In a trip down Monsoon memory lane, we present MARK PENNINI’s Solongo Garlaa* – LGBT Life in Mongolia from our print archives.

Whether it is among the Soviet realist architecture of Ulaanbaatar or the thousands of gers studded across the Mongolian steppe, LGBT life in Mongolia seems non-existent. How could this place, with a history patterned by brutality, great warriors, communism, strict social codes and isolation, accommodate anything departing from the norm? It takes a bit of searching, but here in Mongolia an LGBT scene exists and their identity, place in history and contribution to the future is finally gaining momentum, even if ever so slight.

The pillars of Mongolian life are family and patriotism. Throughout its tumultuous history, the family has served as perhaps the only stable thing shared among Mongolians. Countryside families are big, live in close quarters and intimately share each others’ lives. While urban Mongolians’ families are usually smaller, the closeness remains. From the age of 18, Mongolians are placed under great pressure to marry and bear children. Early insistence upon childrearing gives the Mongolian family a strong procreative purpose. An environment like this, for LGBT people, provides little privacy to explore sexuality and immediately places them at odds with parenting expectations.

But of course, there are some exceptions. I know four gay Mongolian men who are out to at least part of their families. A friend’s mother said she had always known. Two of the more activist LGBT Mongolians here, by force of their convictions and positions, are also out to their families. Understanding was slow-coming. One was kicked-out of home in the middle of the -35°C winter, but within a year was welcomed back. Bizarrely, another friend said his shaman brother—Mongolian shamanism is an ancient spirituality involving interaction with spirits, altered consciousness, divination and healing—knows all about his life without him ever revealing anything. These examples are rare exceptions, with most LGBT Mongolians guarding their sexualities closely.

Reinforcing this unaccommodating family environment is Mongolian patriotism. Mongolian independence has been hard-fought, the country having been subject to Chinese and Soviet influence for much of its modern history. Since the 1990 Democratic Revolution, Mongolian society has sought to recapture its Chinggisid past. Westerners see Chinggis Khan as a conqueror, but Mongolians view him more as a lawgiver. It was in this role that Chinggis Khan created the Ikh Zasag, the Mongolian Empire’s legal code which prescribed death for acts of sodomy. I once suggested to a gay Mongolian friend that this law evidenced the existence of homosexuals during Chinggis Khan’s time. He simply said, “no, I don’t think there were any.” Just that response, from a gay Mongolian himself, reveals the extent to which LGBT people have been erased from Mongolian history and identity. It is that same exclusionary legacy that is currently in revival, though now fortified by a 70-year communist history of exclusion and persecution, too.

Despite a familial and national atmosphere that silences and ultimately casts LGBT Mongolians as ‘un-Mongolian,’ LGBT Mongolians persist. About 20 years ago, at a place west of the main square, gay men would gather and signal their sexuality by whistling a tune. Since the spread of mobile phones, TV forums and the advent of the internet, particularly chat rooms and Facebook, meeting in private has become easier. At one stage, there were two major LGBT destinations in Ulaanbaatar. One of those destinations, a bar called ‘100%’ was sadly closed. The landlord started worrying for their reputation. Another bar, ‘Odessa’ was also briefly open, but was quickly shutdown. Again, a landlord’s reputation was on the line. Now, the LGBT scene congregates on weekends at a nightclub. Luckily, this place is owned, not rented, by a gay Mongolian. A space to gather is vital for the wellbeing, identity and success of LGBT people here.

Gatherings at this nightclub are complicated by the same dynamics that plague party scenes elsewhere. But the smallness of the LGBT scene here means almost everyone knows of each other. There are various groups, with many not on speaking terms. Association with one group can rapidly cause rejection by others. One gay Mongolian describes LGBT life here as “like wolves’ lives.” Franck Billé, a Cambridge anthropologist who studied Mongolian LGBT life, sees this as “a reflection of mistrust and self-preservation against those who might attempt blackmail later.” Scorned exes have been known to threaten to expose former partners. As extra protection, most LGBT Mongolians go by false names. It took my closest friend nine months to reveal his true name to me. My foreign origin, being outside Mongolia’s LGBT scene, offered him little reason to trust any more readily than usual.

Occasionally, straight Mongolians will visit this club. Word gets out and it draws curiosity. My friends and I once watched a group of straight Mongolians (one woman and three guys) come in, wide-eyed. We could only look on in despair when a more wanton transvestite tried to dance with one of the straight guys. He was not enthusiastic. But, typical Mongolian modesty is largely maintained. Beyond dancing with each other, it is very rare to see LGBT Mongolians even hold hands here. Two foreigners once seen kissing each other in the club received many dirty looks. One Australian was noticed kissing a Mongolian outside the back of the club. A friend commented, “I think that guy wants to die.” The strictness of Mongolian social codes, in some ways, persists even here.

A more notable foray by straight Mongolians into the LGBT Mongolian scene was the short film, ‘Terminal,’ parts of which were filmed at the mentioned club. The film portrays a romantic relationship between two gay Mongolian men, one of them physically disabled. Almost all involved in the film, including the actors, were straight. A friend of mine was contacted to assist with the project. His role as one of the more activist LGBT Mongolians was viewed as critical to giving the film authenticity. The film received a very mixed reception. Another friend commented that it “doesn’t represent Mongolian gay life.” Regardless, the portrayal by straight Mongolian actors of gay men is intriguing. My friend who assisted on the film thought they may have just been looking for a sophisticated way to experiment with their sexualities. Whatever their reasons, it seems encouraging that LGBT Mongolians are finding some form of acceptance among their straight compatriots.

In fact, just this year the State Assembly for the first time discussed LGBT rights. It was lauded by one Mongolian activist as “a historic moment for the Mongolian LGBT community.” But, many believe the discussion occurred simply because of the imminent Ulaanbaatar Community of Democracies Conference, with over 1000 delegates from over 100 countries attending. Like all the last-minute street cleaning, the discussion was just another last-minute veneering of neglect. Mongolia has been frequently reprimanded by the international community for its inaction on LGBT rights. The LGBT Centre is the main LGBT rights and health organisation in Mongolia. The Centre’s reports detail murder, torture, rape, police intimidation, home invasions and workplace discrimination occurring against LGBT people, all underlined by serious misconceptions about LGBT people.

Regardless of the motivations behind the discussion in the State Assembly, it is an indication that momentum is finally beginning to build. There are even rumours of an LGBT pride event being publicly held in September, though a friend described this as “just a dream.” Some LGBT Centre personnel recently appeared on a popular talk show to discuss LGBT life and rights. This is perhaps another indication of growing momentum. During the show a series of vox pop interviews occurred where people were asked for their opinion on LGBT Mongolians. My friend translated, and not one interviewee responded kindly. However LGBT life and rights proceed from here, it is obvious there is a very, very long way to go. One of the best documentaries about Mongolia would be ‘Wild Horses of Mongolia,’ which documents actress Julia Roberts’ 1999 visit to a Mongolian nomad family. During an emotional farewell to her host family she says, “the great warriors of Mongolia are some of the most generous and open-hearted people I have ever met.” One can only hope that famous generosity and open-heartedness is eventually extended by Mongolians to their LGBT countrymen.

*‘Solongo garlaa,’ or in Mongolian Cyrillic, ‘Cолонго гарлаа,’ means ‘A rainbow has appeared.’

Posted by Alice Dawkins

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