By LILA SEIDMAN
It’s been a busy couple weeks for LGBT Centre executive director Anaraa Nyamdorj. Beyond all the workaday duties his position entails, he’s been planning Mongolia’s sixth event series for the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT), held every year on May 17.
The culmination of Anaraa and the Centre’s planning came to fruition yesterday with the launch of a weeklong visual art exhibition at the Pearl Art Gallery.
The exhibition features projects by graduates of the Centre’s Youth Leadership Programme, as well as at least 30 artworks submitted for the 3rd IDAHOT visual arts competition.
Although Anaraa maintains IDAHOT events are “not really celebrations per se” but rather “events to highlight the plight of the LGBT rights movement and to raise specific topics for people’s awareness,” there was an unmistakable air of exuberance at a simultaneous exhibition pre-opening and Youth Programme graduation held on Monday evening.
Graduates presented their final projects and LGBT Centre staff and supporters cheerfully mulled around, sipping wine and absorbing the diverse artwork on display. Eclectic, alternative aesthetics predominated. It was a warm day, and the festivities spilled out onto the sidewalk. By all visible accounts, the LGBT Centre’s hard work and planning had paid off.
For Anaraa, celebrating IDAHOT 2016 is just a temporal sliver in his decades-long fight for LGBT rights in Mongolia.
One of Mongolia’s most prominent trans men, Anaraa says he knew who he was by the age of 10 and grew up with severe body dysphoria.
Coming of age in the mid-‘80s under the socialist regime, Anaraa explains that he had no access to information concerning sexual orientation and gender identity.
“[I had] no words to describe myself or the feelings I had,” he says. “When you don’t have the ability to articulate or identify your intrinsic identity, when you can’t place your identity within the broader picture of the world, it’s so tough.”
At 19, Anaraa left Mongolia to study law in India where he met a “beautifully crazy, beautifully critical bunch of people,” who he used to hang out with at a feminist study circle. It was an eye-opening experience that helped shape his identity.
“It was really beautiful and inspiring to find a community of people who were able to express themselves and their differences, in terms of sexual orientation,” Anaraa says.
In 1997, Anaraa helped his colleagues organize India’s first national Gay Rights Seminar in India, where he gave a presentation on the United States’ Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990. He’s been a vocal advocate for LGBT rights ever since.
The UB Post sat down with Anaraa and discussed everything from IDAHOT 2016 to his personal journey as a transman to the current state of LGBT rights in Mongolia.
IDAHOT 2016’s theme is mental health. Does the theme resonate with the LGBT Centre and its mission?
For the LGBT rights movement and for the Centre definitely; mental health has been a very important part of our activities.
We have three programs — the health program, legal program and youth program. The health program looks at ensuring full realization of LGBT people’s access to health. That access should be culturally competent and needs-based. That’s what we promote and advocate for. We say that health is not only your bodily health or your physical health, it is also your mental health.
Right now, the health sector is really not needs-based or culturally competent for LGBT people. If you have to hide the fact that you are gay or lesbian when you are accessing health care, obviously you will not be getting the best quality health care. Because the fact that you are lesbian, the fact that you are gay, very much [determines] what kind of health risks you are facing as a human being.
When people are made to feel unsafe and unwelcome because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression, we can say that healthcare itself is not very accessible.
What are the healthcare options for transgender individuals?
[They’re] bad, bad, bad. Online [there is] an article written by two foreign journalists for Mongol Messenger. The article claims that the healthcare in Mongolia is aware and able to provide transition-related services to trans people, which is not true at all. I’m a trans man and I have not been able to access the services that I need. I don’t have an endocrinologist, which means that I’m just going online and searching for the appropriate levels of hormones myself.
You have access to hormones in Mongolia. Testosterone became available only in June 2011, and that was when I began my hormone replacement therapy. Doctors are willing to do hormone replacement therapy, but they’re not trained!
The mental health service part of the transition is also very important. It’s actually a really integral part of it. But that is very much absent.
I was very lucky. I had a really great counselor. She was very professional and ethical, and she helped me a lot. But that is not the case for [the majority of] other trans men or other trans women that I know. That is sad because, especially with hormone replacement therapy, different things are happening with your body as well as with your social surroundings. It’s very important to have psychological support, and especially that it be professional support.
