Enkhmaa Enkhbold, the executive director of LGBT Centre Mongolia, built her own experience in the field by engaging with numerous UN human rights mechanisms over the years - with organisations like ILGA World and others ready to provide support when necessary. In 2022, Enkhmaa engaged with the UN Committee for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, obtaining a result of historic significance: for the first time, the Committee referred ICD-11 (the latest International Classification of Diseases, which declassified trans identities as a mental disorder) among the recommendations made to Mongolia on trans persons.
On this new episode of ILGA World's Making Rainbow Waves podcast, we met Enkhmaa as her organisation prepares to follow up on the historic recommendations obtained at the international level, and ensuring they can influence positive change in her country. Together, we went over Enkhmaa's journey as an activist, the different international human rights mechanisms, what goes behind the scenes when advocates access these spaces, and the current situation of the Mongolian LGBTI community.
“Our primary hope is to have a community centre of our own, a safe space for the community”, she told us. “Of course, we want to walk the streets without retaliation, without fear and stigma: that's, I think, a given for all of us, right? That's what we wish for, and that's why we're fighting for this.”
Click here to read the episode's transcription
Making Rainbow Waves is a podcast by ILGA World, telling the stories and raising the voices of LGBTI human rights defenders worldwide.
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This episode of Making Rainbow Waves was hosted by Daniele Paletta and edited by Kevin Mwachiro.
Transcription and translation to Spanish by Luca Bermejo.
A vintage radio broadcast waves in rainbow colours. A rainbow banner sits behind it.
Text reads: "Making Rainbow Waves - a podcast by ILGA World - a conversation with Enkhmaa Enkhbold (LGBT Centre Mongolia)"
I was asking delegates to please use this specific language.
Please make sure you say “Lesbian”, “Gay”, “Bisexual”, “Transgender”, “Intersex”.
Please make sure you use sexual orientation and gender identity specifically. Otherwise, we are gonna be overlooked again.
Daniele Paletta (host)
Making Rainbow Waves, a podcast by ILGA World.
Welcome to Making Rainbow Waves, the podcast by ILGA World where we tell the stories of LGBTI human rights defenders worldwide.
My name is Daniele Paletta and I'm here today with Enkhmaa Enkhbold from LGBT Centre Mongolia. Welcome, Enkhmaa!
Hi Daniele, thank you for having me.
Let's start by asking you some questions. I wanted to know more about your story as an activist.
How did you start engaging with LGBTI activism in the first place?
So, I used to live in the United States. Particularly in the Bay Area, California. And I lived there for many years.
Basically, I left Mongolia when I was 16. It was 2002, that's when I left the country. And in 2015, I outreached to National Violence Against Women in Mongolia. I wanted to volunteer for three months, so I was coming to Mongolia.
So as a queer person, I wanted to know where in Mongolia the LGBTQI people were. So, when the National Centre Against Violence accepted me, I outreached to the LGBT Centre of Mongolia. That's when I learned of the LGBT Centre. And the LGBT Centre told me to “come over”, you know, “whenever you're in town”. So, in the summer of 2015 I came to the LGBT Centre, met with the activists, and I was blown away. I was very impressed by how advanced the movement was, because when I was in the Bay Area I actually had this very narrow mind of how things might be in Mongolia. And I was very wrong, and I was silently embarrassed.
So I began to volunteer for LGBT Centre during my time in Mongolia, and I navigated through LGBT, queer spaces in Ulaanbaatar City. And then I met more activists, more queer people, and I fell in love with the Mongolian LGBTQI movement and actors and all of the activists and the community.
And there and then I, silently, in my heart, I thought, “I think this is my place”.
So, I volunteered from a distance, you know, I still lived in San Francisco, so I would volunteer for the Centre doing some translations, or support fundraisings, things like that. And in 2017, the LGBT Centre invited me on their board. And I was, of course, exhilarated. I was very happy to be part of this very amazing organisation. So I did. And then, I learned more of the organisation. In the meantime, I was still living in San Francisco, you know.
In 2019 there was an opening for the LGBT Centre for (the role of) House Programme Coordinator. So, my background is in Women and Gender Studies. So, it kind of aligns with the programme, and I'm also an activist and human rights defender. So, I applied, and they accepted me with open arms.
So, in 2019, April, in two weeks, I packed my 17 years of life in San Francisco in a few boxes and moved to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and I've been here since.
At the end of 2019, I was appointed as Executive Director of the organisation, and even though I was so scared, I accepted it.
Thank you so much for sharing all of that.
How would you describe the situation for LGBTI communities in Mongolia?
And how do you think it has evolved over time?
So: the human rights situation on the legislative or at the policy level... Mongolia is quite progressive compared to many countries in the region of Asia and the Pacific. For example, in the past ten years, we had sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected ground in many important laws, such as the Criminal Code of 2015, the Labor Law of 2022, Privacy Act of 2022 and many ethical codes of professionals have sexual orientation and gender identity. So, these are great progress, you know. This is the hard work of the LGBT Centre's international and national advocacy. However, unfortunately, although these are very good progress, the implementation, the practice of these policies and legislations, are not quite in place yet.
