LGBT Rights Gain A Foothold In Mongolia
In December 2009, after a three-year struggle, the LGBT community in Mongolia won legal recognition for the very first and only LGBT Centre there. Robyn Garner, the centre’s Executive Director, speaks about the discrimination faced by LGBT people, challenges and lessons learned from the campaign and the implications for other LGBT struggles worldwide.
By Masum Momaya
AWID: In general, how are LGBT persons treated in Mongolia?
Robyn Garner (R.G.): The short answer is badly. Discrimination, misunderstanding, ignorance and outright hatred exist at all levels and in all areas of society. To be gay or transgendered in Mongolia is to be an outcast; the overwhelming majority of LGBT people choose to live extremely closeted lives. They live in fear, and understandably so. The threat of violence, the loss of livelihoods, the loss of housing and the loss of family and friends is real. Most of the documented violence has been familial, with LGBT people attacked by a family member when their sexual orientation and/or gender identity is suspected or has become known. However, recently - with the surge in extreme ultra-nationalist groups - we have seen an alarming rise in gang attacks on gay men and transgendered persons. Also, because the LGBT community has a legitimate fear of secondary violence by police, these attacks have not been reported.
There are no legal or constitutional protections for LGBT people in Mongolia. In essence, legislatively and constitutionally, they are invisible. Persecution by the police and the General Intelligence Agency (GIA) is common. We know, for example, that the GIA keeps a record of known homosexuals in Mongolia and engages in active surveillance of LGBT people. We also have anecdotal evidence of arbitrary police detentions and violence while in custody.
Women are also subject to violence and harassment. We have recorded incidences of sexual assaults against a number of lesbians, and of lesbians beaten by their families and thrown on to the streets.
The rate of suicide among LGBT people, particularly LGBT youth, is high. But you will never read about these statistics.
Basically, it’s dangerous to be gay or transgendered in Mongolia.
AWID: Can you say more about the threats to LGBT persons posed by the surge of ultra-nationalist groups? Is there an overtly homophobic ideology that these groups propagate?
R.G.: Swastikas have become a chillingly familiar sight in Ulaanbaatar. “Neo-Nazi” ultra-nationalist groups have a set agenda – one that is distinctly heteronormative and firmly based on the concept of racial purity. As deeply repugnant as I find such groups, I can understand the circumstances that have given rise to them, and why they are enjoying growing popularity.
With rising anger, Mongolians are watching their country’s assets being sold off, piece by piece, to foreigners. Deals are being brokered for short-term political and personal gain at the expense of any real long-term vision for the country and its people. That is justifiably a cause for concern. Given such a situation, a groundswell of ultra-nationalism has been inevitable. However, its current manifestation is a throwback to an archaic mindset that surely has no place, in any context, in the 21st century.
When Mongolians rose up and fought for democracy, they fought for a system that allowed them to have the freedom to choose – and that freedom was not limited to the political sphere; it was the freedom to make their own life choices. Through their very beliefs, these ultra-nationalists are the antithesis of democracy. They espouse – and through violence practice - a rigid system of racial and social control that embodies so-called “traditional” Mongolian values.
The irony is that in terms of sexuality, traditional Mongolian shamanistic society – which predates socialism and Buddhism – had no such barriers. However, they are now a very real threat to LGBT people.
AWID: Can you tell us about some of the highs and lows you experienced during the three-year campaign to register the Mongolian LGBT Centre?
R.G.: Well, there were more lows than highs, to be honest. It was an incredibly difficult process. But we were determined to go the distance, and we were prepared to fight to the bitter end – to the highest court in the land if necessary. We knew that we were in for a lengthy battle. Being knocked back again and again was definitely the hardest part – tiring and emotionally draining. And each time it was for such arbitrary reasons – reasons that essentially boiled down to one man at the Legal Entities Registration Agency (LERA) making judgments based on his own narrow attitudes.
With hindsight, it was almost comical. Each time we went in with our copious paperwork, he would carefully peruse everything and then tell us that we had to change this, that or the other. One time we were told we could not engage in any advocacy activities and that it had to be deleted from our charter. Each time he wanted the paperwork rewritten, telling us that if we made the changes he would register us. I lost count of how many times we revised things, or rather carefully reworded things.
In the end, all other avenues exhausted on their part, the LERA objected to our name: the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Centre. They said it was contrary to Mongolian customs and traditions and had the potential to set the wrong example for youth. While this was in one sense another setback for us, in another sense we could not have been happier. Their wording in that official rejection letter was blatantly discriminatory and in contravention of the country’s international obligations under the conventions to which it is a party. That gave us a strong platform for international outreach and a basis to pursue our own legal action internally.
AWID: How did international pressure from NGOs such as Human Rights Watch (Human Rights Watch) and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) help the cause?
R.G.: HRW and IGLHRC engaged in advocacy on our behalf with the Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs (MoJHA) and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). Also, Emerlynne Gil at the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) campaigned tirelessly on a number of different levels for our registration. MoJHA did not take notice and seemed to not to feel pressure to act. NHRC was different. We had been in contact with the NHRC prior to the involvement of these organisations, but had no success in getting them to address our issues. That changed with outside pressure. Although NHRC is a governmental body, it is mandated to act independently on human rights violations – so its obligations, particularly in terms of upholding the principle of the indivisibility of human rights, were brought home by outside pressure. We saw a distinct change of attitude and a willingness to work for our registration.
AWID: And what about petitions from the general public? Do you feel that the government paid attention to and was influenced by these petitions?
