The Lies of Liberty is a 20-minute documentary which highlights the challenges of the Mongolian LGBT community and features a transgender woman, two lesbians and three gay man who spoke of the realities of their lives. Although there are no legal prohibitions, LGBTs face possible violence on a day-to-day basis by members of ultra-nationalists parties. The transgender woman in the documentary, who related an incident in which herself and two other transgender women she knew were bundled into a car and taken to a desolate place where they were assaulted, had since received serious death threats since the documentary was shown.
Fridae speaks with Robyn Garner, co-founder and Executive Director of the Mongolian LGBT Centre, who is originally from Australia but has since called Mongolia home after moving there in 2004 to work in development communications/advocacy.
æ: How did you come to be involved in the Mongolian LGBT Centre?
I hadn’t initially planned to become involved in LGBT activism; however I did want to outreach with the local LGBT community. That proved extremely difficult as the community, such as it was back then, was very much underground. Trying to make any contacts was an exercise in patience and trust-building. Eventually I was able to break through and meet up with some people. It was at this time that I met my now wife, Anaraa, a long-time Mongolian LGBT activist – one of only a handful in the country. She had established the Mongolian Lesbian Information Centre (MILC) and had set up a website providing information for LGBT people in Mongolia. Together we decided to take LGBT activism to new level, which we have been doing for a number of years now, locally, regionally and internationally. As part of that, we wanted to set up a LGBT human rights NGO, a process we began back in 2007. We, and our small but dedicated band of co-founders, had no idea at the time that it would take until the end of 2009 to realise that dream. But our persistence and our commitment eventually paid off and Mongolia now has its first LGBT human rights NGO.
æ: What motivated the Centre to produce the documentary?
In February I was asked to be a guest speaker at the annual "Through Women’s Eyes" forum organised by the National Network of Mongolian Women’s NGOs (MONFEMNET) and was held on International Women’s Day. Rather than just stand in front of people and talk about LGBT human rights, we thought it would be more effective to make a documentary in which the LGBT community themselves spoke of the realities of their lives. It was the first time such a documentary had been made here. We had planned to make it ourselves on our old handycam, but in a fortuitous piece of timing I was contacted by Amelia Wong, an Australian television producer who is volunteering in Mongolia for a year. I asked her if she would be interested in making the documentary, and thankfully she was. She was able to take our idea and turn it into something truly special.
æ: There’s talk that the transwoman who appeared in the documentary received a death threat after the documentary was shown. Where was the documentary shown? If it was shown to the public, what has the response been so far?
The documentary was first shown at the March 8 forum, and we were unsure of the reaction it would elicit. By and large there is little interest in LGBT human rights and little concern about the hate crimes taking place against the LGBT community. There was a large crowd in attendance, and I remember we were all watching them closely to see how they responded. To our surprise, we received very strong and positive feedback. A number of people shed tears when they heard of the violence being suffered. There were a also number of media in attendance at the forum.
Some of the television stations filmed and later broadcast those segments in which the transwoman featured spoke of the abuse she and two other transwomen had endured at the hands of a particular group of ultra-nationalists last year. In response, those ultra-nationalists issued a death warrant against her and there were instructions to hunt her down and kill her. It was a real and extremely serious threat.
æ: Can you describe the level of social acceptance of LGBTs?
Almost nil. There is discrimination in every conceivable sector of life. Discrimination against LGBT people in Mongolia is endemic in the public, private and non-governmental sectors and encompasses the police and the judiciary, health-care services, education, the housing sector and the media. So prolific is the level of prejudice that few LGBT people have escaped some degree of harassment and/or violence.
æ: Are there any particular groups that pose the most threat to LGBTS?
At present, ultra-nationalists are probably one of our greatest threats. There is one particular ultra-nationalist group that is very powerful, very well organised, has branches in every district and operates throughout the country. According to the human rights groups we have spoken to, they operate like an army. They are incredibly violent, with their brutality driven by a racist and heteronormative agenda. And thanks to their cosy relationship with the police, they are largely acting with impunity. We have had our own close encounter with them. On the day before the "Through Women’s Eyes" forum, three of us from the LGBT Centre met with our film-maker at a restaurant to preview the final cut. We played the documentary on a laptop, pretty much unaware of the people around us. However, unbeknown to us, members of this group were in the restaurant. Despite the volume being down low, they overheard what was being said on the video, and before too long there were five of them watching us, calling us homos, and generally acting aggressively. When we packed up and left, they came after my wife and I, and attempted a very public abduction on a very busy street. We were fortunate to escape thanks to a car pulling up and opening its doors for us just as they came within reach of us. So they mean business. And now we have to be extremely careful.
