Mongolia’s LGBT Centre Advocates for Anti-Discrimination Law

By Michelle Tolson

The Executive Director, Otgonbaatar Tsedendemberel, recently relayed the NGO’s struggles for legitimacy at a popular coffee shop in downtown Ulaanbaatar. In 2009, he brought up the problems LGBT people faced at a civil society meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The speaker ridiculed him and a number of women’s rights activists present at the meeting stood up challenged the speaker. The conflict put the budding NGO on the international map. Though the registration issue was what the Centre came to be well-known for, Ts. Otgonbaatar says the initial conflict “was not about the registration issue; it was about including LGBT rights issues in the NGO Human Rights Report for the Universal Periodic Review—UPR. It was a meeting of NGOs –one of many meetings that NGOs and civil society had to discuss what issues to be included in the UPR report and what recommendations to give to the Government of Mongolia through the UPR.”
Local women’s groups and the National Human Rights Commission in Mongolia (NHRCM) lobbied on the Centre’s behalf and challenged the registration issue, helped by international organizations. Ts. Otgonbaatar said “Until December 16, 2009, when the Centre was officially registered, we had strong support from international organizations such as IGLHRC, Human Rights Watch, Forum-ASIA, etcetera … and Mongolian organizations and individuals such as NHRCM, Ts. Oyungerel, President’s Adviser on Human Rights and Civil Participation.” The blockage to registration was overcome within the year and granted in December of 2009. “After the registration throughout the UPR lobbying and until now, we work with our women’s and human rights organizations as well as civil society, in particular, Open Society Forum, Center for Human Rights and Development, Globe International, MONFEMNET National Network, National Center Against Violence, etc. “
The LGBT Centre now has strong ties with women’s groups working in the area of gender equality. Ts. Otgonbaatar currently sits on the board of MONFEMNET; an umbrella organization for NGOs dedicated to gender issues within the human rights framework.
The Centre now uses social media to connect with the community and has a website. Mobile phones are used instead of landline telephones as Ts. Otgonbaatar believes their previous hotline was tapped by the General Intelligence Agency in Mongolia. Problems still persist but their official status allows greater alignment with organizations like MONFEMNET and the United Nations’ Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
However free assembly of Mongolians identifying as LGBT can still be dangerous. While there are a few clubs to go to, they must remain private, as openly advertising their location can bring about negative consequences. After leaving a private party in 2007, Ts. Otgonbaatar and his friends were picked up by a corrections vehicle while trying to flag a taxi home. Corrections vehicles pick up people seen as drunk and disorderly. Mongolia has a high rate of alcoholism as 13 percent of the population are considered alcohol dependent, according the Mongolian Ministry of Health. But Ts. Otgonbaatar saw the situation otherwise. Having lived in Japan for seven years and being used to transparency with police officials, he openly questioned the reasons for the group’s detention. He said that this angered the corrections officers and they released everyone except for himself and a friend also challenging the detention. At this low point, he said he found himself questioning his activism. He eventually moved beyond the experience to become executive director of the Centre, making the decision to be openly out in his sexual orientation to the public.
Ts. Otgonbaatar now hosts a TV show— “We Are Youth”— which tackles mainstream social issues. He credits his success to his grounding in issues beyond LGBT causes, such as education, media and professional legal training. He feels fortunate to have a supportive family as well. Yet for all his personal successes, he believes that the path to ending discrimination lies in establishing an anti-discrimination law—which Mongolia currently lacks.
This law is necessary to lay the foundation to establish due process for discrimination against sexual-orientation issues—as well as minorities, the disabled, the elderly, and women. Establishing this law would further enable the creation of legislation against hate crimes—a serious problem in Mongolia.
Hate crimes committed against LGBT in Mongolia have been instigated in particular by nationalist groups. The Centre shared this issue through a video created in 2010 and released that year at the annual “Through Women’s Eyes” human rights forum organized by MONFEMNET. The 20 minute video— called The Lies of Liberty – LGBT Centre Documentary— details LGBT individuals’ lives, hopes and expectations and can be viewed in seven minute segments on YouTube. While the intention was to educate the public about LGBT issues, there were death threats against a transgender woman who revealed her identity in the video. Other people featured in the clip hid their identities. She eventually left the country due to persecution and death threats from nationalist groups. Hate crimes affect all LGBT, but transgender in particular according to Ts. Otgonbaatar.
