Intro: Across the vast steppes of the once-great empire of Genghis Khan, a quiet and rural culture struggles to emerge from recent Communist oppression. In the capital of Ulan Bator, a U.N. consultant finds refreshing sexual attitudes in a warm gay relationship with a modern native Mongolian.
Also, in 2009 the first LGBT NGO was established, the most significant achievement of gay life in Mongolia in modern history.
By Richard Ammon
and Ron Austin
Updated March 2015
Finding a Scene
Occasionally, a trip to a far off land doesn’t include my connecting with native gay and lesbian folks. This was the case in Mongolia. Instead, my time there was consumed by a long Jeep trip of a thousand miles across the steppes of the country’s center hinterlands.
However, the year before, I met two gay (western) United Nations staff members who lived and worked in Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital. During their two-year tenure in that city, they had engaged with native men and were agreeable to relating their experiences. Unfortunately, just before I arrived they were transferred to other UN projects abroad.
But fortunately I had kept my e-mail correspondence from one of them in which he describes some of the unique as well as universal aspects of homosexual life and attitudes in Mongolia.
Traditional Country–Contemporary Change
Ron Austin (not is real name) is a lean thirty-something Canadian with dark hair, hazel eyes and a quick-witted sense of humor. He had been assigned to the United Nations Development Program advisor on an environmental public awareness project. “We fund small projects which publicize environmental issues… air pollution, desertification, endangered species”, he wrote in one of his first messages.
“We have 35 projects underway which we are overseeing. We also work with the government, providing training and grants to upgrade their environmental public awareness strategies. Does this sound like envirogobbledygook? Anyway, it’s a good program and I enjoy the work. ”
After nearly two years of working in Ulan Bator, Ron had ‘adjusted down’ to the small town atmosphere and limited social and cultural life in this sleepy capital. But it’s still the biggest city in Mongolia and does buzz with a certain international life and activity–as well as a native gay presence. As always, our lavender community ferrets out fellow members who can inform about the ‘scene’, however modest or grand it may be.
Ron reported, “you don’t come to Mongolia for the gay life–it’s almost nonexistent unfortunately. A sensibility is only starting to develop as things open up (from decades of repressive Soviet domination prior to the 1989).
“The regime here was till old-style communist until June of 1996 and now there it’s a parliamentary republic elected by the people that in turn elects the presiding government officials although the president is elected directly. Mongolia’s constitution guarantees full freedom of expression, religion, and other freedoms–not including sexual orientation.
Given new opportunities and freedoms, Ron continued, “young people are rapidly embracing western culture while the older generation are stubbornly rooted in the “state provides all” mentality. Discos and night clubs (all but one non-gay) with strippers (including male) are popping up occasionally and recently there was even a strip-a-thon, but the promoters were quick to assure everyone the strippers were not prostitutes!”
Unfortunately, as the economy gets tougher here, some people are turning to desperate means to survive. In the major tourist hotels and bars female prostitutes freely mingle with western visitors.
Mongolians appear to be a tough breed, blunt in manner and rugged in looks. First impressions are that they lack basic manners. They push and shove in the market and crash into you walking down the street. Physically they are Asian, with wide round faces, high cheekbones and chunkier bodies than Chinese.
Some of them appear to have features not unlike North American Natives–not surprising since historians contend that ancient migration occurred eastward over the Alaskan peninsula. Many Mongolians dislike the Chinese and think of themselves more as Europeans.
The dominant influence has been Russian, which is also the second language here, although English is widespread and popular in the city. Many literate Mongolians over the age of forty were given free college educations by the Russians, often in Russia, so a certain loyalty remains today.
In an early e-mail, Ron wrote that “the men have a gruff sexiness here; wrestling is the number one sport, but under that tough exterior is a surprising sweetness. It’s not unusual for a young man to walk up to me on the street and try out his English. It can be quite sexy, especially when they ask me if I would teach them at my home. (I haven’t followed up on this yet, but when the right one comes along…)
“I belong to a western-style gym and bodybuilding is popular. It’s not unusual for a Mongol guy to strip down to his underwear in the gym and pose in the mirror, showing off his body to anyone who wants to look. They appreciate attention–and I appreciate looking!”
Around UB city are mountains and Ron’s main exercise there was hiking up through the pine, larch and birch forests. In the winter he cross-country skied every Sunday.
