I have just returned from Mongolia’s MSM (Men who have sex with Men) Forum 2012 and feel driven to share a little bit of what I learned there as well as what I have learned from some 5 years of interaction with the Mongolian LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community. While this post is by no means comprehensive, it does reveal some important points and recommendations. I feel honored at having had the opportunity to witness the growing strength of various organizations as the LGBT community in Mongolia strives to achieve some level of equality.
Situation and Progress
In 2010, the first distinctly LGBT-rights oriented NGO opened in Ulaanbaatar. After several years of fighting with the authorities over whether the term LGBT was appropriate in Mongolia, the success of the Centre is just one example of what I perceive to be the growing political and social awareness of the LGBT community in Ulaanbaatar. When I first came to Ulaanbaatar in June 2008, the LGBT rights movement was just starting to take shape, and always under the guise of another more “culturally acceptable” mission. Of course, we must question this idea that a gay identity in Mongolia is not culturally accurate. Indeed, the minute any one Mongolian takes on such an identity, we can say that the label is culturally accurate. The Mongolians that identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender are no less Mongolian than the straight guy across the street. But, returning to our main topic, in 2008 the only organizations that provided any type of services to the LGBT community were nominally HIV/AIDS NGOs. Funded by international donor organizations, such as UNDP and UNAIDS, three principle NGOs emerged, each with a distinct and mutually complimenting mission statement: Хамтдаа Төв (Together Centre) provides free HIV testing as well as medications for HIV+ Mongolians; Дэмжих Төв (Support Centre) provided supporting services such as counseling and social events for Mongolians to learn more about HIV/AIDS prevention; and, Залуус Эрүүл Мэнд Төв (Youth for Health) is specifically geared towards providing education services to youth on issues related to sexual health, etc. Together with the newly opened ЛГБТ Төв (LGBT Centre), these four organizations represent the new core of the LGBT community.
While HIV/AIDS is certainly a pressing issue for the Mongolian population and the Gay/MSM population in particular, there are many other concerns that Mongolia’s LGBT citizens encounter every day. Discrimination is a huge problem, with homophobia and hate crimes increasing every year. LGBT Mongolians do not meet the social concepts of what a man or woman should be. Additionally, by not marrying and giving birth to new Mongolians they fail to support their nation. (See my post on Ethnic Nationalism and Small State Survival). For these and other reasons, the Mongolian LGBT population encounters many problems, making the implementation of an Anti-Discrimination Law a key goal of the newly established LGBT Centre. That said, we should be careful not to assume that every story is sad, for there are successes to be found next to every set back. First of all, the fact the LGBT Centre could be opened at all is a huge step forward to be celebrated as a groundbreaking achievement in the start of a new movement. There are stories of personal triumph as well, that should not be ignored. For example, when my best Mongol friend came out to his mother, she happily exclaimed “Ah, now I have a new daughter!” At the Forum, two participants said that their parents guessed their sexual orientation and had no problems. Of course, such stories might be the norm, but it is still a sign of progress, to be sure.
Forum and Recommendations
The MSM Forum 2012 also reveals some insights into the changes taking place in today’s Mongolia. The Forum opened with a review of the recommendations that came out of last year’s forum and how the “Big-Four” NGOs have acted on these recommendations. The primary recommendation to come out of last year’s Forum seemed to be a demand for more research programs. In response, polls were taken to gauge condom usage, and other health saving measures. Strikingly, only 48% of those polled reported always using a condom in the past 6 months! Admittedly, this poll is a little limited since I did not note whether is meant only penetrative sex, or included oral. Additionally, no distinction was made between informal liaisons and long-term relationships. Despite these issues, 48% remains a daunting statistic, and I hope to see it grow significantly in coming years. The rest of the conference/retreat was taken up with some additional lectures on LGBT rights, terminology, and STD prevention.
I would like to conclude this overarching post with some recommendations of my own.