For example, the Criminal Code has an anti-discrimination clause, the law is from 2015, it became effective in 2017. So, from 2017 to today, 2023, not a single case was resolved at a judicial level under this prohibition, under the discrimination prohibition. So, it says a lot, you know: a country of three point nearly five, million people… the LGBT Centre documents human rights violations, our data says different (things), we have our lived experiences. It's just simply not working.
So other laws are quite new, you know, they are very recent, we are monitoring and we're trying to engage with the government to enhance the capacity of government agencies and stuff. In terms of LGBTQI people in a social/cultural sphere of society, there exist prejudices, stigma, all of that really prevails, you know, especially towards our trans and non-binary communities. The current situation of LGBTQI people has not yet improved. I would say it's very slow.
You know, in certain areas of the country… only like Ulaanbaatar… Ulaanbaatar is a very big city, it's the capital city, it's the biggest city. But only one or two districts, and even their sub-districts, are queer-friendly. But in the rest of this city, homophobia and transphobia prevail, prevail, prevail. So like, the intersection of class, gender and sexual orientation, it really matters, and then your socio-economic background, where you live.
So overall, I would say: not good for LGBTQI people here in Mongolia.
I know you've also brought up the situation of our communities in the country after the International Level at the United Nations, and there have been a few examples of your engagement in United Nations bodies. So, could you tell me more about that?
First, I must really embrace the work of my predecessors, who have already set the agenda for international advocacy within the organisation. So the LGBT Centre has been engaging in the U.N system mechanism since 2008. We submitted our first CEDAW shadow report in 2008. So all in all, we have submitted over a dozen, or around a dozen, shadow reports and that's how much we have engaged in this organisation. And then we currently have, I believe, about sixty LGBTQI-specific recommendations obtained throughout this past ten years or so. So, in terms of my engagement, it was the third UPR Cycle in 2020, CESCR in 2022, and CEDAW in 2022.
The UN mechanism, you know, at first it was very intimidating. Especially in 2020, when I engaged in the UPR, I was terrified. First of all, I didn't have any experience, and second of all I was terrified of losing opportunities, you know. But thankfully with the support of ILGA it went smoothly. Because on 2020 there was the pandemic and I couldn't go to Geneva, I was able to have a dialogue with delegates from ten, eleven member states on Zoom, and deliver our statement. I think that was very, very helpful, because from the third UPR cycle we obtained fifteen LGBTQI-specific recommendations.
So, one of the tactics I used during my advocacy, you know, meeting with delegates, was giving them a context of how Mongolian governments understand minority or margin, like those keywords. Like when they hear “minority” they only think of disability. So, I was asking delegates “when you make a recommendation to my country, please use this specific language. Please make sure you say “Lesbian”, “Gay”, “Bisexual”, “Transgender”, “Intersex”. Please make sure you use sexual orientation and gender identity specifically. Otherwise, we are going to be overlooked again, under the terms “minority”, “marginalised”.
So; thankfully, they did, many of them did. And I really believe that really helped shape the recommendations for the delegates, for the government, and fifteen LGBTI-specific recommendations: that's really huge for us, and our government supported twelve of them and noted three of them, meaning they didn't support three of them.
So the third UPR Cycle, that all happened from a distance, and they were also able to engage, meet with delegates in the country through embassies. That's what happened with UPR, and in June of 2022 I participated in the eighty-second CEDAW session. That was our third time submitting and engaging.
You know… UPR and CEDAW are two different mechanisms. Similar but different. One is Special Procedures and the other one is Treaty Bodies. So CEDAW for me was also, again, quite new, but because of the UPR I had some confidence in me, and another organisation that really helped for CEDAW was IWRAW. IWRAW really provided technical support while I was in Geneva, and it really helped me to understand the committee, and how to engage with them and set up meetings, and things like that.
So, through CEDAW, we've obtained six LBTI recommendations. Also, I used the same tactic, “please use specific language to speak to our government”. It was a very emotional time during CEDAW: I cried and delivered the oral statement. It was very overwhelming, but I've learned so, so much. So, by the time, in September, CESCR, I was pretty confident.
And ready! I'm sure.
You mentioned CESCR, the Committee of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, again you engaged on behalf of LGBTI communities in Mongolia, and there was also a result of historical significance, because among the recommendations on trans persons that your country received, for the very first time the Committee mentioned ICD-11 - the latest International Classification of Diseases - which in essence, among many other things of course, declassified trans identities as a mental disorder. It was a pretty great result, not only just for your country but internationally as a whole! How did the engagement with that specific committee go?
Absolutely! Oh, my goodness.
So: CESCR was interesting because there was not enough civil society engagement in this seventy-second CESCR session. In fact, LGBT Centre was the only civil society organisation to engage in the CESCR, in this session. So, I was the only civil society representative coming from Mongolia to Geneva. Whereas other governments were over a dozen people, you know? So, in that sense it was quite overwhelming.