Politicians sensitive to gender issues elected in parliament would facilitate the passage of anti-discrimination laws. The perception of LGBT identities as “imported” by foreigners appears to be an obstacle to acceptance. Ts. Otgonbaatar previously stated to Eurasianet—a media group funded by the Open Society Institute—that nationalist attitudes are derived from communism and not Mongolian culture itself, noting that Buddhism and shamanism in Mongolia “tolerated” homosexuality. While tolerance does not denote acceptance, it is a far cry from sexual-orientation being perceived as a national threat. A 2009 study – Resisting resistance: Women and nationalist discourse in Mongolia – presented at the ASA conference by Franck Bille’ on gender perceptions, supports Ts. Otgonbaatar’s beliefs. Bille’ noted that the Soviets used Mongolians’ fear of the Chinese as a method to keep them in line with Soviet expectations and desires. This process of threatening to leave them to their fate with the Chinese – Bille’ argued – created a hyper-nationalistic state of mind where normative heterosexual procreation, in other words marrying and having children, was used as a tool to self-define against a foreign “other.”
Building up the population remains a governmental priority as Mongolia only has about three million people as estimated by CIA World Fact Book and is recognized as one of the least densely populated countries in the world. President Ts.Elbegdorj recently gave an orientation to the Ministries of the new government and stated his intention to foster the “improvement of population growth and ancestral roots” through governmental ordinances and subsidizes to legal guardians who either give birth to or adopt a child under age two—as reported by local media on July 6 following the 2012 parliamentary elections.
Population concerns illustrate that nationalism is broad and culturally ingrained—not merely confined to racist groups. Prior to the creation of the LGBT Centre, three sexual health NGOs represented the gay community. Youth for Health has sex education and sexual health services; the Support Center offers counseling and social events for Mongolians to learn about HIV prevention; and the Together Center has free HIV testing and medication for HIV + Mongolians. These organizations operate under the term MSM, or Men who have Sex with Men, but do not address gender identity. Though widely used in sexual health programs, MSM lacks the diversity of LGBT. Funding for these organizations primarily comes from HIV prevention organizations which see sex as a behavior. While MSM can be a useful umbrella term for alternative sexual orientations without challenging mainstream views, it does not adequately serve effeminate males, transgender women and men, and lesbians—nor does it address human rights issues.
The United Nations’ Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), COC Netherlands, Forum-ASIA and Open Society Forum in Mongolia have been highly supportive of the Centre’s work, sending Ts. Otgonbaatar to Geneva to learn and network at UN meetings. He currently documents cases of imprisonment and abuses using the UNHCR human-rights framework. When asked how many people have died due to LGBT discrimination, he says it is difficult to verify as suicides and victims of violence tend to be covered up by the families, who list other causes of death.
Ts. Otgonbaatar has found his media presence to be highly useful at connecting him with a wider audience. The “We Are Youth” TV show has been running for eight years and he has been hosting it every Tuesday since March of 2011. Mongolia has a very young population as one third of all Mongolians are under age 25, according to government statistics. This demographic can be key to challenging the current political system. Though it focuses on mainstream social issues, he said “the TV [show] started focusing on human rights issues since I took over. I sometimes address discrimination in a wider sense, not only on discrimination against LGBT people. Too much emphasis on LGBT rights and discrimination might distance the viewers from the show.”
When asked about his thoughts on the recent election, Ts. Otgonbaatar says “As for the election results, I am more or less glad that there are more women in the parliament now—from three to nine—especially including some strong voices from the Democratic party, Ts. Oyungerel, and Civil Will and Green Party, S. Oyun. On the other hand, it was a significant election in the sense that the most powerful civil society representatives/pioneers raced for the election from the Civil Movement Party. In the next four years, civil society will maintain its momentum and definitely run for the parliamentary election in 2016 with more experience and hopefully with a lot of success. Those candidates representing minorities such as people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, etc should be given a chance to reflect the views and needs of their corresponding communities.”
With greater political representation, hopefully anti-discrimination legislation will come soon for Mongolians; representing further growth in the country’s standing as a democracy in Asia.

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Posted by on Jul 26 2012. Filed under Community. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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