æ: Can you briefly tell us more about the centre and the work you all are doing? How many staff and volunteers, etc?
We have identified a number of key areas in which we are currently working: Advocacy both locally and internationally; legal reform, including the development of a law on non-discrimination; the promotion of non-discriminatory and inclusive environments in the education and health-care sectors; the promotion of safe workplaces; the provision of legal, psychological and support services and resources for the LGBT community; and ongoing research into LGBT issues in Mongolia. The LGBT Centre has four staff, although until we secure funding we are all working on a voluntary, although full-time, basis. We also have a small group of young volunteers who produce our weekly radio podcasts focusing on relevant issues and topics for our community, which we upload to our website.
æ: The Centre finally won legal recognition as the very first and only LGBT Centre in the country last December after making at least 10 attempts to register with the Legal Entities Registration Agency (LERA) over a three-year period. What were the biggest obstacles?
The biggest obstacle was actually the Mongolian NGO registration system itself. Decisions on whether or not to register NGOs are arbitrarily determined according to the whims and personal preferences of just a handful of people. If those people find an NGO, or its name or activities (in our case all three), in some way objectionable, it is vetoed, irrespective of their views having no legitimate or legally prescribed basis. We struck this problem with first the Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs and later with the Legal Entities Registration Agency (LERA). We dealt with one man in particular at the LERA who had no intention of registering our NGO, and who indeed tried to make the process as painful as possible. He had us running backwards and forwards to the registration centre for months, demanding that myriad changes be made to our registration papers. More often than not those changes would be contradictory. One week he would tell us to change our wording a certain way, only to return the following week to be told that we had to change it back. It was very frustrating. To compound the situation, if an NGO is denied registration – as ours officially was in June 2009 – and an appeal is launched, it is adjudicated by the very people who make the initial decision; there is no independent appeal process. It’s a lose-lose situation. We were able to raise the issue of this inherent systematic bias at a national panel discussion on NGO Law reform in November 2009. The law is currently under review, so hopefully the amendments that are made will rectify this problem.
æ: Having achieved legal recognition, what’s the most immediate agenda of the Centre?
Our first task on being registered was the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Mongolia is undergoing its first UPR later this year. We have been working on UPR advocacy since the middle of 2009, outreaching with different international human rights bodies to ensure LGBT human rights issues are firmly on the agenda. We have been extremely proactive in this. I am the national coordinator of a working group of NGOs focusing on minority issues (sexuality minorities, ethnic minorities, people living with HIV/AIDS and sex workers). We have submitted a joint minorities’ UPR report as well as a separate UPR report in conjunction with the Sexual Rights Initiative. Since then, we have been working on advocacy both nationally and internationally, and on media campaigning on the issues raised. The UPR has been an important step forward for us in terms of recognition and acceptance by other civil society organisations. Through this process, we have been able to forge good links and develop networks with a range of different NGOs. We have a number of other priority areas that we are currently working on. We want to see the enactment of a law on non-discrimination, so this is something we are starting the push for.
Our first step is the convening of a national working group to help develop the legislation. We are also working on an LGBT non-discrimination media campaign that we are linking to the need for such legislation. Filming for that began last weekend. We have also spoken to other human rights groups about establishing a joint emergency-response unit to address human rights violations when they occur. We have implemented a Safe Workplace Initiative, through which we are promoting non-discrimination in the workplace and are building up a network or safe workplaces for LGBT people. We have also started an LGBT Parents’ and Friends’ support group to help foster greater understanding and acceptance of our community. Our NGO is also part of a human rights education coalition working to promote human rights concepts in the education sector. We will also be working with the National Human Rights Commission in the future on LGBT human rights trainings and advocacy.
There are so many areas in which we need to make changes; societally, politically, institutionally, legally. And there are so many services and support structures that our community needs. Our eyes are on the long term. We know that we are dealing with changes that will likely take generations, and we want to ensure that everything we do is part of a long-term strategy, not simply an endless succession of ad-hoc projects that have little, if any, sustainable impact. We want to look around in 20 years’ time and see a more accepting environment for LGBT people in Mongolia. We want to see our community living their lives free from fear and discrimination.