R.G.: When we received the official registration rejection letter, we put out the call internationally for people and organisations to petition the MoJHA and the NHRC. The response was incredible. People from all over the world contacted us and launched petitions pushing for our registration. Locally, however, it was a different story. We had a lot of difficulty mustering support on the ground here in Ulaanbaatar, including getting local human rights and women’s organisations to incorporate LGBT issues in their agendas. But we received incredible support notably from Hands Up 4 Your Rights, the youth branch of the MONFEMNET NGO. They are an inspirational group of young people who are working to build a truly open and free society, and who are committed to the principle of inclusivity. They launched their own petition and were able to get a surprising number of signatures. I think all the petitions didn’t really influence MoJHA, but I have no doubt that the NHRC took heed of them.
AWID: Can you say more about the problems you encountered in getting local human rights and women's rights NGOs to incorporate LGBT rights into their agendas? Were they non-receptive, resistant and/or hostile? And do you have a sense of why?
R.G.: The people at the helm of those human rights and women’s NGOs are unfortunately not immune to the types of prejudices that exist within the broader population. They are just as much a product of the system as anyone else, and they are just as lacking in information and awareness. Basically their responses to our attempts in the past to address LGBT human rights issues within their frameworks fell into two camps: either “it’s your problem, not ours”; or they were simply outright dismissive. But this isn’t confined to Mongolia. We’ve seen this not only at the national level, but at the international level as well.
Our experiences with the CEDAW process in 2008 were extremely disheartening. There are members of the CEDAW committee who fiercely object to LBT issues being addressed through CEDAW. Sadly, we faced this problem head-on. Despite reporting on a host of human rights violations taking place against the LBT community, not one word was mentioned in the committee’s concluding observations.
AWID: What are the symbolic and practical implications of being registered?
R.G.: Symbolically, our registration is very important. We are the first LGBT human rights NGO in Mongolia – and that is extremely empowering for the entire LGBT community. It is legal recognition that we exist. The community now knows that there is an organisation that is legally mandated to fight for their rights and that will work to ensure their place in society, free of violence and discrimination. On a practical level, being registered as an NGO means we can take our activism to a higher level nationally. We are now in a position to directly engage with the government and to become a recognised and legitimate part of civil society. It means that the future we dream of can become a reality.
AWID: What lessons can you share with LGBT NGOs in other parts of the world that are seeking to be recognized and registered?
R.G.: The most important lesson is persistence. Never give up, no matter how uphill a battle it may seem. There are plenty of people and organisations around the world who will support the fight, and it is vital to reach out to them. It is also important to become very familiar with national legislation and international human rights mechanisms, and to make use of them whenever possible. And network with local civil society organisations and use whatever human rights mechanisms are available in the country or the region, such as national human rights institutions, human rights advisers within the government and legislature, and local UN offices.
AWID: What will be some of the LGBT Centre’s first initiatives?
R.G.: Well, securing funding is of course the number one priority. Beyond that, we have identified a range of areas in which we will progressively engage.
• Legal and constitutional reform, including the introduction of anti-discrimination and hate-crime legislation; the provision of legal counseling and legal representation for LGBT people; and working with the judiciary on LGBT advocacy to create a more enabling legal environment
• LGBT human rights training for police, the judiciary, government agencies and civil society
• Advocacy and public information targeted at the government, government agencies, development organisations, civil society, the police, the GIA and the general public
• The development of a ‘Parents and Friends of Gays and Lesbians’ support group
• The establishment of LGBT groups and an LGBT network in universities and schools
• The provision of psychological counseling and a 24-hour assistance hotline for LGBT persons
• The establishment of a network of safe employment zones in which employers guarantee that LGBT people will not be discriminated against in their workplace
• The establishment of an LGBT resource centre
• Continued research into, and subsequent promotion of, LGBT human rights issues in Mongolia
• International advocacy using international mechanisms, specifically UN human rights mechanisms, to promote Mongolian LGBT issues
AWID: What are some ways that individuals and organizations around the world can act in solidarity with the LGBT Centre in Mongolia and other similar centres worldwide?
R.G.: In the past few years, we have established strong connections with LGBT and human rights organisations around the world. Together, we are already strategizing on joint projects with Ecuadorian and Kyrgyz LGBT NGOs involving skills sharing and possible staff transfers.
In more general terms, individuals and local civil society organisations can help the LGBT Centre and similar organisations around the world by including LGBT human rights issues in their broader mandate, paying more than lip service to the concept of inclusivity. If you are working for human rights, you must walk the talk.
In an age of global communications networks, we have more power than ever before to tell the world what is happening to us, and to have people respond. Therein lies solidarity. We no longer live in isolation – no matter how remote our physical locations or how far removed we may perceive ourselves to be in the world’s eyes. The more we connect with each other regionally and globally, the more empowered we become.
LGBT Centre of Mongolia (coming soon)
Beyond the Blue Sky: Expressions of Queer Identity in Mongolia (exhibition)
Chronology of Mongolian LGBT Activism
Mongoldyke (documentation on LGBT issues in Mongolia)
CEDAW shadow report on the Status of Lesbian and Bisexual Women and Transgendered Persons in Mongolia
IGLHRC Report on Human Rights Abuses in Asia on the Basis of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Gender Expression
Asian Human Rights Defender Quarterly article on LGBT Rights in Mongolia
Article on LGBT human rights in the context of Mongolia’s Democratization and Development
Queer Mongolia Blog