When 25-year-old Zaya first discussed her attraction for women with her sister after breaking up with a girlfriend two years ago, she never expected the violence that followed.
During a heated argument at the family home in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s sprawling capital, her sister shouted at their father that his youngest daughter was a “pervert” and a lesbian. “When he heard this, my father beat me up so bad I had bruises and cuts all over my face and my back and could barely move. After this I left home to live with a friend,” Zaya recalled.
Her father eventually apologized to her but asked her to promise she wasn’t a lesbian. “So I told him I wasn’t and went back home. I’ve been living a lie with my father ever since.”
Despite the trauma she endured, Zaya feels many other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people living in Mongolia have had it much worse. She proceeded to recount a series of stories of friends who have been physically attacked and even sexually assaulted.
The situation may be grim now, but there are signs that things may soon improve. Activists are hailing the recent signal sent by the government concerning LGBT rights. Their optimism is rooted in the fact that, for the first time, Mongolian officials discussed LGBT issues at a Geneva meeting of the UN Human Rights Council’s first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the country. At the November 2 gathering, seven member states offered Ulaanbaatar recommendations for passing anti-discriminatory legislation that would enhance legal protections for sexual minorities.
Discrimination and human rights abuses against sexual minorities are widespread in Mongolia, according to the Mongolian Minorities Report that was presented at the UPR.
“LGBT people have been viciously targeted, beaten and raped; they've been kicked out of their homes and lost their jobs. Rampant discrimination has also forced people to seek asylum to escape constant threats to their lives,” said Robyn Garner, executive director of the LGBT Centre, Mongolia’s first LGBT human rights NGO.
Highlighting the uphill struggle, the LGBT Centre had to wait three years to obtain official permission to operate. Some officials had refused to register the NGO, due to what they considered as the “immorality” of LGBT lifestyles. The name of the organization “conflicts with Mongolian customs and traditions and has the potential to set the wrong example for youth and adolescents,” an official rejection letter stated.
The NGO was finally registered in December 2009 after various appeals from international human rights organizations, as well as the direct intervention of the Mongolian presidential advisor for human rights and public participation policy, Oyungerel Tsedevdamba.
Prejudice against LGBT individuals is frequently fanned by local media outlets, which suffer from a lack of professionalism, activists at the LGBT Centre contend. The US Government’s 2009 Report on Human Rights in Mongolia asserted that “some media outlets described gay men and lesbians with derogatory terms and associated homosexual conduct with HIV/AIDS, pedophilia, and the corruption of youth.”
The LGBT Centre recently launched an effort to raise awareness about LGBT issues, calling its campaign End Discrimination. As part of the initiative, the center published a style guide with neutral terminology concerning LGBT issues. Only a handful of media outlets have adopted the preferred terms so far, Garner noted.
Attempts to bring LGBT issues out into the open have had severe repercussions for some activists. In a LGBT Centre production called The Lies of Liberty, posted on the video-sharing site YouTube, a transgender girl who declined to keep her identity hidden described the harrowing details of her abduction and sexual assault with two other transgender friends.
Naming an ultra-nationalist group as perpetrators of the crime, the transgender girl felt compelled to seek asylum abroad after the documentary was broadcast on local television.
Activist blame Communist-era influences for the present-day mood of intolerance. “Our ancient Buddhist and shamanistic beliefs tolerated and accepted sexual diversity. But the very tolerant traditions have been lost just like our monasteries … and with time people have forgotten,” said Tsedendemberel, an activist at the LGBT Center.
Tsedendemberel added that most Mongolians view homosexuality largely as a Western phenomenon. One of the few Mongolian gay men to come out in the open and actively campaign to end discrimination against LGBT persons, Tsedendemberel admitted he and his family are increasingly anxious about his safety.
Though the Universal Periodic Review and the government’s agreement to consider an anti-discrimination law buoyed human rights advocates, activists see a need to maintain pressure on authorities. “What’s important now is to make sure it [the promise of a new law] is not something that came up at the spur of the moment because they were put on the spot,” says Garner.
Pearly Jacob is an Ulaanbaatar-based freelance journalist.