1. MSM vs. LGBT: As stated earlier, many LGBT-focused NGOs receive the bulk of their funding for HIV/AIDS prevention activities and as such are perhaps justified in their MSM/Gay-centric approach. At the conference itself, the representative from the LGBT Centre explained the MSM focus by saying that LBT issues are different and must be handled differently. While this is very true, I would recommend that some pan-LGBT Forum be planned in addition to orientation-specific activities. Yes, queer women have a host of other concerns since homophobia is often combined with chauvinistic sexism; and the transgender community is perhaps the most marginalized in some respects. Still, it seems to me that being able to work under an inclusive sexual minority, rainbow-colored umbrella would strengthen the work of all those concerned. Rather than drawing a line in the sand between each letter in LGBT, lets recognize that many of the concerns we face have the same root causes: strict gender assumptions and incorrect ideas on homosexuality in general.
2. Inclusiveness beyond LGBT: Beyond the forum, it might benefit the overall LGBT movement to be involved with other social movements that at first glance might not seem related, but in reality share similar goals. For example, the NGOs mentioned above might team up with groups fighting alcoholism. The Forum, itself provides an example of how this issue does indeed matter to the LGBT community. Despite an outwardly strict no-alcohol policy, many of the participants spent the night drinking. This upset the attending international donors as well as the Mongolian planners, and for this reason it might deserve some attention. Of course, Mongolia is not special in this case, for alcoholism and drug use also plague the LGBT communities of the US, Canada, and other countries. At the forum, I noted that some attention was paid to the alcoholism, but I would like to see more movement on this front in the future. The fact that drug and alcohol use are also tied to unsafe sex makes this all the pertinent. Of course, we need not stop at alcohol. Homophobia is tied to ideas of gender, and so its shares root causes with such sensitive issues as the abuse of women (physical abuse, rape, sexual harassment, etc.). The tie to nationalism is also important, and I for one would be happy to see a united front against Neo-Nationalist gangs. While care must be taken not to weaken the LGBT-focus of the organizations’ work, networking and aiming for mutual-support might be able to strengthen the overall cause and ultimately help Mongolian societal development.
3. A Refined Guest List: I get the impression that this Forum was more focused on having as many attendees as possible then on inviting people that may one day be the new leaders of the community. I completely agree that it is important to get a good sample of opinions and be open to the ideas as many people as possible. However, I recommend that the Forum be turned into, or be complimented by a Leadership Retreat for NGO workers, volunteers, as well as invited guests. It should not be a free opportunity to go to the countryside and relax. You might have an application process by which people fill out an application stating their goals and ideas of the retreat, and then the various concerned parties can pick those applicants that have the most potential to be important, leading members of the community. The University of Southern California’s LGBT Resource Center’s Annual Generation-Queer Retreat might be a good example of how to organize an LGBT Leadership retreat.
These recommendations, are just recommendations. They are not necessarily the most appropriate to Mongolian circumstances. Still, they certainly have some value and deserve some careful thought. The most important piece of advice that I can offer is that the Mongolian LGBT movement stays on its own path addressing Mongolia-specific concerns. In previous publications by some NGOs, I noted a lot of pictures from the USA Gay Rights Movement. While historical movements are certainly important, the Mongolian LGBT community should focus on its own history, accomplishments, and pit-falls to avoid being labeled as Western-influenced, foreign idea. People should never have to ask: Are there gay people in Mongolia?
The American LGBT community primarily supports the Democratic Party, and many LGBT people support other liberal parties. Interestingly enough, I have not seen any party in Mongolia specifically address LGBT issues, nor does the LGBT community seem to affiliated with any one party. In future posts, I might explore this in more detail, but for now I just want to end with this casual observation. Expect updates later.
Analysis, Thoughts, Ideas
This blog will be an online publishing site for smaller analytical projects, news stories that I find relevant to small state foreign policy and indigenous autonomy, as well as a testing ground for new ideas and new projects that I may pursue.