||WHEN TWO OF MY MONGOLIAN LANGUAGE TRAINERS play-acted a Buddhist wedding in drag, I realized that in Peace Corps youd never know what to expect. Tsetsgee, a woman, played a Buddhist monk like her real life brother, and Monkherdene, a man, played the bride. As an out gay male in the United States who had been told that gender bending didnt happen in Mongolia, watching and learning about some Mongolian camp made me feel at home.
Monkherdene had been inspired by a real life transgendered person living in his hometown near the Gobi desert who lives his life as a woman. He wears make up, a Mongolian womans silk gown, and dances with men at parties all without any negative repercussions. In the Mongolian Buddhist world view, a transgendered person is simply one who had been another gender in a previous life and has had trouble adjusting to the new gender in his current incarnation. The Mongolian word for such a person is maning, which can also be used to describe the intersex, transgendered, gay or lesbian.
Not just for city folks
Peace Corps assigned me to an education college in Choibalsan in the eastern steppe. The area is a flat grassland and the last refuge of the Asian gazelle. At first I had thought that my pre-service training drag show was going to be an isolated incident. Something instigated by city Mongolians used to American culture and its wacky ideas about gender. I was wrong. At my site I met another cross dresser, but he only did it for money.
Buyan was a multi-talented young man who played all the traditional Mongolian instruments: the horse violin, dulcimer and casino keyboard. He played music at parties and also dressed up as a clown or a woman, whichever the crowd thought funnier. I never saw him play dress up, but he did show me the pictures. He wore lots of make-up and looked like a cross between a Geisha girl and Bozo the Clown.
His hero was Elton John, not only for hits like Sacrifice, but also for the elaborate costumes he made famous in the 70s. Buyan was shocked when I told him that Elton John was gay. It took him awhile to understand what I was talking about, but he knew the Russian word. I asked if he knew anyone like that in Choibalsan. At first he said no, but he thought about it for a few days and told me that his high school foreign language teacher had been gay. The police found out, took him out in the middle of the night and shot him.
My college, like all schools, put on many dances. Every week, girls would wear white lacy dresses and black pumps and the guys wore their polyester Soviet era suits. During fast pops songs, each class danced in a circle. During slow dances, they performed the traditional Mongolian waltz. I tried explaining to my students that the Waltz was European and received looks of horror.