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From Shamans to gay bars: Booming Mongolia’s LGBT people

Two lesbians travel to Mongolia to meet LGBT people and interview Anaraa Nyamdorj, a trans man instrumental in building an emerging community together
Anaraa Nyamdorj, a trans man at the heart of building the LGBT community in Mongolia.

When we told fellow travelers about our plan to find LGBT people in the northern, frosty reaches of the Mongolian steppe, many of them expressed their doubts about our mission.

A few months back my partner and I set off on a trip in search of LGBT communities around the globe. We were curious about the range of experiences for our LGBT brothers and sisters, and we simply wanted to educate ourselves – and those following our journey – about gay, bi and trans lives around the world.

One of our first stops was the remote and sparsely populated country of Mongolia. Mongolia is experiencing a unique moment in its history. After recently opening its doors to foreign investors (mostly Chinese) eager to cash in on one of the largest gold, copper and coal rushes since California in the mid 19th century, this newly democratic country is experiencing the fastest – and perhaps most unprepared for – economic growth on the planet.

The capital city of Ulaanbaatar, for instance, was originally built for 500,000 people, and it now struggles to fit the million plus who have moved in, eager to be part of this booming metropolis.

In this context of both economic and cultural changes, we set off looking for ‘signs of LGBT life’ there. And though many said we were embarking on a perhaps impossible task, upon arriving we soon discovered an LGBT community, albeit small, was bursting at the seams of visibility. Within only a few days of our arrival we found ourselves sitting around a table with some very fun and hip gay, lesbian and trans Mongolians eager to share their stories.

Homosexuality was decriminalized in Mongolia in 1986. While anti-discrimination laws have yet to be adopted, there is a motivated and effective LGBT Center of Mongolia which has been working hard to improve the situation for gays, lesbians, bi and trans people. Founded in 2007, and finally registered in 2009 (after much resistance from Mongolian authorities), the LGBT Center of Mongolia has received the prestigious Felipe de Souza Award from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) for their work as a grassroots organization.

While there is still progress to be made, the center has succeeded in creating greater visibility for the community as well as providing accurate and positive information in Mongolian (prior to recent times information about sexual orientation and gender identity was mostly limited to English or Russian).

We had the opportunity to sit down and talk to one of the center founders and co-owner of the only LGBT bar in Mongolia, called 100%.

Anaraa Nyamdorj, a 30-something trans-man gave us directions to his bar which he opened in 2011. Outside, the venue was pretty nondescript except for the sign, and was located within a dusty, soviet-built concrete building. Inside, the bar radiated with warmth and positive, relaxed energy, as LGBT Mongolians lounged on the couches, drinking Chinggis-brand beer and chatting with one-another while smoking thin cigarettes.

Smiling, Nyamdorj shared with us that the inspiration for opening the bar was to be closer to his community and provide them with a space where they can feel free to be who they are.

About a year ago, Nyamdorj was physically assaulted in his own bar by a man who was not of the LGBT community. The guy had reached over the bar and punched Nyamdorj in the face, twice, crushing his eye socket.

The trial happened to be going on while we were there, and unfortunately, Nyamdorj had just learned the case had been dismissed (since hate crimes are not recognized in Mongolia and the prosecutor had charged the man under the lightest section of the criminal code). We interviewed Nyamdorj only a couple of days after the trial. He seemed frustrated by the verdict but his spirits were on their way up, and it was clear he was not going to go down without a very strong and very worthy fight.

Here’s our interview:

What do you see as your role in the LGBT community in Mongolia?

Basically, what I’ve tried to do was to create the space and the expression and the possibility for people to be who they are. Because that was the space I was lacking when I was growing up. I didn't have words for who I was, I didn't have terms. I didn’t even know there were people like me. Because all of these issues were completely closed during the socialist times.

I was born in the socialist Mongolia. And so this information about sexuality, or sexual orientation or gender identity was completely absent during those times. Gay and lesbian people were persecuted because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

The information did not come very easily. And that created a vacuum for people who identified as lesbian or gay or bisexual or transgender. Because if you don't have words to name who you are, there is no possibility of identity politics. So what I wanted to do was to create a discourse. Whereby people would be able to know that, okay these people exist and they are just like anyone else, except that they love people of their own gender. That was my goal.

