by Otgonbaatar Tsedendemberel and Munkhzaya Nergui

The Mongolian LGBT Centre is this year’s awardee of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission’s Felipa de Souza award, which honors human rights defenders working on LGBT rights each year at its a Celebration of Courage gala. This piece was cross-posted to the Bilerico Project and Queerty.

The establishment in 2009 of an NGO solely dedicated to upholding the human rights of Mongolia’s LGBT community was a milestone in the Mongolian LGBT rights movement, and marked the end of a difficult and frustrating three-year journey for we LGBT Centre founders. We encountered a lot of prejudice along the way, and a lot of unnecessary obstacles were placed in our path as a result of that prejudice.

This was indicative of the level of societal misunderstanding and lack of acceptance of LGBT people that exists across the board in Mongolia. We expected it because it was a fight that hadn’t been waged before, and hence we knew it was inevitable that it would not be an easy journey. We were prepared to go to the highest court in the land if necessary.

We had no intention of giving up, and we didn’t. But certainly people’s attitudes were – and remain – the greatest challenge.

The issues facing the LGBT community in Mongolia are myriad and exist across all conceivable sectors of life.

One of our main areas of focus this past year has been on clearly defining those issues and on educating society about those issues and what needs to be done in order to overcome them – and in this we are really stressing two things: first is individual responsibility – that is, ending discrimination begins with each and every person – and the second is on the need to establish institutional and legislative protections for LGBT people, such as the enactment of a law on non-discrimination, something we are currently spearheading the push for.

In November, we launched the first national LGBT non-discrimination campaign, which is still running. As part of this campaign, we broke the key issues down into the following areas: Hate crimes, domestic violence against LGBT people, discrimination in education, discrimination in the health sector, and discrimination against LGBT relationships. Of course, these aren’t the only areas in which LGBT people face problems, but they certainly represent pressing areas of concern.

These are the main areas in which we are presently actively engaged, as well as undertaking such initiatives as working with Mongolian police to help broaden their understanding and acceptance of LGBT people. This is something that hasn’t been done before, but for which there is an urgent need given the level of police harassment that LGBT have faced.

We have already conducted two LGBT human rights training for police, which we will scale up throughout 2011. We have also been working to develop partnerships with a range of cross-sectoral civil society organisations to ensure the integration of LGBT human rights into their agendas as well.

Our visibility within Mongolia has led to us receiving a surprising amount of public support, and our staff have been invited to speak at a number of schools and universities in Ulaanbaatar. This really is the key to the future success of anything we do. Ours is a young population, and if we can change the hearts and minds of today’s youth, then we believe that future generations of LGBT people will enjoy a completely different reality.

IGLHRC has supported us at every step of our journey – and indeed continues to do so. It is so important to have that international support and to be able to call on IGLHRC’s collective knowledge of LGBT human rights and human rights mechanisms when needed (and we’ve needed it often), and in this we would particularly like to extend our deepest thanks to Grace Poore and Ging Cristobal. Without people like them, our work is that much harder.

The Felipa de Souza Award came as a big – albeit welcome – surprise to all of us. And to be honest, it still feels very surreal. Sometimes we feel incredibly far removed from the world’s eyes and the world’s consciousness, so this award reinforces to all of us that people are watching what is happening in Mongolia.

No activist works for accolades, but when they do come along they serve as a poignant reminder that no matter how difficult the challenges we face, we are headed down the right road.

The LGBT Centre NGO is Mongolia’s first and only LGBT human rights organisation. Registered in 2009 after a three-year battle with state authorities, in a country fraught with hatred towards, and violence against, sexuality minorities, the LGBT Centre is working to build a better and safer society for Mongolia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community.

The mission of the LGBT Centre is to instill the democratic and civic value of the non-discriminatory upholding, protection and promotion of those human rights guaranteed by the Constitution of Mongolia, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international conventions; to uphold, protect and promote the human rights of sexuality minorities; and to promote the correct understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity within Mongolian society.