In the CESCR I had taken several tactics, like quick thinking maybe. When we were developing our shadow report, we learned that we might be the only ones that were going to submit a report, and we learnt it from our network, and that was very sad for us, you know? There are so many issues that are happening in Mongolia, we're aware of, but that those issues were not going to be discussed in the session, was very sad for us.
So, when you're developing a shadow report, it's very strict with like numbers and how many words should be included, so you have to be very tactful. We decided to include at least the part on human rights defenders: that is a hot topic and there are a lot of issues with the new law. Mongolia is the first country in the Asia-Pacific region to pass a human rights defenders law. The government is very proud of it, but you know… we see a lot of flaws.
We included it, we invested a whole page on it, and I delivered the oral statement. I was supposed to present it to the Committee members, but it was just me and the Committee members: in a way, I had an advantage because I spent nearly thirty to forty minutes with the Committee members. Just me discussing, you know?
So I highlighted the comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, how Mongolia should adopt it, and then also highlighted trans healthcare, and especially the ICD-11. So, for my preparation, I developed very, very specific recommendations. ICD-11, darararara'. And thankfully, they took it and then they provided it, and it was just... it was glorious to see.
And then actually, on this: I wanna also add. I think Treaty Bodies also - like UPR, and other member States - they don't really give trans-specific recommendations. That doesn't happen often.
I'm jumping back to UPR: on the third UPR session, we also obtained a trans-specific recommendation from Israel. So that also took quick thinking and strategy, because I was supposed to meet a delegate from Israel, and I was looking into what kind of recommendations Israel provides in terms of LGBTIQ persons, and while searching through UPRInfo.org I learned that Israel provides trans-specific recommendations. So, we quickly changed the tactic because in Mongolia we have a gender marker provision in our civil registration law, so that a trans or intersex person can have the gender marker changed. Unfortunately, that law – again - doesn't work. because it requires medical intervention, which the healthcare sector does not have. So, I pitched that to the Israeli delegate and then we obtained the recommendation, particularly on that law, asking the government to remove the medical intervention (requirement) from that law. And then our government supported it, so we had two trans-specific recommendations. Very, very specific recommendations, and we're just very thrilled.
I just want to shout out to Kseniya, at ILGA World, who met me both of my times in Geneva, but particularly during CESCR when I was alone. We had a coffee before I met the Committee members, and I was telling her my strategies and the recommendations and what kind of recommendations we were aiming for, and she asked me excellent questions. She was like “Is your recommendation measurable?”, “How are you going to measure it?” and then she pointed me to a direction to really shape my recommendations: very, very specific.
And then, after the coffee, I went to my hotel and did not sleep. I was up all night re-drafting all the recommendations: that's how ICD-11 really popped up, because I was making more about details and measurables. So: thank you, Kseniya, for your very valuable advice to me.
Thank you so much for also sharing these many insights about the work of human rights defenders when they advocate in UN spaces, because it's very difficult for everyone to understand what happens before you meet the governments and the various Committees. But also, it's difficult for people to understand how quickly they have to adapt their tactics to developments, or how they do research on what they have to say. So, thank you for sharing all of that.
Now that you have engaged with many UN bodies and different mechanisms, what happens next for Mongolia? And how do you think these recommendations will be picked up - if they will be picked up by your government - and how are you working around that?
The number one thing is to look at the national implementation plans for these recommendations. We are waiting, we are writing to the ministries who are in charge, because Treaty Bodies (follow-up) are governed by different ministries. So, we are reaching out to them, asking for them to make implementations, asking to be included in the working group on planning. Also, aside from that national programme, there are existing national programmes. In Mongolia, we have Vision 2050, an SDG Programme that covers many areas of society. We pay close attention to the national programmes and then we align our plans with the national programmes, because we can't really go against them, you know: we think it's a smart way to plan, and then develop long-term project proposals that also align with the recommendations, and then of course educate our community and do our regular community building, movement building: all of that is happening at the same time.
I would like to end the interview with a question I didn't anticipate, so I hope it's okay. I was wondering whether you had a dream or hope for our communities in Mongolia.
There are many, many hopes and wishes. But our primary hope is to have a community centre of our own, a safe space for the community. That has been my dream for the last three years as an executive director, and that's definitely a priority on my agenda as an executive director for the community, for the Centre.
Of course, we want to walk the streets without retaliation, without fear and stigma: that's, I think, a given for all of us, right? That's what we wish for, and that's why we're fighting for this.
Thanks to you for doing all of that. Thanks for doing this interview with us, and we wish you all the best on all the follow-up procedures that you're doing in-country after so many great results at the United Nations.
Thank you so much for having me.
Thank you so much for being with us today.
You can find every episode on all streaming platforms, and transcriptions are available on ilga.org. Making Rainbow Waves is a podcast by ILGA World. This episode was hosted by Daniele Paletta and edited by Kevin Mwachiro. Thanks for listening.