An anti-discrimination law was included in Mongolia’s most recent Criminal Code. What do you think about the final version of the law? What role did the LGBT Centre have in creating/shaping/passing the law?
Sexual orientation and gender identity came in for the first time as protected grounds in the new Criminal Code. It’s the first instance of protection because you can no longer discriminate against people on the basis of who they are.
It took us eight years to get passed, but we did it. And we did it especially thanks to the Centre’s international advocacy with UN treaty bodies, as well as the UN Human Rights Council. We got their recommendation for the government to outlaw hate crimes and hate speech, and they did it. Right now they’re termed [somewhat vaguely] as “crimes of discrimination” but when you look into the definition you will see that it’s actually hate crimes.
The law will begin enforcement from September 1, and that’s when we will see how much the police are able to understand [the law]. In order to ensure that they do understand the law and apply it properly, we’re doing a training for the police on what hate crimes are, how to recognize them, the kind of assistance that hate crimes victims require.
Mongolia doesn’t even know how far ahead it is in Asia thanks to our advocacy and knowledge, and thanks to the fact that we are articulating very well our needs. They don’t even know how their reputation has gone up internationally because this is the first-ever country in the region, in Asia, to have a hate crimes and a hate speech regulation in their criminal code. It’s brilliant.
Despite legislative progress, what is the typical lived experience for the LGBT community in Mongolia?
It’s still extremely hard to be living as an openly LGBTI person in Mongolia. You will be ostracized; you will be denied different services, starting from health care and social services. Kids are still getting bullied at school, so much and so badly that…we keep hearing about these double suicides of teenagers [of the same gender].
Society still treats suicide as taboo. Parents don’t talk about it. Parents might not even recognize that their children were gay or lesbian and that’s why they faced maybe huge, horrendous things, and that’s why they chose to end their lives.
People are a reflection of the society around them. So when the society around them is not showing them the possibility of living freely and openly as an LGBT person, what kind of message are they getting? That we are not supposed to exist. That we should just live in silence. That we should not talk about our innermost desires or our innermost feelings. Where is the equality?
Are people more enlightened or accepting of the LGBT community than they once were?
Absolutely. Back in 2009, my ex-wife and some of our LGBT Centre colleagues did a media survey of about 30 media organizations involving about 50 journalists and reporters. We asked them to fill out a survey, whereby they were asked questions such as, “What is sexual orientation? What is gender identity? What do you think about gay people? What do you think about trans people? How would you report on them?” I can send you the 2009 survey presentation — it’s a beauty, [and I mean that] in a very sarcastic way.
But that is not the case now. For example, last year we had the development and the establishment of the Media Council of Mongolia. It is the first self-regulatory mechanism, whereby the media itself is undertaking some obligations to follow some standards and ethics. And if they do breech those ethics or standards, then they will try to correct the mistakes before things go to court.
Every year before Pride, we do a press conference, and during last year’s press conference, one of the major news sites, News.mn, wrote a nice article — but it used words like “faggot”, “homos” and etc. So we complained to the Media Council and of course they considered their reporting [to be] inciting discrimination and inciting hatred, and that they must not use these words and that they should use the words that we had used during the press conference.
News.mn said that they would issue an apology and that they will concede to the fact that they did use the wrong terminology. Which is good. Things are really getting better.
What kind of progress do you hope see happen in 10 years?
In another 10 years, all schools and all universities will have a charter saying that nobody shall be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
We want to have full protection, legally. We want to have full protection under the labor law, healthcare and a fully operational Criminal Code, whereby people do not discriminate against us.
We want to be able to go to any hospital or clinic and say, “I’m a very, very queer trans man,” and then obtain all the healthcare services that I require and that contour to my specific situation.
In another 10 years, I just don’t want to hear another person come up to me and say, “Life is so hard. I want to migrate to another country.” Or that they feel so unsafe walking the streets that they would rather skip school or stay indoors. I just want to see a really empowered LGBT community that is able to claim our rights, that is able to enjoy our rights. I really want to see a beautifully diverse, vibrant, and colorful society. Mongolia is that. We just need to be more visible.
The IDAHOT 2016 visual arts exhibition will run until 6:00 p.m. on May 22. It is free and open to the public.