Alumni stories

LGBT rights: Path of courage and defiance

The LGBT Centre in Ulaanbaatar is Mongolia's first and only LGBT human rights organization. In a country where working for LGBT rights is not only difficult but also dangerous, the LGBT Centre is building a better and safer society for Mongolia's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Under constant threat of violence by ultra-nationalist right-wing movements, the courageous leaders, staff and volunteers at the Centre provide legal, advocacy, and social support services for LGBT Mongolians and their families.

Munkhzaya, Youth Program Manager, LGBT Centre: "There is so much to do!"

Our visit with the US Department of State started on 20 March 2011 when we arrived in Washington DC from New York City where we had spent the last two and a half weeks meeting various LGBT as well as donor organi-zations following receipt of the Felipa de Souza Award on behalf of the LGBT Centre. It‟s a signature human rights award from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission given annually to an outstanding grass-roots organization or individual in recognition of their courage and activism for the promotion and protection of human rights for all people, and we were deeply honored to have received this award.

Anaraa and Munkhzaya with actor Mr. Alan Cumming at the Courage ceremony

Of importance to me were the youth programs and initia-tives run by various LGBT organizations since I am in charge of the Youth Program at the LGBT Centre. All pro-grams and organizations we met were geared toward creating a safe space for LGBT youth to be who they are, and to mobilize youth in the LGBT rights movement. I was especially inspired by two ladies we met in Salt Lake City: Kathy Goodwin was the mountain region PFLAG coordina-tor and Carla Kelley was the founder and Executive Direc-tor of the Human Rights Education Center of Utah. Both have not only accepted their children‟s sexualities, but have joined their own voice to ensuring equality to everyone regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, and all that in a specific socio-religious environment of the Mormon Church in Utah.

Although the Voluntary Visitor Program was relatively short compared to the typical International Visitor Leadership Program, the duration and meetings arranged for us suited our needs very well and we were glad to be getting home sooner since there is so much to do for us in Mongolia on LGBT rights!

Anaraa, Advisory member of the Executive Board, LGBT Centre: “We aim to empower LGBT youth to become true agents of change”

What do LGBT kids do all over the world when their parents and traditional ethno-linguistic communities turn away from their own offspring in ignorance, disgust, shame and anger? Very often kids do the one and only easiest thing to preserve their sanity: they run away. They choose the seeming freedom of being on the streets because that is easier to take than the rejection and betrayal from your family. And that's the reality of kids everywhere, be it in the USA or Mongolia. I know I was one of those at the age of 17. Thankfully I had a friend who had taken me in and gave me shelter, food, and nurture, but oftentimes LGBT kids are just not that lucky as many do not have friends at school or other spaces they social-ize in because of the ostracism and discrimination from peers.

The organization we visited in New York City, the Door, is an amazing, holistic concept of continually engaging youth to ensure the more vulnerable ones do not end up on the street, or, even if they do, that they are safer. The Door has been serving the New York youth for as long as four decades, with many thousands of kids having accessed various services and support systems available at the Door, starting from medical to educational to crisis survival. I've never seen anything like this before where the youth are encouraged to take the reigns of life in their hands to be who they are, to have a space to express themselves without fear or bullying - albeit, verbal slurs against the LGBTQ kids are often witnessed by staff and kids themselves. We met with James, the LGBT Program Coordinator at the Door, and he shared the realities of the kids and young adults they serve: many of our younger generation of LGBTQ kids are just as bad off as we were when we were coming of age and coming out. But the Door and other such community centers appear to be driven by the self-determination and autonomy of the children and young adults they serve by promoting ownership of the program-ming that is done at the Door. Mutual help, community building, are all encouraged, and groups are loosely structured to allow the kids to lead the process and to determine their priorities.

Exchange Reflection

Mongolia never had such a holistic children's/young adults' community centers. When I was a kid, the only choices available for after-hour extracurricular activities were interminably boring study groups and arts and crafts groups at school or the Pioneer's Palace, the latter availing more than just arts and crafts: music and dance classes were offered too, but strictly based on your talent (although why you would discourage kids from learning to play or enjoy music even if they were not your Liszts or Mozarts is beyond me). And if you felt you did not exactly fit in with the social norms and so-called normalcy criteria for girls and boys or women and men, if who you were or felt yourself to be was nowhere to be seen around you, making you feel like a freak of nature, well that was just unspeakable. Nowadays there are still no children's/young adults' community centers, nothing remotely resem-bling the Door in its amazing vision of allowing kids to be who they are on their own terms, but in a safe environment. Mongolia really does need it. And so does the LGBT youth. Any volunteers to help us out with all the things we want to do with the LGBT youth? Because what we aim to do is to empower LGBT youth and young adults to become true agents of change in the society where they will be af-forded equal rights, equal respect and dignity, and this will take time as well as commitment.