashion shows, which indicates open-mindedness, tolerance, and inclusivity of the fashion industry of Mongolia. Playtime Festival, an annual summer music festival, featured a solo drag show last year. Most Mongolian expats are exposed to foreign societies with progressive understanding of and respect for LGBTQ+ people all around the world, so they tend to understand and sympathize with queer Mongolians at home.

Nevertheless, there is a long road towards truly genuine social and gender justice for LGBTQ+ Mongolians. Naturally, we should dismantle patriarchal norms and systemic barriers that prevent Mongolian queers to be and live as they are. More importantly, it is an attitudinal issue that Mongolians should learn about and get accustomed to sexual diversity, gender equality, and sexual and gender fluidity from their early years through comprehensive sexuality education at schools and through honest and enabling dialogues at home with empathetic  and kind-hearted parents, friends, siblings, caregivers, and guardians.

Here is the instagram account of transgender model Lana Münh:


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