Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – Last month, Bosoo Khukh Mongol, an ultra-right Mongolian nationalist group, teamed up with a local television station to lure a transgender sex worker into a hotel room.
Once she was inside, they threatened her with physical violence and forced her to describe her work on camera.
The video footage was aired on the evening news and posted on Bosoo Khukh Mongol’s Facebook page, alongside incendiary commentary accusing the LGBT community of paedophilia, spreading disease and compromising national security.
The group threatened to shave the heads of any LGBT people they found and post naked pictures online to shame them.
Gay and transgender people continue to be the target of harassment and violence in Mongolia, but changes to were made to the law in 2017 to provide more protections for the LGBT community, better training for law enforcement officials on hate crimes and their role in preventing and prosecuting them, and changing attitudes in Mongolian society.
“Public perception of LGBT people has changed over the last five years,” said Tamir Chultemsuren, a political sociologist with the Independent Research Institute of Mongolia.
“Previously, Mongolians had limited knowledge about acceptance of LGBT rights and dignity. But now, people have more information from social media and other sources and so general public awareness has improved.”
The LGBT Center, a Mongolian NGO, began training the police on hate crimes and the implications of the 2017 criminal code after they failed to take action against an officer who assaulted a detained transgender woman.
They have since trained more than 500 police officers, prosecutors, and judges.
Mongolia’s police also have criteria for dealing with transgender individuals: When they are held in police custody, transgender people must be treated and categorised according to the gender that they identify as, regardless of what is written on their state-issued documentation.
“Compared with 2017, I see an improvement, especially from the Crime and Investigation Division,” said Baldangombo Altangerel, the LGBT Center’s legal director who was responsible for overseeing the police training programme.
Following the attack on the woman last month, the Human Rights Commission of Mongolia sent a formal request to the police to investigate Bosoo Khukh Mongol’s actions under the new criminal code.
Mongolian police told Al Jazeera that they were currently investigating the case as a hate crime and, in late September, they brought formal charges against Bosoo Khukh Mongol leader, Gankhuyag Ganzorig. They have not taken action against the TV station.
The woman, who prefers to remain anonymous, has given two statements to the police and is being treated as a victim. That is also progress – historically, rape and sexual violence against Mongolia’s LGBT population have not been prosecuted.
While the LGBT Center is waiting for the outcome of the case, they’ve been surprised by public reaction to the incident.
Kenna, the Youth Programme Manager for the LGBT Center said people had posted messages of support on its social media page.
“I’ve noticed that people speaking up for LGBT rights has increased,” Kenna explains, “People are starting to know about the criminal code, anti-discrimination.”
In October 2018, Kenna launched the Mongolian Queer Podcast.
The podcast recently completed its third season, focussing less on discrimination and more on providing advice and support, profiling those who are already out and proud.
The podcast hosts also interview people who are not LGBT to show their listeners that acceptance can happen. To date, the podcast, which is only available in the Mongolian language, has nearly 60,000 unique listeners – significant in a country with a population of only 3.1 million.
That public opinion is changing is clear not only online, but in real life too.
In 2014, Mongolia held its first pride parade with only fifteen people.
Participation has grown every year since and this August, an estimated 250 took part.
At the weekend in the capital Ulaanbaatar, D.D./H.Z., Mongolia’s first gay bar, is heaving. Zorig Alima, the bar’s owner, says that since the implementation of the criminal code, police raids, which used to happen regularly, have stopped.
And D.D./H.Z is no longer the only bar in town. In recent years, as many as four new places have opened for business.
But while Mongolia’s new criminal code has given gender and sexual minorities more protection from hate crimes, Baldangombo says more needs to be done to help them integrate into society.
A report from the United Nations Development Programme in 2014 found that a Mongolian from a gender or sexual minority was more likely to be unemployed than the average person. It also found that an LGBT person’s perceived risk of falling into poverty doubled when they lived openly.
The situation is even more difficult for Mongolia’s transgender population because they can only change their gender on state-issued identification documents after undergoing full gender reassignment surgery, which is not available in the country. As a result, when they submit their paperwork for employment, they expose themselves to the risk of discrimination.
Unable to access formal employment, many transgender people go into sex work – illegal in Mongolia – in order to survive, exposing themselves to the risk of arrest and harassment.
Marta Sukh-Ochir, a transgender woman who once worked alongside the woman questioned by Bosoo Khukh Mongol, told Al Jazeera she took up sex work when her family kicked her out and she couldn’t afford food or a home.
“I actively looked for other jobs, cashier at a supermarket, receptionist at a hotel, shop assistant…I tried many times, she said. I applied to so many jobs. My gender expression, my appearance – how I looked with long hair, nails, being and acting feminine – was a struggle for employers.”
Sukh-Ochir fled Mongolia as a refugee but, in light of the recent Bosoo Khukh Mongol threats, she worries for the safety of her friend and transgender people back in her homeland.
While life is gradually improving for Mongolia’s LGBT community, it is still a struggle.
“It’s a street life,” Sukh-Ochir said. “It’s not safe.”