This is why many visitors come to Mongolia, for the great outdoors. Most of my own time in Mongolia was spent on a thousand-mile jeep camping trip around central Mongolia. My driver (married with kids) and I explored ancient city ruins, the ‘little Gobi’ sand dunes, a blown-out extinct volcano, frigid pristine lakes and rare horse reserves. Indeed, the wide rolling steppes under a great expansive sky is the main event here.
Although there is a decent expat population in UB city who worked for the UN and other NGO’s (non-governmental organizations), Ron noted that expats generally have small town mentalities and are not generally known for their pro-gay attitudes.
But at the same time, he said, “I don’t pretend to be straight, although I follow the US army approach to my situation.”
Gay Action in UB City
As for the ‘action’ in Ulan Bator (UB city)? “Don’t hold your breath,” There is only well-hidden gay bar called 100% and no cruising areas as such, but as I say, the natives are definitely friendly.” Female prostitution, generally considered socially unacceptable, is still tolerated as a man’s prerogative and therefore mostly overlooked by the authorities.
But homosexuality is not well received here, arguably because it is such a mystery for most people. It baffles straight people who know virtually nothing about it. They don’t know what it is. Or if they do have an idea about it, they say they have never (knowingly) met a gay person.
To prove the point, after our bumpy jeep adventure over rutted dirt roads, the owner who arranged the trip for my partner and me asked how we knew each other. I told him we were a gay couple, which took him completely by surprise. His usually calm demeanor was momentarily gobsmacked (British for ‘amazed’).
Nevertheless, his reply was supportive as we laughed together at his astonishment. “I never would have guessed that”, he declared. He was impressed also that we had been together for nearly twenty years, and still wanted us to be sure to send him some photos we had taken of our adventure. (photo left: Naadam Games)
“Unfortunately one has to be careful,” Ron went on, “as it can lead to misunderstandings… naiveté rules. Young straight people are especially promiscuous here; they get married young and the marriages are falling apart all over the place. There are lots of single mothers and street children recently. Not surprising, there is a general mood of irresponsibility since the authoritarian regime collapsed. ”
This lax attitude about sexuality is especially present among the younger generation who have much more access to western media and the Internet (UB city has at least six Internet shops). Ron observed that this would likely lead to more openness about homosexuality.
He was sure that “some of the boys out there are into experimenting… but there’s no gay sensibility yet. Although they might have homo sex with little problem, they hardly understand what ‘gay’ really means. Let alone what gay romance is. There is no context of gay community or support here.”
Fortunately, Ron commented, there are no serious religious barriers to it. Buddhism, the Tibetan variety, is the dominant religion and does not advocate directly against homosexuality. Besides, most people are not at religious in Mongolia, although, he said, “Christian missionaries are here doing their usual fire and brimstone thing and are persuading some young people who think it’s cool to wear a crucifix or a pendant of the Madonna-the original one!”
Places and Play Stations
The cruisiest place used to be the showers adjoining the public swimming pool and the bodybuilders’ gym, but they have closed (like many state-funded facilities across the country) and there seems to be no money to open them again.
Ron playfully suggested he should fund a renovation project through UNDP! “But to be honest the action here for me was mainly in the fantasy realm, before I met my boyfriend. As I mentioned, I have to maintain some discretion here which is hard since I’ve been out since I was 22.”
According to the latest gossip, a popular gay cruising place is in front of the State Department store downtown, although, Ron warned “I’ve also been told that it can be risky. The police are still in the ‘commie’ mode here and stop people constantly asking for ID. I personally think the cops look sexy in their green Russian army outfits, but I wouldn’t trust them at all. It’s unclear if homosex is actually against the law, although my UNDP source says it is.”
His opinion was that in the “last couple of years so many things have been liberalizing in leaps and bounds so that maybe nobody cares too much anymore about snooping out gay offenses. Maybe. The old Soviet system was hard on gays so one can expect the mentality to be still there. ”
As a matter of drama and rumor, Ron had heard that one of the last ‘living Buddhas’ here (before Communism) had a male lover for years “until they had a spat and the lama had him buried alive under sand in the Gobi desert. Must have been some fight! But more than one government official had to be looking the other way during the more amicable years of the relationship.”
