Mongolian Yesterdays

This piece is part of the the Eucid Series, which highlights the voices of contemporary, urban women from Mongolia to draw up a genealogy of female mentorship. At the end of each interview, each woman was asked to name a role model, who was then interviewed—and theirs is the story which will be published next.

This week, we meet Yuna Oyun—Mongolia’s first openly transgender woman. After coming out as a trans woman, violent discrimination and threats of death forced her to leave Mongolia. The excerpt below has been translated from her blog, which describes this journey. In this early excerpt, she had assumed she was a gay man; she did not know the word transgender and did not yet have a concept with which to understand this piece of her identity.

For many years my heart was alone. Desperate. I was on the verge of losing myself.

I used to ask myself why I had to live and work like this, as if I’d committed an unspeakable crime. I wanted to have fun, go out to nightclubs, misbehave. But I was always a “nerd”—I spent my time reading, drawing, making art from shredded paper. Other children played outside until dark, but I was raised by my grandfather and grandmother, and I was not allowed to stray far from their haashaa. My grandfather loved to draw. Sometimes, I drew beside him. This filled him with happiness, praise for me, encouragement.

Still, like other children, I believed the greatest happiness was to play outside in the dirt. Sometimes, when my grandmother was busy with morning chores or making dairy products from fresh cows’ milk, I snuck away from home before she’d combed my hair. (My hair was not cut traditionally, so I had long hair until I started school.) But I had trouble finding kids who would play with me. Boys said I looked “like a girl.” Girls called me a groupie and a nuisance. This only got worse as I grew up, as differences in gender became more obvious. I had no male friends. I had no female friends. I was alone. In this way, my life as an outcast began.

I hid. I isolated myself. So when I learned there were others like me, other gay people living in Mongolia, I felt more than joy. I felt relief.

I first tried contacting Mongolian gay men online. Soon after, I met a guy called Ganzo, and he became my first friend—emotionally and sexually. We met just once a month, sometimes only once in three months. I knew only his name. He wouldn’t talk about himself. We met in the hours of the night and left each other first thing in the morning. It was strange at first—strange to hold someone close to my heart, close enough to have sex, yet know nothing about him but his name.

Over the years, as I met other Mongolian gay guys, I understood many lived behind closed doors, afraid to let others learn who they really were. They used fake names. They didn’t talk about their work, their family or home. Some invented a story for themselves, a fake story of their lives. So although it was easy to be with them, to be close, because we all experienced the same hardship, it was also hard. Hard to find anyone brave enough to show his own face, his true face.

Everyone wore a mask.

To be honest, I hardly had time to meet guys or go on dates. At that time, I was sixteen—working for Ünen newspaper and in my second year of university. It was a daily newspaper, so I worked from early morning until late evening. I paid my own way through school. I studied, worked, tried to make enough money for food. It had been my dream since I was a child to work as a journalist, so even when I was exhausted, I worked happily. Although part of me wanted to drop everything, set myself free, just be with these other gay people, I could not abandon my work, that other dream.

Once, at work, we talked about AIDS. The chief of staff gave me an assignment to write an article about Mongolians infected with AIDS. At that time, the information showed that most AIDS infections occurred in gay men. He wanted me to focus on that.

I hadn’t met any other gay men yet, except Ganzo, and Ganzo would never speak with me about something like AIDS. He barely spoke at all. I decided to find someone else, a different gay man who might have information. I would write the article as an interview with him. I tried chatting online with several gay men, but that was unsuccessful. Finally, I found the number for a well-known Mongolian intersex person, G. I had heard many stories about them. I dialed their number, nervous, not sure what to expect.

When G picked up, I said, “Hello?”

G said, “Yes, I’m here. Who is this?”

I said, “I’m calling from Ünen newspaper. I’m gathering information for an article. It’s about those infected with AIDS. There’s some information saying most of the carriers of this disease are gay men. I’d like to speak to these people, so my article is true and balanced. Would you be willing to meet and discuss this with me?”

“Oh… Well, I’m no homo, so I don’t know about those things. You should call this number—91——-.” G hung up. I dialed the other number right away, excited to have a lead.

A man answered. “Who gave you my number?” he asked. “Why do you want to meet me?” “What exactly do you want to meet with me about?” He sounded a little flirtatious. I explained my article cautiously. After a long conversation, he agreed to meet with me the next evening.

The next day, I finished work early. I was excited to do my work and meet a gay man at the same time. I told everyone at work, I was going to meet a homosexual to collect information. Some colleagues wished me luck. “Be careful,” one said to me.

I waited for him, at eight that night, at the door to the Cultural Center. It was winter, and I had worn summer shoes. The cold came up from my feet, chilled my body. I shivered from nerves and from the cold. Then, from the west side of Sükhbaatar Square, I noticed someone coming toward me. This must be him, I thought, but from far away I could not be sure. His walk was like the walk of a woman.

He wore tight black jeans, a long leather coat, and a bright scarf. His hat was made of fur. It reminded me of women’s hair in the sixties, those 1960’s beehives. There he was, a gay man, walking to meet me through the crowd of the Square.

We spoke over beers in a bar he recommended—a student bar, Tse, located just south of the Mongolian National University. As usual, the bar was busy. When B entered, the students nudged each other, followed him with mocking eyes. This hurt me, because I had also judged B for his womanly clothes, his walk.

In the crowded bar, I was terrified—What if some student from my university is here? What if they think I’m a homo, too? I was self-conscious, careful of every movement. I kept distance between myself and B.

B didn’t even seem to notice the stares. He was used to this.

Why was I ashamed of B? I had been called names, rejected, humiliated. When I was younger, I was called “woman,” “homo,” “hemaphrodite.” At first they were nicknames, then somehow they became an actual name. Even my stepfather, my relatives, their children used those names to ridicule me. Many days, I did not want to go to school. Countless days I spent alone, depressed. I studied for hours in the library, because I had nowhere else to go.

Maybe this loneliness, this bruising, made me stronger, pushed me to be better, to get away from my past. Maybe my studies helped me. At fifteen, I was accepted to the Humanitarian University, where I could start a new life. Fifteen is young, but fifteen years is a long time for pain.

At university, I decided I would never again allow myself to be humiliated. I studied how to look like a man, how to act like a man. Because children used to mock me for having a girlish voice, I changed my voice to be deep and thick. I learned to smoke, to drink alcohol, to curse, to sit on a chair with my legs spread as a man would. Perhaps they seem like simple things, but I had to remind myself of them always. To forget was to be vulnerable once more to mockery. I had always been skinny, not muscular. This was one reason people said I was “like a homo,” “like a woman.” So I learned to walk with my shoulders raised, big and broad, macho, trying to make myself look as manly as possible. I copied my classmates. For two years, in university, I was not once called “homo” or “hemaphrodite.”

So if I was careful with B, it was not because I misunderstood him, not because I hated him. It was only because when I saw how people looked at B, the hatred he received, the humiliation, it reminded me of my past, those painful days. What if, because of this person, because of being with this person, I had to go through that again?

And perhaps I also envied B. He lived as the person he was. He spoke and moved as he wanted, walked as he wanted. At that time, I lived my life as someone else. I controlled every movement—my words and voice. I was scared to death someone might call me “homo” or say I looked like a woman, see through to me. Can you blame me, then, for being distant with B on that day, for protecting myself from the life he might reveal to me?

I admire women who don’t follow traditional gender stereotypes—that women should be like this or like that. Just be the woman you are.


Morgan Thomas received her MFA from the University of Oregon and was the recipient of a 2016-2017 Fulbright grant to Mongolia.