You mentioned that you grew up under socialism. So how did you become an activist? How did you find the courage to rise up and inspire other people?

What changed my life perspective was going to India to study when I was 19 and there I met a wonderful bunch of people – seniors as well as classmates. They were the ones who completely accepted me and completely saw me for who I was.

I think those three years in India were very much formative years. We are talking mid 90s in India… And I just thought that, yeah, this is India. This is a country with a criminal code that criminalizes same sex activity. But at the same time you have so many activists, you have so many people who are fighting against that law, who are fighting against that social mentality – that really inspired me.

At that time Mongolia had already decriminalized same sex activities – because it was criminalized here during the socialist period. But still, people really did not talk about these issues. It was not a public discourse yet as it was becoming in India. So that was my inspiration. That was where I got my… I guess where I recognized my life calling as such… what I had to do.

Shamanism is on the rise in Mongolia. How does Shamanism view homosexuality?

Mongolia was a Shamanistic country before the advent of Buddhism in the 17th century. And Shamanism is an incredible worship. The practitioners of Shamanism, the Shamans themselves, were very often known to get married to the people of their own gender. They used to live as cross gendered people.

So for example, if here’s a female Shaman, she would actually live as a man. She would go hunting with other men. She would go drinking vodka with other men. And live as a man. And, you know, marry a woman.

Here’s a male Shaman. He would live as a woman. Dress like a woman. He would stay in the women’s part of the ger (yurt), and who would actually take a husband, cook with other women, do women’s chores. And it was completely accepted.

Of course Shamanism has been such an ancient worship for Mongolians, that it was pretty much a normal thing in Mongolia pre-Buddhism to have these marriages and to have this life. But Shamans occupied a very special place in the society because they were the connectors of the spirit world and the human world. They were worshiped to a certain extent, they were revered. And anything they did was probably seen as holy or sacred.

It was also very interesting to know that in Shamanism, future Shamans were recognized by other Shamans right at the time when they would hit puberty. When they were 10, 11, 12. And then they would be trained from that time on. So to me, it seems like – and I'm obviously just talking out of my head – but to me it seems as if Shamans were looking for people who had a different way of expressing themselves. And who would see ‘girly boys’ or ‘boyish girls’ and say, ‘Okay, yeah. They would be perfect for getting trained as Shamans.’

Since homophobia doesn’t seem to be rooted in religion in Mongolia, where do you think some of it might come from?

The transition from a socialist time to a democratic rule provided for a revival of history, tradition, religions – this meant that there was a huge rise of nationalistic feelings. And 22 years later we see a huge movement of ultra-nationalism in Mongolia. We’re basically talking about skin heads who are extremely intolerant of anything un-Mongolian or non-Mongolian.

We have these very disadvantaged kids who grew up in the outskirts of the city without any infrastructure, without access to good education or a proper education – we have these angry kids, these disadvantaged kids identifying with something and taking it beyond that identification and then becoming violent about it. That is a social phenomenon that is really, really worrisome.

Because they are lacking education, because they are lacking information, they think that lesbians or gays or trans people are un-Mongolian, that these were concepts brought into Mongolia because of the transition, because Mongolia opened up its borders, and somehow we were exposed to Western media and Western images and homoerotic images and that somehow we were an import – a western import into Mongolia. And that is so wrong.

We have all these traditions, and this nomadic way of life which placed a Shaman at its center, and the Shamans were gays and lesbians and trans people. And they don’t know that. Because they don’t know that, because they don’t know the history, they think we are un-Mongolian. That we are doing something to harm the so-called ‘Mongolian identity’. That’s very scary because we are as Mongolian as they come.

But because of their disadvantaged position in the society and because of their inability to see things for how they are, they become very violent. Of course the ultra-nationalists commit violence against foreigners, against foreign-owned businesses – basically they engage in hate crimes and hate speech… So it’s very scary.

At the same time I do understand where all this is coming from and I just feel so much pity for them. Because they should be educated. They should not be promoted to commit violence. But the government, the state, is not tackling the issue of hate crimes, it’s not tackling the issue of xenophobia, it’s not tackling the issue of homophobia or trans-phobia. It needs a state hand to end this kind of violence.

You can keep up with Sapphic Nomads, Katie and Maggie, on their site or on their Facebook page.

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