Ron continued: “Also, there does not seem to be much bother with strict sex roles here; a few men are mildly feminine in behavior, but almost all are conditioned into a tough macho exterior–which is pretty sexy if you like blunt and functional in bed. But there don’t seem to be any screaming queens around which likely results from the long repressive system here.
“So it’s all a bit mysterious I’ll have to admit. As far as I can tell, there is no open gayness, no gay couples and every male over the age of 22 is married and seems to have several kids”, he surmised.
But of course there is more, especially in private and in the dark.
Making Deeper Contact
In his second year in UB city, Ron went on a camping trip with a group of UN staff members and spent a couple of days at Lake Huvsgul, a smaller scale Lake Baikal on the border of Russia. “Beautiful clear cold water, we could actually see the big fish swimming around. Even this Canadian was impressed.
“During our visit, I went horseback riding along the lake with my translator, Nimbod, a clever and fun young man. He and I hit it off right away, chatting easily about things. His English was good enough to pick up innuendoes and I could tell he understood some of my sexual double entendres as we joked around. It also turned out that he was lacking a sleeping bag on this trip. Of course I couldn’t let him catch a chill so I charitably offered mine–with me in it. He apparently did not mind the offer and things developed quite nicely in our private tent.”
Their subsequent relationship lasted almost a year before they drifted apart–not unusual for two culturally divergent men. During that time, Ron gained further insight into Mongol sexual attitudes and behavior.
He wrote, “there appears to be a sweet sexual naivete to most Mongolians, despite their initial masculine pose. I suppose they do it out of habit, up to a point. This guy turned out to be a fun romantic time on the trip, carrying on secretly under everyone’s noses! He was new to it all, only 20, but a fast learner and things developed nicely even after we returned to UB City. He’s now on a trip to Canada, translating for an agricultural project which is investigating ways to improve wheat production.
“I suggested Canada of course and he’s stopping in my hometown so I sent him off with a box to give to my parents. Kind of cute I thought, sending my new boyfriend to meet my parents!”
Regarding gay sexuality, Ron continued, “there doesn’t seem to be major homophobic hang-ups, although being gay is certainly not part of the culture. Getting married and producing babies are still the major focus of existence here. But judging by Nimbod’s willing availability things appear open for change. But this is Mongolia where predictions (by outsiders) are foolish.
As Ron said at the time, “I’m not sure where our relationship will go but for now we are both enjoying it.”
After a couple of months into the relationship, Ron reported in an e-mail message, “we have both had a great learning experience as well as a lot of fun. Mongolians aren’t known for expressing a lot of emotion. Although Nimbod is just fine and we enjoy each other’s company, he is still an elusive sweetheart. I’ve learned to back off of my ‘typical’ western mode of ‘communicating’ thoughts and feelings.
“With him, what’s real is just what’s happening today–going for a hike, having sex, eating, visiting friends. Mongolians don’t plan anything it seems, so things just happen. It can be frustrating to us westerners, but it keeps the relationship, especially the sex, remarkably fresh and exciting.”
“I’ve also come to appreciate with Nimbod that, as in other Asian cultures, tops and bottoms are not so well defined. You can be a top with one person and a bottom with another and there doesn’t seem to be any stigma to that–as in Arab cultures, or even in America where tops seem to have a ‘better’ (masculine?) image.
“And, too, since foreigners are so few here, especially gay ones, the native guys are curious. I’ve been told that some will go with a foreign guy just because he is a foreigner–and then they want to introduce you to their friends. It can all be too much sometimes because you can never tell what’s on their minds!
“So that’s how things are for us, for now. Nimbod and I have a good understanding and he is remarkably cool and wise about everything. Who knows where it will end, but I’m growing very attached to him.”
Ron’s correspondence was both sincere and touching as well as informative regarding ‘gay’ sensibility in this landlocked country of horses and shepherds. The most interesting aspect of this romance was getting to hear about an easy natural sexuality in men whose minds and habits have not been ‘educated’ by western models, ideals and attitudes–for better or worse. No homophobia, no political activism, no notions of right or wrong. A mixture of naivete, gentleness and curiosity stirred with a few hormones to create a comfortable affection between two admiring friends.
Recent major LGBT achievement 2009
Read more at: http://bilerico.lgbtqnation.com/2011/03/an_lgbt_centre_in_ulaanbaatar_mongolia.php
2014 Historic Mongol homosexuality